Growing up in an Indian Hindu household, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, narrated to you since childhood by your mother and grandmother. As you grow up you further see the epics played out on the silver screen by TV actors in popular TV serials. Whether you ever pick up the epic or not, you end up with a vague idea about the plot.
How then is a modern-day English reinterpretation valid or even relevant, especially in face of other readily available English translations?
Yes, it is relevant.
In his series ‘Ramayana The Game of Life‘ based and inspired by the epic, Subha Vilas has rewritten the incidents of the Ramayana in chronological order. What makes the book all the more charming and relevant in today’s society are the engaging little insights that Vilas provides to the epic. The reader is not left floundring in the dark, trying hard to glean the knowledge and wisdom inherent in the epic. Subha Vilas has interpreted every facet of the story in painstriking detail and written down his interpretations in small excerpts throughout the novel. The language is simple and easy to comprehend.
One of my favorite parts in the novel is when Sumantra summons Rama and Sita to Dasaratha’s chamber. He is going to banish Rama for fourteen years and Rama, the avataar of Vishnu, in his infinite knowledge already knows this. He looks at Sita and places a garland around her neck, symbolizing (according to Vilas) that in the future all he will be able to give her are forest flowers. Sita smiles at him, indicating that she would stay with him despite his change in fortunes.
What follows this charming incident is a small box note by Vilas listing out the importance of communication, even silent communication in a relationship. In this way the book can also be seen as a Guidebook to Life, and since each such lesson is enshrined in a box, it is very easy to just flip the pages and read the short extracts, without having to read the entire novel each time. Some of these are tenets on management and leadership, and bears relevance in even today’s corporate world.
Each page further has little footnotes explaining Sanskrit words or cultural traditions of that time. In this way, the book helpfully transfers the reader back to the era when the epic was originally written, and gives us a brilliant insight into the life and society of ancient India. Some of the footnotes also contain motivational expressions, not unlike the extracts I mentioned before. For instance when Dasaratha visits Kaikeyi and foolishly promises to give her anything she asks for, the footnote derides his decision and all such decisions made spontaneously and recklessly out of lust and without proper consideration.
The character development throughout the novel too is commendable. The book is about Rama but Vilas has not ignored the other characters in his life, who help and support him in all his decisions. One commendable aspect of the book is that it portrays Sita to be as important as Rama. She is his courageous companion who braves all difficulties to support her husband in his time of trouble. Lakshmana is shown to be a caring, devoted brother. Dasaratha’s love and pride in his sons too is well established. Even Bharata who only appears at the end of the book, is shown as a dutiful and filial brother.
Let me now list out what I didn’t like about the book:
- This book doesn’t provide a modern day retelling of the Ramayana. There is little explanation provided for the more fantastical aspects of the epic. The narrative has stayed true to the original epic and sceptics like me might find parts of this book rather hard to digest.
- The dialogues are long, repetitive, overly-melodramatic and irksome at places.
- There is very little empathy between the characters and the readers. Subha Vilas has placed his characters on a divine pedestal, and readers are only meant to read about their actions, but not question them.
All in all, read this book if you are inclined to learn about ‘Ramayana’ or want a self-help/guide book rooted in Indian culture and mythology. Read it to learn, but not to discern.