Ramayana for children (and westerners) in English

Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Ramayana for Young Readers (translated by Swapna Dutta, The Book Mine, Hachette India 2013)

1rtl;dr: If you’re as ignorant of Indian culture as I am, this book will go a long way to filling gaps. You can buy an ebook from Hachette UK for less than $20 Australian.

The Ramayana, one of the two great epics of Hinduism, dates from well before the common era and its images and characters permeate Indian and related art. Most moderately literate westerners are at least vaguely aware of it, and have surely encountered art derived from it: monkeys battling demons in the Balinese Kecak dance; images or reliefs of Rama and Sita, possibly with a golden deer; paintings and statues of Hanuman the monkey god carrying a mountain; Javanese shadow puppets; chants of ‘Hare Rama’ in western city streets. But few of us have read even a fraction of its 24 thousand verses. This little book, just 165 small pages plus some child-friendly notes, is of course no substitute for reading the original Valmiki Ramayan, but it does tell pretty much the whole story, and enables us to put those fragments in context.

The Chheleder Ramayan, the Bengali book of which this is a translation, has its own distinctive history. Its author, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1863–1915), was a famous Bengali polymath, friend of the even more famous Rabindranath Tagore and grandfather of filmmaker Satyajit Ray. He had a personal mission to make literary works available for young people, and retold not only the Ramayana but also the other great epic, the Mahabharata. He’s not the only one to have retold these works. Indeed, the translator Swapna Dutta lists several Ramayanas that she has read. But his retelling holds a special place as a project to make the story available to early 20th century Bengali-reading children. This translation makes his Ramayana available in English for the first time.

Like all epics, it contains an awful lot of fighting, so much so that at times it reads like the script for a computer game. In the great climactic battle between the monkey army and the demons, you can almost see the game move up a level, as the lower ranking warriors are all killed or worn out and the next rank come to the fore with increasingly powerful weapons, until at the end it is the two mighty figures of Rama and Ravana facing off with nuclear-level arsenals. I have no idea how this plays out in the original, or how gripping it would be for a young western reader with no prior knowledge of the characters or the different supernatural beings, but even though I was never in doubt who would prevail, I stayed engaged.

This Rama is not a god, but an extraordinary man. His great prowess as a warrior is overshadowed by his superhuman sweetness. The story is set in motion when one of his father’s wives, incited to jealousy by an Iago-like maid, tricks King Dashratha into denying Rama his birthright as heir to the throne and sending him into exile. While Rama’s mother, the people of the kingdom, and Rama’s brothers, including the brother who is to be king instead of him, urge him to resist this manifestly unjust treatment, he refuses and accepts his father’s decrees with extraordinary persistence. He is a model of kindness, forgiveness, trusting openness.

The story stands by itself, but it’s all the richer for the many echoes (or are they foreshadowings?) of episodes from other great tales like The Iliad, tales of Greek, Roman and Norse gods, or the biblical the story of David.

My copy came free from Hachette India, and Swapna Dutta is a friend of mine from my days as editor of a children’s magazine. Swapna and her publisher have given me a great gift. There’s a preview on Google Books, and you can buy an ebook or a hard copy from Hachette UK.

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