Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction inspired By The Ramayana
Edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singhe
Shortly after the last episode of Ramanand Sagar’s televised version of the Ramayana, Romila Thapar wondered whether the series was “an attempt to project what the new culture should be, an attempt to expunge diversities and present a homogenised view of what the Ramayana was and is”. Such a uniform culture, she went on, “would be simple to identify and easy to control”.
Attempts at control have manifested themselves in various ways since then, from the brouhaha over the birthplace of Ram to the dropping of AK Ramanujan’s essay from the syllabus of Delhi University. Despite such attempts, as Ramanujan and others over the years have pointed out, the Ramayana is protean, with innumerable versions in India and South East Asia; each one reflecting different ideological and social perspectives.
Authorship has changed hands, in Thapar’s words, from “bards to brahmans to monks to local storytellers”, and this is entirely how it ought to be.
Most retellings have taken place in the vernacular; in English, it’s in the genre of science fiction and fantasy that experimentation has occurred, two examples being the embellished recreations by Ashok Banker, and Ramayana 3392 AD, the comic book
series produced by Deepak Chopra and Shekhar Kapur.
This is a frame that Breaking The Bow, a collection of Ramayana-inspired speculative fiction, leaves largely unbroken. Editors Anil Menon and Vandana Singh indicate in their separate introductions that the speculative in ‘speculative fiction’ has always been a part of India’s storytelling tradition. This is indeed so, but many of the stories here marry the genre’s Western conventions with Indian themes, making for an entertaining but sometimes uneasy alliance.
Given that 20 of the 24 contributors are women, there are many instances of Sita singing the blues (with Surpanakha coming second). Swapna Kishore’s satisfying ‘Regressions’, for example, features a “futurist agent” in a splintered Indian state, travelling back into the past to redress gender equations.
Lavanya Kartik’s ‘Day of the Deer’ is a cheeky inversion that has Sita as double agent.
Feminism apart, there are environmental and political linkages too. In the somewhat pedantic ‘Sita to Vaidehi’, Sucharita Dutta-Asane sets up resonances with present-day Naxalites, and in Abirami Velliangiri’s ‘Great Disobedience’, Rama and Lakshman are Valmiki’s pawns in clearing the Dandaka forest.
There’s also much planet-hopping and time-space melding, with middling results.
In K Srilata’s ‘Game of Asylum Seekers’, more energy is spent in defining the game than anything else. Aabha Daweshwar’s ‘The Good King’ features an ultra-modern Lanka, with Ravan juggling hybrid realities. Co-editor Vandana Singh’s apocalyptic ‘Oblivion’ has a sex-changing creature travelling through the universe in search of a demonic nemesis.
In contrast with such overstated sagas, Aishwarya Subramanian’s ‘The Making’ delicately compresses the bulk of the epic into a few pages using recurring motifs, while Sharanya Manivannan’s ‘Petrichor’ is an interesting take on the conversation between Hanuman and Sita in the Ashoka grove.
Tabish Khair’s ‘Weak Heart’ is one of the few that delves into the mind of Ram, imagining what it’s like to live as a god.
Other contrasts arise from ways of telling. Pratap Reddy’s postmodern ‘Veidehi and Her Earth Mother’, set in Canada, has an unreliable narrator and a character who flees the manuscript, while Shweta Narayan’s more realistic ‘Falling into the Earth’, set in California, dwells on the relationship between present-day versions of Sita, Ram and Lakshman.
At times, narratives compete on hallucinogenic ground. Neelanjana Banerjee’s feverish ‘Exile’ features a role-playing Surpanakha in a futuristic Vegas club, while Tori Truslow’s hyper-real ‘Machanu Visits the Underworld’ is an innovative tale in which Hanuman visits the Thai version of Hades to bring Ram back.
Disappointingly, though, it’s the same main characters that appear time and again.
Bharat, Kaikeyi, Dashrath, Indrajit and Sugriva, to name just a few, are mentioned in passing, if at all, as though one would have imagined that their take would have provided an interesting counterpoint. A sense of playfulness is also infrequent — one thinks, for example, of Google Indonesia’s online version earlier this year in which characters used Google Talk, Maps, Gmail and Search to communicate and plan their journeys. The bravura exception here, though, is Kuzhali Manickavel’s wickedly funny ‘The Ramayana as an American Reality Television Show: Internet Activity Following the Mutilation of Surpanakha’. Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘The Other Woman’ teeters on the brink of the cartoonish, but is at least unusual for featuring Mandodari and specifically mentioning the Ayodhya imbroglio.
Breaking The Bow’s riffs on the Ramayana, contain highs and lows, but taken as a whole, the collection has enough brio to remind the reader once more that, as John Berger puts it, “never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one”.