How Amish Tripathi pulls off retelling an old story like Ramayana in a new way

While I enjoyed reading the 'Scion of Ikshvaku', I do have a few quibbles.

 |  4-minute read |   04-07-2015
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Amish's much awaited, and much advertised, new book was published this month. The Scion of Ikshvaku is the first of his new Ram Chandra series. It is a retelling of the Ramayana aimed primarily at a young 21st century audience. Those who liked Amish's Shiva Trilogy will find themselves in familiar territory. The new book continues to use the simple, deliberately naive style of writing that attracted a wide audience for the previous books but also drew sniggers from the literary types. It also uses the same movie-like imagery to describe battle scenes and cities like Ayodhya and Mithila. Even the broader mythological landscape derives from the Shiva Trilogy.

The obvious problem when retelling the Ramayana is that it is such a well-known story. How does one retain interest in a narrative when the reader already knows the broad storyline and the final outcome? Moreover, the epic has been retold many times before. The Sanskrit version by Valmiki is arguably the oldest and most prestigious but there are other well-known versions such as those by Tulsidas and Kamban. In addition, there are numerous folk versions across India and other parts of Asia. For those above the age of 35, these will probably be overlaid by images from Ramanand Sagar's TV serial from the late '80s which was itself derived mostly from Tulsidas and Valmiki but embellished and interpreted for the times. So why should one bother with yet another version?

The author must have spent quite some time thinking about the problem of retelling a well-known tale because the Scion of Ikshvaku introduces the individual characters in a way that breaks from tradition in novel ways. Sita, for example, is shown as a warrior princess and not the demure, quiet woman that Tulisdas and Ramanand Sagar portrayed. Several of the other female characters too are shown as strong, independent women - Manthara is a successful business tycoon! It may surprise some readers that this is closer in spirit to the depiction of women in the oldest versions of the epics. Valmiki's Sita may not quite be a warrior princess but is still a feisty and bold character just as the original Draupadi was no pushover.

scion-of-ikshvaku-bo_070415124629.jpg Scion of Ikshvaku; Westland; Rs 350.

A common thread through all of Amish's writings is the strong undercurrent of philosophical debate. One of the main philosophical issues explored in the Shiva Trilogy was the distinction between seemingly chaotic, organic systems and rigid, master-planned systems. This is no idle debate for it informs many current discussions ranging from how we manage the economy to how we design cities. In the new series, the author explores the importance of the rule of law. Again, this is a key concern that animates many ancient Indian texts including Valmiki's Ramayan - how does one use the law or dharma to prevent "matsyanyaya" or the Law of the Fish where the big eat the small. In contrast, later versions of the epic placed little importance on this issue and focused on the divinity of Ram. In my view, Amish does well to take the modern reader back to the original philosophical conundrums, especially when he explicitly puts these debates in a modern context. For instance, we witness a how a juvenile rapist escapes punishment under Ram's rigid application of the law but then meets a violent end under Bharat's vigilante justice. This is an obvious allusion to the infamous incident in Delhi from a couple years ago and most readers will easily identify with the conundrum.

While I enjoyed reading the book, I do have a few quibbles. First, the author could have taken more liberties with the storyline. Having innovated on the depiction of the individual characters, I felt that he did not deviate enough from the usual narrative. In other words, he did not fully take advantage of the space he had created although he does leave several tantalising loose ends. Perhaps these will be explored and developed in the following volumes in the series. Second, there are instances where the author gets repetitive. Too many of characters are described as muscular with battle scars. Similarly, there are times that Sita ends up sounding too much like Sati from the Shiva Trilogy (although one wonders if this is deliberate).

Overall, Scion of Ikshvaku is a fast-paced, action-packed retelling of the Ramayana up to the point where Sita gets kidnapped by Ravan. It is very readable and will not disappoint those who enjoyed the Shiva Trilogy. My guess is that the snobs of the literary establishment will continue to snigger in public even as they read it secret. I look forward the next volume in the series but Amish's books are really meant for the big screen. What is Bollywood waiting for?


Sanjeev Sanyal Sanjeev Sanyal @sanjeevsanyal

Sanjeev Sanyal is a best-selling writer, economist and urban theorist.

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