The ancient Indian epics carry a kind of authority different from their Western equivalents. The Indian audience has been ready to stay invested in the story for longer, unto the present times. The story of Rama is performed every year in India before the Hindu festivals of Dussehra and Diwali celebrated to mark, respectively, Rama’s victory over Ravana, and his return to Ayodhya.
It is this gravely charged context that makes retellings of the story possible yet unviable. Arshia Sattar and Sonali Zohra’s latest illustrated retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayana for the young readers meets the challenge well.
The Ramayana is a tricky story to read: every decision is debatable, the motives of the characters are ambiguous.
Rama is the oldest of the four brothers and princes of Ayodhya. Just before he is to be made the king, one of his stepmothers asks that he be exiled for fourteen years and her son, Bharata, be crowned as the new ruler. Because Rama is a faithful, good son, he agrees to leave happily. His wife, Sita, and another younger brother, Lakshmana, accompany him. One day, Sita is abducted by a rakshasa or a demon called Ravana, the king of Lanka. Rama and Lakshmana wander in search of her, put several clues together and forge an alliance with Sugriva, the monkey king. Rama defeats Ravana and gets Sita back.
This Iliad-like story takes a different turn after the battle. Rama refuses to take Sita back because she has been in the captivity of another man, and might have been drawn to him. Sita walks into the fire in order to prove her chastity. Rama is sorry he doubted her. The exile is over and Bharata has been waiting for Rama to return and rule over Ayodhya because he does not want to be a king.
Rama proves to be a just and wise king. He is a good king who always does the right thing. Yet when he learns that Sita and her honor have become the subject of gossip among his people, he banishes her to a forest. The hermit Valmiki gives her shelter and helps her raise her two sons, Luv and Kush. He teaches them the story of Rama without telling them that it is the story of their father. The boys go around singing this story—of Rama’s righteousness, but of Sita’s honor too. The boys come face to face with Rama in one of their recitals. He realizes they are his sons but argues with them about Sita’s modesty, and defends his decision of sending her into exile saying that the people of Ayodhya had not witnessed her trial by fire.
Sita now faces another trial to prove her innocence but this time on her own terms. She asks that she be swallowed by Mother Earth if she has been a true wife. The ground indeed parts and Sita is taken away.
Arshia Sattar rewrites the story retaining its essence. If one does not know what the story is and would like to avoid the politically-charged gender or race-based readings, her retelling is a good place to start with. Ramayana: An Illustrated Retelling was first published as Ramayana for Children in 2016 by an Indian publisher. Restless Books’s Yonder imprint has republished it in an international edition for English-reading children all over the world. Sattar’s version is a good choice because it is succeeds in three prominent ways.
First, Sattar’s ability to frame the context is precise and lucid. The story opens with a description of Ayodhya:
It lay amidst fields of green, its buildings were tall and white, its streets were wide and clean, its people happy and healthy. Everything was it should be—the rains were gentle and came on time, crops were sown and harvested, food was plentiful and there was neither sickness nor poverty among the people.
The description of Videha, Sita’s city, follows a few pages later with Rama and Lakshman visiting for the first time:
Although it was small and quite rustic, it was brightly decorated with flowers and leaves and other produce from the fields, and patterns were drawn with rice flour on the ground. Music wafted through the air—they could hear the gentle notes of a flute and the strains of a stringed instrument. Perhaps people were singing as well, for the sound of human voices rose and fell as the drew closer to the central square. The square was crowded and though Rama thought he recognized the king, a distinguished-looking man with a long beard, there was no sign of any princesses.
The difference between the richness of Ayodhya and the simplicity of Videha comes up a few more times in the context of Sita’s origins. For a modern reader who might see all the ancient, mythical cities as different only in terms of their names, this is a succinct and memorable approach.
Second, Sattar’s language is quite smart while handling arguments. Rama shoots Vali, his ally Sugriva’s enemy and brother, while there is a battle going on between them. Vali says to Rama, “How could you shoot me in the back when you were hidden, when I was fighting another? Surely that was wrong.” Rama replies,
You are a monkey, Vali. What do you know of what is right and wrong, about what is dharma and what is not? How can you question me about what I did? Sugriva and I have a pact of friendship. His enemy is my enemy. It is too late for you to argue or to question what happened.
This is a hollow reply and the readers know it too. It is quite an achievement that some discomfort regarding Rama’s proverbial fairness gets registered in a simple retelling.
Third, there is a sense of quickness to the story as Sattar tells it. An epic retold for children tends to be hugely abridged. Situations that can be exploited for hours for a televised version must move quickly for the story to proceed. When Kaikeyi, the stepmother, puts forward her demands, King Dashratha, the husband is too shocked to say anything. But Kaikeyi roars on:
You heard me, Dashratha. Rama to the forest and Bharata on the throne! You gave me two boons when I saved your life in battle when I was a young girl. I did not want those boons then, I had everything I wanted. But I will redeem those boons now. Will you tell Rama or shall I?
There is no further need to dwell on how heartbroken the king is and how cruel the queen can be.
Illustrator Sonali Zohra’s illustrated figures are faceless. She notes that
I wanted the illustrations to be dark and detailed silhouettes against bold colours in the hope of translating the mood and tone of Arshia’s descriptions,
a solution that works well for an international readership. Indian viewers are used to seeing the characters draped in saris and dhotis but Zohra does not draw attention towards their pre and post-exile clothes for the silhouettes she works out as people.
Ramayana is so far the only Indian title with Yonder. It is an ideal first outing because apart from being a fascinating story about good and evil, it is an interesting entry point into ancient Indian culture and Hinduism, for as Arshia Sattar notes:
Rama’s story is also the story of Hinduism … As Hinduism developed, Rama became a god, a part of Vishnu, sent to earth to show us how to behave, to bring our dharma and our karma together in harmony, so that the world becomes a better place for us all.
The Ramayana is a tricky story to read: every decision is debatable, the motives of the characters are ambiguous. These paradoxes make it is an engrossing text. But equipped with a powerful story narrated in an accessible way in this edition, children might be delighted to find themselves capable of responding to the larger concerns of ethics, love and relationships.