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!