Getting the logistics out of the way:
As seems to be the trend in Indian writing lately, this book is a retelling of the Ramayana. Thankfully, that’s where the similarity with newer Indian books ends. I like the author’s style of writing. The language is not overly colloquial unlike the recent “hit” books by Indian authors. (I ended up reading a lot more of those than I would like to admit. Hey, it was easy reading while breastfeeding an overly snuggly baby and I had only so much mental bandwidth to spare). Ok, I have to admit. if F.D. hadn’t recommended this book, I would probably not have picked it up.
It’s hard to review this book without giving away too much. Yes, it’s the Ramayana but it’s also set in contemporary India and is written as a thriller so…
The Actual Review:
The Ramayan is a simple story. A weaning food setting the stage for more complex tales to come: the dashaavatars, tales of Shiva, tales from the puranas, and of course the biggie of Indian mythology – The Mahabharata. The Ramayana is about ideals and dharma. A rigid code of conduct that must be followed at the expense of personal happiness. Dashrath sacrifices, his queens sacrifice, Ram sacrifices, Sita sacrifices, Lakshman, Bharat, Shatrughna, the people of Ayodhya, the family dog, everyone sacrifices. At some points it gets confusing why they’re sacrificing so much or who they’re doing it for. They mean well – bless their pure little hearts. But as stories go the Ramayan is, well, vanilla. And it’s a little boring. It’s a tale for grandmothers and Suraj Barjatya films.
Samhita Arni gives us a new version of the vanilla tale. The Ramayan can never be – to stretch the metaphor well past its sell-by – chocolate but it can perhaps be Dulce de Leche. The book begins where most narrations end – after the war. Ram is the beloved leader who can do no wrong. Ayodhya is peaceful and prosperous. The economy is booming and the country is readying itself for its first taste of democracy. The citizens are content but one question goes unasked.
What really happened to Sita? Did Lakshman really abandon her in the forest? Everyone seems to want to know but the only one prepared to ask the question is a young journalist. In her quest for an answer, we are faced with many more interesting questions. Did the citizens of Ayodhya worry about Sita? Did they care at all or was it more convenient to ignore reality? How did Sugreev, Angad, Hanuman, Vibhishan et al adapt to their life after the war? What happened to Lanka? What happened to the orphans and the widows of Lanka? Did Ayodhya colonize Lanka? Did Lanka take kindly to it? Was Sita ever happy?
These are the questions a good little Hindu is forbidden from ever asking but probably should. The author does a fine job of letting all these questions and more spring up organically. Most importantly, she resists the temptation to moralize. Having read “The Missing Queen”, I’m now vaguely uncomfortable with the Ramayan. I feel The Mahabharat is less hypocritical. It’s claimed that there’s nothing in real life that doesn’t appear in the Mahabharat. The Ramayan on the other hand claims to be the guidebook for living a morally upright life. But what is the price of this duty, chivalry and honour?
TL;DR: A recommended read. Agree with F.D that the ending is a bit rushed but the book is very good.