Book Review: Ramayana The Game of Life – Shubha Vilas

Disclosure: This book was reviewed under the Blogadda book review program and I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a (very honest) review.

Source: Blogadda
Source: Blogadda

Let me be honest. After reading this book my first thought was, “Those were 5 hours of my life that I’m not getting back. At least the book was free…” My second thought was, “Oh well, I picked up a few more tidbits about the Ramayana”. My third thought was, “It wasn’t worth it”. It pains me to write a review like the one that follows because I know how much effort goes into any piece of writing. On the other hand, I do want to save you 6 hours of your life.

I’ve read a few versions of the Ramayana starting with good old Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama as a child and more recently, picking up  more serious retellings including R. K. Narayan’s, C Rajagopalachari’s and Devdutt Pattnaik’s. I’ve also heard a considerable chunk of Chaganti Koteswara Rao’s discourse on the Valmiki Ramayana and found it quite engrossing. In addition I’ve also been reading novels inspired by the Ramayan including Samhita Arni’s “The Missing Queen”. We’ve all, of course, watched the Doordarshan epic and most Telugu speakers would have watched a few movie versions too including Bapu’s classic. Before anyone asks, no, I haven’t watched “Sita Sings the Blues” yet. As one might have gathered, I’m fascinated by the Ramayana and I never refuse a chance to hear a new version.

I give you this prelude not to bore you or annoy you but to show you that each of us has a version of this epic in our minds and we subconsciously compare and contrast every new version with the one we know. A good retelling must draw some details into sharper focus while giving us a new view of other events. That was my expectation.

Shubha Vilas’ version of the Ramayana is marketed as series that will, and I quote from the blurb here, “demonstrate how the ancient epic holds immediate relevance to modern life. Experience the ancient saga of the Ramayana like never before!” They don’t believe in underpromising and overdelivering, evidently! Oh, well, let’s see how they match up to the blurb.

Firstly, the narration is tedious. The author does not stick to a single voice and he intersperses modern terminology with ancient references. For instance, the author constantly refers to the Ayodhyan council of ministers as the “Big M”. Umm, no, that doesn’t work. With reference to the Pushpak Viman he says, “… perhaps it is programmed to…” Call me unforgiving but, no, the word programming doesn’t work in this context. Some anachronisms can be charming but to me most are just annoying.

Secondly, I do not get a sense that the characters are depicted fairly. The author has drawn inspiration from various sources, which is fine. However, as each source depicts the characters in a different light, we end up with inconsistent characters if narratives are not merged with care. The author is quite off the mark here. I found Sita and Lakshman’s voices the most discordant. Sita is Goddess incarnate in one moment and a complete soap opera heroine in another.

Another example of mixed narratives is the episode with Jabali’s argument. Jabali is one of Dasaratha’s advisors who uses nihilist reasoning to persuade Rama to end his exile and return to Ayodhya. Scholars for most part agree Rama’s anger towards alleged atheism was later added as a countermeasure against growing Buddhist influence. If Rama’s angry speech against atheism or more accurately, nihilism, was added as part of the book’s narrative, it should probably have been accompanied by a footnote. However, given the author also includes this helpful piece of advice, including Rama’s anger is not surprising.

Predicting the mind of God is like predicting the final picture after seeing one piece of the puzzle. Rather than decoding God’s intelligence, one should begin relying on it.

Err, what? Was the author inspired by Deepak Chopra by any chance?

Continuing on the didactic theme, the book contains several dedicated sections of “wisdom” on how to manage relationships, marriages, leadership, etc. These are unbelievably self-righteous and somewhat contrived because the lessons the author derives are not very different from those in any other self-help book. In addition to the dedicated wisdom, we have a scattering of pithy footnotes as well. An example:

The pass code to enter private chamber (sic) of another’s hearts (sic) is consistent loyalty.

Did I mention poor editing? The book is full of poor grammar and missing words. The author chooses to refer to Rama as “He” rather than merely “he”, which in itself is ok. But why does Rama refer to himself as “Me”? Per mythology, Rama always considered himself an ordinary mortal and he was no megalomaniac. The capitalized pronouns got onto my nerves before the first chapter was up.

All in all, I can’t recommend this book in good conscience. It’s not quite a children’s read because it contains too many puritanical views that children don’t need to pick up including disgust towards lust, etc. And I cannot recommend that adults read a self-help version of the Ramayana. To each their own, perhaps but there are probably better self-help books out there anyway, so why read this one?

Overall rating: 1.5/5.

Recommend instead:

The Missing Queen – Book Review

missingqueencoverIt’s been a while since I read my last book. I can’t even remember what it was. Anyhooo. Thanks to F.D. I finally picked up a book again and I read this one in a single sitting 🙂

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.