Saturday, January 24, 2009

Prince of Ayodhya

Its been a while since my last post, but there's an easy explanation for this hiatus---I found a most incredible series of books to read! And that's been taking up all my spare time, leaving no time to blog.

So what's this series? The surprising answer is that it's the Ramayana! (For those not familiar with the Ramayana, it is one of the two great epics of Hindu mythology, the other great epic being the Mahabharat.) The answer is surprising because, of course, anyone growing up in India has learnt the Ramayana from innumerable sources---from aunts and grandmas, from the celebration of Diwali, from Ram Leelas (popular enactments of the Ramayana), from Amar Chitra Katha, and perhaps even from the Ramayana TV series. So what could possibly be so exciting about this series of books? And what is this series any way?

The series is a collection of 6 books written by Ashok Banker. The first in the series is Prince of Ayodhya. Mala had heard high praise for this series from her niece, and so she brought back a copy of Prince of Ayodhya when she returned from her recent trip to India. I read the first few pages of the book on the very first day she was back, and was instantly hooked! It is like no Ramayana you've encountered before. It is written like a fast paced thriller. Each chapter ends on a cliff-hanger or a mini-climax, making it near impossible to stop reading---you have to start the next chapter to see what's going to happen next. Like all great epics, it is a grand story of good and evil with powerful, heroic, courageous, despicable, and beautiful characters.

And it is told with loving detail. Most tellings of the Ramayana I've encountered focus mainly on describing a series of events. Of course, the main events are the same here. But Banker adds so much more: he develops the characters beautifully (e.g., I hadn't appreciated how evil Ravana really was!), the inter-personal relationships are fascinating, the social and cultural backdrop is described beautifully, and the introduction of various minor characters enhances the richness of the tale. And, above all, it is exciting! If you're a fan of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you'll love Banker's Ramayana!

Finally, I have to note that the preface of the book is worth reading. It tells the history of the Ramayana from Valmiki's original, to Ved Vyasa's account as part of the Mahabharat, to Kamban's Tamil retelling, to Sant Tulsidas's Ramcharitramanas, to more recent accounts by Rajagopalachari. The fascinating thing here is that all these accounts purport to tell the same tale and yet they differ even on very basic events. For example, Banker notes:
One instance is the 'seema rekha' believed to have been drawn by Lakshman before leaving Sita in the hut. No mention of this incident exists in the Valmiki Ramayana.
This shocked me---in my mind the 'seema rekha' is a very central plot element in the Ramayana! The point is that for such ancient epics there's no sense in which there's an "official" version. Which means that all you can do is to enjoy each retelling on its own merits. If you take this attitude, rather than constantly wondering if a particular plot element was "really" part of the Ramayana, you'll thoroughly enjoy Banker's version!

3 comments:

sp said...

After seeing this post from Pandu, I was browsing Amazon.com and came across this interesting/remarkable comment from the author:

(...extracted from: http://www.amazon.com/review/product/1841493295/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_helpful?_encoding=UTF8&coliid=&showViewpoints=1&colid=&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending
)

5.0 out of 5 stars PLEASE READ THE INDIAN EDITIONS INSTEAD, July 9, 2007
By Ashok Banker "www.ashokbanker.com" (Mumbai, India) - See all my reviews
If you are reading my Ramayana series, then I gently urge and request you to please not buy the UK or US editions, even if they're available at bargain prices. Which they probably are, since the publishers there have more or less put the books out of print, due to a lack of interest by non-Indian readers.

The Indian editions are the definitive editions of my work, containing a lengthy Introduction by me titled 'Retelling the Ramayana', which provides an essential perspective on the work, the final versions of all the books--including some small but significant changes, particularly in some book endings--no glossary, thank God, and are generally the best-edited, designed and published versions, in my opinion at least. In short, they're the Author's Preferred Edition, particularly the new hardcover omnibus editions, which represent the story in the way I had originally intended and are truly sumptuous to hold (and behold). Also, significantly, they aren't packaged as 'Fantasy' or 'SF' like the firang ones, which is a ridiculously transparent attempt at cashing in on the commercial success of the fantasy genre a la LoTR and Harry Potter. Please, people, my Ramayana series is a retelling of an epic, and that's exactly what it should be called, 'Epic'. I'd venture to call it 'Itihasa', but even Mythology, which is the label Penguin uses for the books here in India, is acceptable. But certainly not Fantasy as in one of the ubiquitous Tolkien rip-offs that are churned out in droves by western publishers, or even SF, both genres that can sometimes be wonderful in their own right, but are totally inappropriate in the context of an epic that pre-dates Tolkien by some thousands of years, and the entire tradition of western literature as well!

Frankly, I feel so strongly about this that I'd even go so far as to say, if you can't get the Indian editions, then don't read the books! That's why I'm currently in the process of re-acquiring the rights to the US and UK editions and they will soon be out of print everywhere but India. Which is how it ought to be: this is a quintessentially Indian story, written by a contemporary Indian for other contemporary Indians to read. And the Indian editions are really the only way to go.

Ashok K. Banker
www.ashokbanker.com

(....end extract....)

Pandu Nayak said...

Very interesting. As it turns out, I do have the Indian edition of "Prince of Ayodhya" (which includes his preface), but I've been ordering the subsequent books from Amazon. Hopefully the "...small but significant changes, particularly in some book endings..." aren't significant enough to make the US versions less enjoyable. Getting the Indian versions wouldn't work for me since it would require waiting too long...!

Raj said...

Hey Pandu,
Lovely to catch up with you through your blog!
(Found it while Googling "Indian Poker" but thats another story!)
The Ashok Banker series is I think an inflexion point for Indian mythology / religious texts as the modern reader (anyone below 25yrs) has NO access to them - there's no ACK today, no grand ma/grand dads to tell them the story, and the parents are far too willing to let the kids watch TV rather than tell them any stories!
Ashok Banker has converted a "dying in the dust" mythological work and made it so contemporary that even my US born nieces are suddenly into the Ramayana!
Keep in touch...my email is rajhalve@gmail.com,
Cheers

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