I, Rama or Ayyo, Rama !

I, Rama: Age of Seers by Ravi Venu (Cratus Media, pp. 264, Rs.225) is the first book in the “I, Rama Series”. The series is a retelling of the Ramayana from Rama’s point of view.

This is His tale… let Him share His story with you…His account of the Legend. This is the story of that mighty king through His eyes, but my hand. (p.17)

I, Rama is narrated as a flashback to Rama’s twin sons Lava and Kusa, his brothers Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughan, and his foremost devotee, Hanuman. It is not a simple straightforward flashback as there are tales within tales and flashbacks within flashbacks. So, even if it is Rama, who is narrating the tale, he narrates it through another’s voice. This volume takes the readers through the origins of the Ishvaku clan, the reign of Dashrath, the birth of Rama and his brothers, Rama and Lakshman’s sojourn to the Dandaka forest with Vishwamitra, Sita’s swayamvar and her ensuing marriage with Rama, and his encounter with Parasurama. The book ends with Rama, Sita and Lakshman being exiled from Ayodhya.

This is what I, Rama narrates, a story that anyone who has read the Ramayana will be familiar with, including me.

Now, how do I write a review of a book that is yet another retelling of the beloved Hindu legend, the Ramayana?

How do I write a review of a book that is part science fiction, part fantasy, part mythology and ends up being an uncooked khichdi of genres?

How do I write a review of a book with that is woven around a unique premise, but is written very badly?

How do I write a review of a book that was much-anticipated, but which failed to deliver?

How do I write a review of a book whose language is so archaic that it made me cringe?

How do I write a review of a book called I, Rama, but one that made me go “Ayyo, Rama”?

How do I write a review of a book that I struggled to complete and then did not want to review it?

I, therefore, decided not to write a usual review. What I have written is this…

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The forest of stories: A review

The background

It can be safely stated and assumed with confidence that no other story captures the imagination of Indians across caste, class, region, religion and borders like the Mahabharata. The sheer range of books, films, television serials, critiques, essays, poems, theatre adaptations, folk dances and performances based on this epic are a mind-boggling testimony to this. Each version brings with it the claim that it is a fresh re-telling or re-interpretation of the Mahabharata, a claim that is true to a certain extent. Each author/poet/director/singer/dancer brings a perspective to the story that is uniquely his/her own in their narration. And yet, each re-telling retains the essence of the story that is the Mahabharata.

Ashok Banker, the latest writer to come out a re-telling of the Mahabharata, is very clear that his version is not a “religious polemic”, or a “historical document” or “itihasa”. It is just a great story told in his voice, a story that he wanted to narrate all his life.

This is simply the Mahabharata of Krishna Dweipayana Vyasa retold by one man.

That man is me, of course. (p.xix)

The book review

The Forest of Stories (Westland, 2012, pp. 352 + xxii, Rs.295/-) is the first of 18 books in the Mahabharata series of Ashok Banker, who prefers to call it the MBA series ! The book is divided into 9 sections or pakshas, and each paksha is further sub-divided. In addition, there is an introduction to the series/book as well as acknowledgements and some information on the forthcoming two books in the series.

The book begins with the arrival of Ugrasrava Lomarsana (also known as Sauti) at Naimisha-sharanya, a school of learning and meditation for young brahmins, which is located deep within the bowels of the hostile and dense forest, Naimisha-van. Sauti is a renowned kusalavya or wandering bard whose renditions of poems and stories and epics have made him famous all over the land. His arrival sends the ashram residents, students and teachers alike, into a tizzy of hope: that they will be fortunate to hear Sauti narrate the epic poem Jaya.

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7 Secrets of Vishnu

The Background

Hindu mythology can be quite confusing for a non-Hindu. Why, it can be confusing and for a Hindu too. The different and contradictory world views that co-exist and even support and complement one another can bewilder even the most dedicated scholar or devotee.

According to Devdutt Pattanaik, author of the 7 Secrets of Vishnu (and the book under review here),

In mythology, all forms are symbolic. (pg.7)

This one sentence, in my opinion, is the key to understanding and appreciating not only this richly illustrated book, but also Hindu mythology and Hinduism itself. The 7 Secrets of Vishnu (Westland, 2011) has nearly half of its 220 pages devoted to images of calendar art, paintings, sculptures, etc. “to make explicit patterns that are implicit in stories, symbols and rituals of Vishnu” (p.xi).

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