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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Puranic tales for cynical people and humour for all

How often do you pick up a book on the basis of its title? I do that sometimes, often to be disappointed. But Puranic Tales for Cynical People (Indialog, 2005), written by Parashuram and translated from the original Bangla by Pradip Bhattacharya and Shekhar Sen, was an exception. I purchased this book in 2005, read it from start to finish, and loved it so much that I was all set to read it a second time. That never happened, and after a while it got shelved with my other books, hidden but not fully forgotten.

Until recently, that is. My brother unearthed it recently during a raid on my bookshelves in search of some reading material. Thanks to him, I was able to once again delight in the book’s sometimes light, sometimes acerbic, and sometimes irreverent humour.

Parashuram was the pen name of Rajsekhar Bose (or Basu, if you please) (1880-1960). Under this nom de plume, he wrote a 100 short stories, which were published in 9 collections. Twenty of these stories have been put together in this collection of Puranic Tales for Cynical People by the translators.

The basic premise of most of these stories revolves around the intriguing possibility of placing “well-known characters from the Puranas in situations that might have been”. In other words, they cater to the question of what happened next or a behind the scene narration of a famous story or incident. For example: what happened to Surpanakha after the Ramayana? Did the celibate Hanuman ever consider matrimony? Did Vishwamitra and Menaka always have a lovey-dovey relationship? Do apsaras always stay young?

In the process, Parashuram pokes fun at everybody—from the Creators (Hindu, Christian and Muslim) themselves, to venerable sages and other characters that any reader who is even reasonably acquainted with Hindu mythology will be able to identify and relate to.

Some of the lesser known characters that Parashuram breathes life into are Yayati (‘Yayati’s Senility’), Revati (‘Revati Gets a Husband’) and Maharishi Jabali (‘Jabali’). Two of the stories actually make caricatures of two of the crankiest,  hot-tempered and feared sages—Durvasa (‘Bharat’s Rattle’), and Vishwamitra (‘The Clay Girdle’).

Two stories explore the possibility of what happens when (i) the creators of the world’s 3 main religions meet (‘Three Creators’); and (ii) the 7 immortal men from the Puranas meet—Ashwatthama, Vyasa, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Kripacharya, Parashuram (the sage that is, not the author), and the Daitya king, Bali—at ‘The Gandhamadan Conclave’. Both these stories are absolutely delightful. While the former hits out at the claim of comparative superiority of one religion over others, the latter story emphasises the fact that all wars are essentially unfair.

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Disappointment @ the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary

“Hurry up ! The bears are already there. We need to get to the observation site quickly,” urged Doreen, our tour organiser. We scrambled out of the vehicle and followed Doreen to climb some rather steep steps that seemed to go on forever.

Our tour group had just driven to the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary from Hampi (about 15 km) over some rather bad roads, through beautiful scenery, and imminent rain. We were at the Sanctuary to see the Indian sloth bear or karadis, who came out of their caves every evening to have a special paste of rice and honey (or was it jaggery?) that was smeared on the rocks near their caves by the Sanctuary guards. For me karadi brought forth images of Baloo, the Jungle Book bear, resplendent in his Disney avatar or Jambavan, the wise bear king from the Ramayana. I was rather keen on what the karadi really looked like!

Created in 1994, the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary covers an area of about 5.58 sq.km. In addition to the bears, the Sanctuary is also home to wild boar, leopards, porcupines, striped hyenas, monkeys, hare, and peafowl, along with many bird species. Though we had come here to see the sloth bears, I secretly hoped to spot a leopard or two as well.

After about five minutes of huffing and puffing, we reached the observation site which is at the top of a hillock with fencing all around. Quite a few people had gathered there to watch the bears and they all seemed to be looking across the fencing and pointing at some black dots on the opposite hillock quite some distance away. It took me a while to realise that those black dots were actually the karadis.

A view of the black dots, sorry sloth bears, from the observation point

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Hampi: Where mythology, history and today coexist

Vali and Sugreeva. Relief at the Hazara Rama Temple, Hampi

Where do I begin writing about Hampi—its many stories and histories, its kings and legends, its glorious past and ultimate ruin, its temples and other monuments, and its present day avatar. At the beginning, of course !

By Hampi (which is situated on the banks of the river Tungabhadra), I not only mean present day Hampi, but also the region around it.

Many millennia ago, the area was called Kishkinda or Kishkindanagari. This was the kingdom of the vanar Vali and later his brother Sugreeva, and home to the vanars who formed the bulk of Rama’s army in his battle against Ravana in the RamayanaAnegundi, the birthplace of Hanuman, is also located in this area. Anegundi was the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, before it was shifted to Hampi. One can still see the remains of old stone bridge connecting the old and new capitals.

Remains of the bridge across the Tungabhadra connecting the old capital, Anegundi, and the new capital, Hampi, of Vijayanagara

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