Ok, so I haven’t ever read the Ramayana (or even the Mahabharata) officially, most of it has been drummed into my head by my mother, who is an accomplished Kambaramayanam exponent (Ramayana in Tamil), apart from a small Hindi version we had in school. I first stumbled upon Ramesh Menon when I read his version of the Devi Bhagavatam about four years ago, and quite liked how he amplified all the interesting story-bits and kept the philosophical parts short.
The versions closest to the original of all the scriptures and epics of Hinduism are published by the Gorakhpur Gita Press in Sanskrit, usually accompanied by either an English or a Hindi translation, but the language is usually too complex and technical, and my patience while reading most Hindu epics/mythology is virtually nil, because everyone knows the main outline of most stories, and it can get a bit tedious rereading the same things again and again.
So I embarked upon Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana with more than a tinge of skepticism; after all, he would be walking down the same literary path that hundreds have trodden before him, how good could it be? Very good, as it turned out. There were a lot of things that I had forgotten about the Ramayana, and Menon’s version reminded me of the depth of the epic. His writing is lovely, and very attractive, literally. I couldn’t stop reading it once I began, even though I knew what would happen next. Here, for example, he describes the good omens that preceded Rama’s birth:
The ice on the Himalaya began to melt as the sun drifted north again and spring returned to Bharatavarsha. This was no common spring, but wore rainbow-hued lotuses in its hair, flowers that bloomed once in a thousand years. A hush of expectation lay over Kosala’s capital. The clear pools were covered with lilies. The flowering trees that lined the streets of Ayodhya drooped to the ground; they were heavy with new leaves in every shade of green and untimely, extravagant flowers. A Malaya breeze blew across the kingdom, carrying the scents of the spring through the city and up into the apartments of Dasaratha’s queens.
Menon’s greatest strength, though, is his characterisation. Rama of Ayodhya, as everyone knows, is no ordinary man, being an incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself, but Menon, as in the original epic, successfully portrays him as a man with human limitations and material constraints, because Rama himself, beyond a faint foreshadowing, has no idea of who he actually is.
Another, deeper anxiety stirred in his heart, for no reason he could name. Something malignant seemed to mock him, from far away, but quite clearly.
However, it is Menon’s Ravana and his descriptions of Lanka that I loved the most. As is accepted in most versions of the epic, Ravana is no evil (at least not completely) ugly villain, he is a great devotee of Lord Shiva, tall and handsome in a very rakshasa (except when all his ten heads are on display) manner, is accomplished at the Veena, and a good king to his people. It is not until his sister Surpanakha, with evil intent, poisons his mind with images of the most enchanting Sita, that he invites doom upon himself (Here, however, Menon credits rakshasa Akampana with this brainwashing).
Upon this throne sat the Master of Darkness. In a weird cone upon his neck were ten heads of varying features and sizes, all of them savage. Ravana was a monster, the most sinister and powerful rakshasa. Nothing about him was ordinary; all his ten heads thought for him…those heads were like an inverted bunch of macabre fruit. The one at the very top was the smallest and the most vicious; it was entirely puerile and malignant.
This is different to the public perception of his ten heads, which are usually perfectly aligned in a row; this is the first time I have heard of it being compared to a malignant bunch of grapes.
Another scene where Ravana lashes out at Sita for not yielding to him even after six months of capture is pure dramatic gold. You can almost feel the love and lust this demon harbours for the beautiful wife of another man, and for a second I almost sympathised with him.
She said, “I am the wife of another man, Rakshasa, and my husband is my life. How can you even think of me as becoming yours, when I am already given to Rama? Given not only for this life, but forever, for all the lives that have been, and all those to come.”
He looked away from her. Not that he saw anything except her face, even when he did. But he could not bear what she said. Never had he encountered such chastity, and to believe in it would mean denying everything he had lived for. A smile curving his dark lips, Ravana turned his gaze from her.
There were a few caveats I had, though; there are times when the prose became so poetic, especially in the descriptions, that my eyes automatically glazed over quite a bit. More importantly, the author’s attitude towards Rama is nothing short of worshipful, as befits a proper religious text, and although I didn’t mind it as such, I don’t think it would appeal to everyone. Unless the reader believes that there was a Rama whose wife was abducted by Ravana, and that vanaras (cross between monkeys and humans) helped Rama to kill Ravana, I don’t think it will work. Think of it, if you will, as reading the Bible or the Quran.
Menon has covered almost all the mini-stories within the epic, and also includes two seemingly unrelated stories in the appendix, of how Vishwamitra became a Brahmarishi (this is really interesting), and an alternate story of Sita’s birth, in which she is said to be Ravana’s and Mandodari’s daughter.
So I really liked this version; it’s attractive enough to hold a modern reader’s attention and covers all sub-stories without making it feel like a drag. If you actually want to read Hindu mythology, then Ramesh Menon is your man.
P.S. Really liked this hilarious short story on Ravana and Vaali by Lavanya Mohan .. 😀
This is Book 12 in the Brunch Book Challenge (soo I’m halfway there, review-wise), my Twitter handle is @sindbadrose, and the challenge is at #BrunchBookChallenge.. 🙂