Epic Failures

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Sunil Gangopadhyay’s new Ramayana raises difficult questions about Ram, says Vishnupriya Sengupta

IF RAM AND Sita lived happily in the forest for 14 years, why did Sita conceive twins only after her abduction by Ravana? If Ram was hopelessly devoted to Sita, why did he insult her on the flimsiest of pretexts? If Ram Rajya was an ideal age, why did Ram glorify the caste system? These are some of the issues 76- year-old Sunil Gangopadhyay is probing in his controversial untitled Bengali novel, slated to be launched by Anand Publishers this September.

It has been a while since Gangopadhyay, the current Sahitya Akademi president, has moved away from his beloved Neera, the idealised woman who has been the subject of his most famous poems. But her trace still persists in the modest Kolkata living room where two striking pen-and-ink works of a musician and a young girl by Jogen Chowdhury reflect the agony and ecstasy of love. The object of his affection has however turned from the enigmatic Neera to the oppressed of mythology. Conversations with Ranajit Guha, an authority on subaltern studies (an approach of social sciences focussed on the masses rather than the elite), rekindled his interest in the epics. Particularly in the subalterns of the Ramayana,prompting in him a desire to expose Ram’s clay feet.

Gangopadhyay says, “There is little mention of the people who served Ram and Sita in the forest for 14 years. There are long descriptions of the meat that Ram consumed, but Valmiki does not describe those who cooked for the royal couple or carried their belongings. So in my work, I would like to portray the lives of the hoi polloi in Ram’s era. Ram will come alive through their eyes.”

The epics have been reinterpreted by writers before. Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the 19th century poet, set the chariot rolling when he wrote Meghnad Badh Kavya with Ravana as the hero. In the 1970s, novelist Buddhadeb Bose projected Krishna as the villain in Mahabharater Katha. And there is Telugu novelist Yarlagadda Laxmi Prasad’s Draupadi — shortlisted for this year’s Kendriya Sahitya Akademi award — which is currently mired in controversy, revolving as it does around Draupadi’s sexual escapades. Gango padhyay, however, is quick to defend Draupadi. “As a literary text, it contains nothing objectionable. The objections raised have been on moral grounds.”

 

New gaze Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay
Photo : Shailendra Pandey

Morality of a sexual nature isn’t the key issue in Gangopadhyay’s retelling, which begins at the moment when a victorious Ram returns to Ayodhya, Sita and Lakshman in tow. “There is an episode in which Sambuk, a Sudra, performs a yagna, a task meant to be performed exclusively by Brahmins. A livid Ram beheads him. “No transgression was permissible in Ram Rajya. If a Kshatriya like Viswamitra can meditate to convert into a Brahmin, why not a Sudra? Ram glorified the caste system.” Gangopadhyay claims there are no gaps in the research which he has been conducting for a year into Rajshekhar Basu’s Bengali translation of the Ramayana as well as the Sanskrit text.

Ram and Sita are often perceived as an ideal jodi. Far from it, says Gangopadhyay. “Polygamy was the norm then. Ram’s father Dasarath had 350 wives, none of whom were able to conceive naturally. Sita too failed to conceive when she was living with Ram. She did, much later, after her return from Lanka. Perhaps Ram realised he couldn’t possibly be the father of her children and exiled her: not so much on public demand, but for personal reasons,” chuckles Gangopadhyay, emphasising each word. “If he loved her, why would he subject her to agnipariksha twice just to appease some minions?”

These are just a few teasers from the writer whose Those Days turned the Bengal Renaissance into a compulsive, epic reading experience. In a few months, the saffron brigade will certainly have something to dig into. Hey Ram!

 

 

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