However, the relevance of mythology is not restricted to those who have heard these stories in their grandmother’s laps. Nina Paley, born in the US, read her first Ramayana in her 30s and says: “The agni pareeksha I see as a metaphor for grief. I wanted to kill myself when my husband dumped me, and the unbearable pain was like fire… Sita is a model for expressing what we often repress. She loves Rama actively, without censure or shame or any limits. And when he breaks her heart, she expresses her pain with her whole being.” She further states: “What blew my mind while reading various Ramayanas in the midst of my own break-up was how primal and universal the problems of love are, and have always been… Sita Sings the Blues is just my honest telling. It is modern and American because I am modern and American.”
While Menon and Paley find a love story at the heart of the Ramayana, Deepak Chopra and Shekhar Kapur’s graphic futuristic novel Ramayan 3392 AD provides only the tiniest flicker of romance between Rama and Sita. Rama is a warrior prince, born to fight the demon Ravana who rules over Nark and desires dominion over all of earth. The swayamvar and marriage are given a miss and Rama alone is banished because he chose to surrender and fight another day instead of dying honourably in battle with the asuras. During his travels, he comes across Vishwamitra, blunders into Mithila and encounters Sita. Though Sita features in barely 20 frames of this novel, she makes a strong first impression. Her first words to Rama are: “Don’t stand over there like an idiot. Get some of those gandharva leaves.” Vishwamitra describes her as “the key to the salvation of this wretched world” and Rama as her protector (a responsibility he rejects initially) but the novel is — as it openly acknowledges — a tale of “mystery, adventure, betrayal and heroism”. If Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a story of love and heartbreak, Chopra-Kapur’s Ramayan 3392 AD is singularly a battle between the four duty-bound brothers and the demonic Ravana.
What remains undisputed, however, is that the Ramayana has caught our imagination like few other stories have. Anthologies, novels, animations, graphic books and soon the much-awaited Speculative Ramayana from Zubaan. Despite bookstores devoting entire sections to variants of this epic, and publishing houses releasing retellings every year, it is unlikely that our thirst for more will be sated. And what is the greatest flaw of the Ramayana is also its biggest strength — its inability to be contained, its defiance of simplistic conclusions, its underlying plea for back-stories and codas, for re-imagining, unlearning and re-questioning.
Pervin Saket’s short fiction has been published in Kalkion, Page Forty Seven, Katha, Ripples, Perspectives and others. She has written a collection of poems, A Tinge of Turmeric, and her poems have featured in Kritya and The Binnacle. She is now writing her first novel.