The Ramayana by R. K. Narayan

  Table of Contents

  About the Author

  Title Page

  Copyright Page




  Chapter 2 - THE WEDDING




  Chapter 6 - VALI




  Chapter 10 - ACROSS THE OCEAN

  Chapter 11 - THE SIEGE OF LANKA


  Chapter 13 - INTERLUDE

  Chapter 14 - THE CORONATION




  R. K. NARAYAN was born on October 10, 1906, in Madras, South India, and educated there and at Maharaja’s College in Mysore. His first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), and its successor, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), are both set in the fictional territory of Malgudi, of which John Updike wrote, “Few writers since Dickens can match the effect of colorful teeming that Narayan’s fictional city of Malgudi conveys; its population is as sharply chiseled as a temple frieze, and as endless, with always, one feels, more characters round the corner.” Narayan wrote many more novels set in Malgudi, including The English Teacher (1945), The Financial Expert (1952), and The Guide (1958), which won him the Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Academy of Letters) Award, his country’s highest honor. His collections of short fiction include A Horse and Two Goats, Malgudi Days, and Under the Banyan Tree. Graham Greene, Narayan’s friend and literary champion, said, “He has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.” Narayan’s fiction earned him comparisons to the work of writers including Anton Chekhov, William Faulkner, O. Henry, and Flannery O’Connor.

  Narayan also published travel books, volumes of essays, the memoir My Days, and the retold legends Gods, Demons, and Others, The Ramayana, and The Mahabharata. In 1980 he was awarded the A. C. Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1981 he was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1989 he was made a member of the Rajya Sabha, the nonelective House of Parliament in India.

  R. K. Narayan died in Madras on May 13, 2001.

  PANKAJ MISHRA is the author of The Romantics, winner of the Los Angeles Times’s Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, and Tempations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond . He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the Guardian.


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  First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1972

  First published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus 1973

  Published in Penguin Books (U.S.A.) 1977

  Published in Penguin Books (U.K) 1977

  This edition with an introduction by Pankaj Mishra published in Penguin Books (U.S.A.) 2006

  Copyright © R. K. Narayan, 1972

  Introduction copyright © Pankaj Mishra, 2006

  All rights reserved

  The decorations, drawn from Indian temple sculptures, are by R. K. Laxman.


  Narayan, R. K., 1906-2001.

  The Ramayana : a shortened modern prose version of the Indian epic (suggested by the Tamil version of

  Kamban) / R.K. Narayan ; introduction by Pankaj Mishra.

  p. cm.—(Penguin classics)

  eISBN : 978-0-143-03967-9

  1. Rama (Hindu deity)—Fiction. 2. Epic literature, Tamil—Adaptations. I. Kampar, 9th cent.

  Ramayanam. II. Title. III. Series.

  PR9499.3.N3R36 2006

  297.5’922—dc22 2006045201

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  In the summer of 1988 sanitation workers across North India went on strike. Their demand was simple: they wanted the federal government to sponsor more episodes of a television serial based on the Indian epic Ramayana (Romance of Rama). The serial, which had been running on India’s state-owned television channel for more than a year, had proved to be an extraordinarly popular phenomenon, with more than eighty million Indians tuning in to every weekly episode. Streets in all towns and cities emptied on Sunday mornings as the serial went on the air. In villages with no electricity people usually gathered around a rented television set powered by a car battery. Many bathed ritually and garlanded their television sets before settling down to watch Rama, the embodiment of righteousness, triumph over adversity.

  When the government, faced with rising garbage mounds and a growing risk of epidemics, finally relented and commissioned more episodes of The Ramayana, not just the sanitation workers but millions of Indians celebrated. More than a decade and many reruns later, the serial continues to inspire reverence among Indians everywhere, and remains for many the primary mode of experiencing India’s most popular epic.

  The reasons for this may not be immediately clear to an uninitiated outsider: the serial, cheaply made by a Bollywood filmmaker, abounds in ham acting and tinselly sets, and the long, white beards of its many wise, elderly men look perilously close to dropping off.

  But it wasn’t so much its kitschy, Bollywood aspect that endeared the serialization to Indians as its invoking of what is easily the most influential narrative tradition in human history: the story of Rama, the unjustly exiled prince. It may be impossible to prove R. K. Narayan’s claim that every Indian “is aware of the story of The Ramayana in some measure or other.” But it will sound true to most Indians. Indeed, the popular appeal of the story of Rama among ordinary people distinguishes it from much of Indian literary tradition, which, supervised by upper-caste Hindus, has been forbiddingly elitist.

  There is really no Western counterpart in either the Hellenic or Hebraic tradition to the influence that this originally secular story, transmitted orally through many centuries, has exerted over millions of people. The Iliad and The Odyssey are, primarily, literary texts, but not even Aesop’s fables or the often intensely moral Greek myths shape the daily lives of present-day inha
bitants of Greece. In contrast, The Ramayana continues to have a profound emotional and psychological resonance for Indians.

  By invoking the utopian promise of Rama-Rajya (kingdom of Rama), Gandhi attracted a large mass of apolitical people to the Indian freedom movement against the British. Postcolonial India may not resemble Rama-Rajya, but the emotive appeal of Ramayana seems to be undiminished, and often vulnerable to political exploitation: in the late eighties and early nineties, the Hindu nationalist movement to build a temple on the alleged birthplace of Rama claimed thousands of lives across India.

  Like millions of other children, I first heard the story of Rama from my parents. Or so I think: I can’t remember a time when I did not know it. Religious occasions at home began with a recital of the Ramacharitamanas, the long sixteenth-century devotional poem based on the story of Rama. All the older people I knew were only two or three decades away from village life, and they had memorized the verses in their childhood. I remember my elder sisters arguing with them about just how righteous Rama was when he killed a monkey king in cold blood or forced his wife, Sita, to undergo a test of chastity after her return from captivity.

  Every autumn, I looked forward to Diwali, the most important Indian festival, which commemorates Rama’s return from exile, and which children in particular love since it gives them an opportunity to buy new clothes and firecrackers and eat sweets. Autumn was also the time of the Ramleela, the folk pageant-play based on Rama’s adventures, which is performed even today in not only all North Indian small towns and cities but also in the remote Fiji Islands and Trinidad, where descendents of nineteenth-century Indian immigrants try to hold on to their cultural links with their mother country.

  I remember the performers with bare torsos, walking in an exaggerated, mincing style on their toes; Hanuman “flying” across the stage on a transparent wire; and, at the end of ten days, the burning of the big ten-headed tinsel effigy of Ravana. Armed with a bamboo bow and arrow, I imagined myself to be Rama, pursuing the forces of disorder. But it was only later I realized that though there is much of the fairytale in The Ramayana to engage the child—the prince thrown upon fate, the kidnapped princess, flying monkeys—it also has a complex adult and human aspect. Far from representing a straightforward battle between good and evil, it raises uncomfortable ethical and psychological questions about human motivation; it shows how greed and desire rule human beings and often make them arrogant and prone to self-deception. Even the idealized figure of Rama hints paradoxically at the difficulty of leading an ethical life.

  Most versions of Rama’s story begin with Dasaratha, the heir-less king of Kosala who, on the urging of his spiritual advisors, performs a sacrificial ritual that enables his three wives to conceive sons. The firstborn, Rama, is the ablest and most popular of Dasaratha’s offspring, who proves his superiority by stringing an enormous bow others can barely lift and by winning his bride, Sita.

  When Dasaratha decides to retire from worldly duties, he chooses Rama as his successor. This greatly dismays his second wife, who wants her own son to be king. Just as the coronation of Rama is about to begin, she asks her husband to redeem two boons he had once made to her at a weak moment in his life. She demands that Rama be banished from Ayodhya for fourteen years and her son be anointed king in his place.

  Dasaratha is deeply distraught by this unreasonable demand. But he is unable to refuse her—to keep one’s vow is deemed one of the highest moral achievements in The Ramayana. Similarly, it is part of Rama’s virtue to be obedient to and unquestioning of his parents. He accepts his father’s decision and, accompanied by his wife, Sita, and half-brother Lakshmana, he abandons Ayodhya, much to the grief of its inhabitants.

  Traveling through forests, Rama and his companions have many adventures. But none proves more dramatic than Rama’s encounter one day with a demoness called Soorpanaka. She falls in love with Rama and proposes marriage to him, and then concludes that Sita’s great beauty is to blame for his indifference to her. When she tries to attack Sita, Lakshmana mutilates her. Soopanaka flees to her brother Ravana, the all-powerful demon king of the island of Lanka, and tells him of the cruelty inflicted upon her.

  The accounts of Sita’s beauty stir Ravana’s curiosity and desire. He arranges for a distraction that draws Rama and Lakshmana away from her hermitage. Then, dressed as a holy man, Ravana manages to enter Sita’s dwelling and kidnaps her.

  Now begins Rama’s pursuit of Ravana, which leads him to unexpected friends and allies in a monkey kingdom. His most devout monkey ally, Hanuman, crosses the ocean to Lanka and alerts Sita that help is on the way. Hanuman also allows himself to be captured and produced in Ravana’s court. Ravana disregards his warning of impending doom at the hands of Rama and orders Hanuman’s tail to be set alight. But Hanuman escapes and, in the process, sets all of Lanka on fire. On his return, he helps Rama plan for the inevitable assault on Lanka, which comes after the monkey army builds a bridge over the ocean to the island.

  After a long and bloody battle, Rama kills Ravana and his closest associates. But he suspects that Sita’s virtue has not survived her long confinement in Lanka and refuses to accept her. A distraught Sita undergoes a trial by fire in order to prove her chastity, and survives. A chastened Rama returns with her to Ayodhya to be crowned king. But doubts about Sita’s virtue haunt him and when he hears of rumors against her among the general public he banishes her from his kingdom. In exile she gives birth to two sons. Not long after this, she passes away, and a bereft and heartbroken Rama decides to join her in heaven.

  This is the basic story on which many variations have been made through the centuries. It is not clear when it first came into being: bardic literature that has been orally transmitted cannot be precisely dated. Moreover, the story of Rama has proliferated bewilderingly across India and Southeast Asia. It exists in all major Indian languages, as well as Thai, Tibetan, Laotian, Malaysian, Chinese, Cambodian, and Javanese. In places as remote from India as Vietnam and Bali, it has been represented in countless textual and oral forms, sculpture, bas-reliefs, plays, dance-drama, and puppet plays.

  Little is known about the poet Valmiki, who apparently wrote the first narrative in Sanskrit, probably around the beginning of the Christian era. Many Indians consider Valmiki’s Ramayana to be the standard version, and it is still presented as such in many translations into English. But its version of Rama’s story has been repeatedly challenged, repudiated, or simply ignored in multiple artistic forms that originate not so much from an ur-text as from what the Indian poet and critic A. K. Ramanujan called an “endemic pool of signifiers (like a gene pool).”1

  Valmiki presented an idealized, if not beatified, image of Rama, establishing the basis for his popular reverence. Later versions present Rama as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the principal Hindu deity who helps preserve moral order in the world, giving epic literature a sacred dimension, and helping make The Ramayana part of the cult of Vishnu, one of the major cults of popular Hinduism. But many of these versions, reflecting as they do the social diversity of India, contradict one another, often self-consciously. In the version preferred by Jains, an Indian sect organized around the principles of asceticism, Ravana is a sympathetic character, and Rama and Sita end up as world-renouncing monk and nun, respectively. The devotional rasik tradition in North India focuses on the marriage of Rama and Sita and ignores most of the events before and after it. The nineteenth-century Anglicized Bengali writer Michael Madhusudan Dutt chose to exalt Ravana over Rama in a long narrative poem. Ravana remains one of the heroes of low-caste Dalits in Maharashtra.

  The many Ramayanas also reflect the ideologies of their time: like most influential literature, The Ramayana has never been exempt from the struggles for political power. This became clearer after the eighth century A.D. as small kingdoms arose in India, and rulers sought legitimacy through association with the cult of Rama, the supposedly ideal king (the practice continues in Thailand, where nine kings in the previous two centuries
have called themselves Rama). Even during the long centuries of Muslim rule over India, people used The Ramayana to project the view of their particular social group. The Ramacharitamanas, the work of a North Indian Brahmin called Tulsi Das, laments the decay of caste hierarchy and the rise of low-caste men to positions of influence: a state of affairs that for Tulsi stands in distinctive contrast to the situation in the kingdom of Rama where everyone knew his place.

  Not surprisingly, The Ramayana has invited its share of politically motivated critics. The South Indian activist E. V. Ramasami saw it as a tool of North Indian upper-caste domination. In an essay in 1989, the distinguished Indian historian Romila Thapar claimed that the televised Ramayana was an attempt to create a pan-Indian version for the more homogeneous modern age—one that India’s ambitious and politically right-wing middle class could easily consume. In retrospect, Thapar seems to have been proved right: the television serial’s immense popularity set the stage for the violent Hindu nationalist campaigns, in which Rama appeared as Rambo, his delicate features and gentle smile replaced by a muscular mien and grimace, and The Ramayana itself became a central text in the nationalists’ attempt to weld Hinduism’s plural traditions into a monotheistic religion.

  R. K. Narayan was most certainly exposed to a benign version of The Ramayana in his childhood. He would have first imbibed it through the classical tradition of Carnatic music, the calendar-art images and gemstone-set portraits of Rama and Sita that are commonly found in bourgeois South Indian homes, and the great literary classic in the Tamil language, Kamba Ramayana.

  But it took him some decades to get around to writing his own version of The Ramayana. Born in 1906 into a rising, urban family of Tamil Brahmins, which sought to enter, with one foot planted in tradition, the colonial Indian world of jobs and careers, Narayan had, as a young man, a bolder ambition than anyone around him could have possessed. He wanted to be a “realistic fiction writer” at a time when realistic fiction writers in English were almost entirely unknown in India. It is partly why he was, as he relates in his memoir, My Days (1974), indifferent to the classical Tamil literature his uncle wanted him to read.

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