Thursday, March 14, 2013

With apologies to Valmiki

The story is familiar but the script is fresh, brought forward to the age of sprawling malls and expanding metros. Breathing new life into the epic, Samhita Arni has recast the characters of Ramayana entangled in today’s world. Packed with political overtures, it smells of dynastic politics, democracy conundrum, gender disparity and rising inequality. Life is not as clean and simple in modern-day Ayodhya.

The mythological retelling of Ramayana is stylishly written, exploring the human side of its incarnated characters. Not only do masses get to hear their revered king live on television, journalists raise discomforting questions to the simian military chief at the press conference. As the powers-that-be shrug to hide the truth, people question the mysterious disappearance of their queen.

Gripping till the end, it is a narrative that has sub-stories which have rarely been told. The Missing Queen pieces together the untold stories of the wounded whose sacrifices and sufferings go unnoticed in the creation of a glorious nation-state. Sugriva’s political ambition, Angad’s embedded frustration and Surpanakha’s raging anger seem as much part of the story now as it might have been when the epic was first written.

War, in many ways, is merciful to men,’ writes Arni. ‘It makes them heroes if they are the victors. If they are the vanquished - they do not live to see their homes taken, their wives widowed’. While the brutal war was fought around Sita, she was sacrificed for the sake of the empire. Wasn’t Sita the price that Ram has, unwittingly, paid to rule an empire? The Missing Queen speculates many such questions in weaving a thrilling story.

Credit goes to Valmiki for not only creating timeless characters but carefully editing the script for any controversies. Those who read between the lines rewrote their versions of the epic, bringing objectivity to the one-sided narrative. No wonder, we have three hundred versions of Ramayana. The strength of the epic and its characters lie in them being relevant even today, provoking us to use the backdrop of the script to raise uncomfortable questions to the powers that be. The fact that we can feel the characters of the epic in our lives is a tribute to the imagination of the writer.

Having written her first book, The Mahabharatha: A Child’s View, at the age of eight, mythological retelling seems to be flowing in Samhita Arni’s pen. Many of the questions she has sought to explore in the book have crossed many a minds. Yet, there are many sub-stories yet to be told. Urmila’s version of Ramayana surely tops the list, her anonymous existence during those fourteen years when her husband was away. And who will not want to read the supreme sacrifice of Vibhishana, whose character has been conveniently underplayed in the creation of the empire. Clearly, there is more to the epic than what has been told and re-told down the centuries. Revisiting the epic brings in fresh insights, a process that reinforces faith of the reader and the believer in the characters....Link

The Missing Queen
by Samhita Arni
Viking, New Delhi
192 pages, Rs 399

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