"A man is walking in a dark dangerous forest..."
Perhaps the most essential narrative capacity in an age of anxiety, where one is constantly called to recalibrate our moral compasses, is that of irreverence. Dislodging our gods from the sacred impunities of their actions, and holding them subject to the imaginations of living people is an act of translation that is steeped in the attire of dissent. The retelling is as much a writing into, as it is a writing against. But that is one view.
A. K. Ramanujan touched upon the diversity of retellings, and how this trope is woven into the frayed embroidery of the story itself in his landmark essay which I keep going back to - Three Hundred Ramayanas. In one of the two stories that he narrates in that essay, a peasant raptly pays attention to a telling of the epic story in a village square. The storyteller is describing the day that Hanuman loses Ram’s signet ring (to be delivered to Sita) in the ocean. Hanuman is wringing his hands in anguish and it is a terse moment. So involved is this villager in the story, that he tells Hanuman:
'Hanuman, don't worry. I’ll get it for you.' Then he jumped up and dived into the ocean, found the ring on the ocean floor, brought it back, and gave it to Hanuman.
He ends this fantastic essay with the words “That’s what happens when you listen to a story, especially to the Ramayana.”
Ramanujan, is his creative fervour, addressed by the innovative firmness of the translator, and the primitive wonder of the poet, opens a door into the divinity of the story - a divinity that transcends temporal and spatial boundaries. This surge for immortality is characterised in the narration, and close listening, that lassoes the corporeal, sheltered space of the world of the story. He sets up, in my reading, a conversation between divinity and mortality - it is our awareness of our mortality that allows us the freedom that is outside the bounds of myth that pegs gods into their epic arcs. These arcs are blurred in folk versions, in south asian variants, and in many other retellings, constantly bringing into question the fascist urge towards reduction.
Arshia Sattar asks the question of whether Rama knew of his own divinity - whether he knew that he was a god - in her fascinating introduction to the Ramayana, published by Penguin, once again touching upon this see-saw of narrative control. This question is closely linked with the authorship of these great poems and its shifting sands. The tradition of humanising mythic characters, of providing alternative readings, I believe, is tied up to the characteristic of irreverence. I want to borrow from this trait, its chutzpah, and creative potential, and apply it to the act of writing as remaking reality. There are many stellar examples of this kind of writing - S. L. Bhyrappa’s Parva comes to mind, as does Sharanya Mannivannan’s The Altar of the Only World, and Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions. These works, drenched in the lifeworlds of their authors, unclasp new modes of meaning making which defy the superiority of canonical narratives framed as mythic and unchanging.
Peter Brooks’ Mahabharata is another such work that I find fascinating. This rewriting also comes from the act of close listening, and even close reading of texts that came before. Once again, I return to what makes us human, and how it provokes envy in the gods. The script of Peter Brooks’ Mahabharata (rendered in film) is ensconced in the wonder of being distinctly human. This is an epic that is stripped of its pageantry, and its empty fanfare, going deep into the impulses of each character, and what makes them who they are.
I find that the text returns to the theme of survival again and again, and is aware of the many side stories that serve as instructional, within the world of the characters, but also to the listeners. I share, below, one of my favourite passages from the text.
Do you know why I like this passage so much? Because it propels uninhibited desire as survival. Bhishma’s parable speaks not of hope, or of defiance, or courage, but of our complete surrender in the face of desire. This is what makes us human - that when we are confronted with beauty, we are alive. This tableaux is a metaphor for the human condition. Ensnared in webs of signification and representation, caught in constellations whose entropy of faiths imprison us, we seek out the sweetness that is outside of it all. The world is a moving screen in this poetic imagination, and even in the most dire of situations, desire is freedom.
Berger says, in one of his essays, that “To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.” I would like to add that to desire is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.
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