Arshia Sattar talks about her relationship with the Ramayana, her translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana in 1996 and the flowering of “three hundred Ramayanas”:
My abridged translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana was published at the very end of 1996. When I got the first copies, I was awed by the gravitas the work had acquired by being transformed into a heavy, black-jacketed hardback book. I put it away in my bookshelf and never really opened it until seven years later, in 2003, when I had to teach the Ramayana as part of a classical Indian literature course. Since then, in some way or other, I’ve been teaching from the text and around it on several occasions each year. And I’ve had to confront what I translated: what I put in and what I left out, what I chose to say and how I chose to say it. I have also had to consider what I might have done differently were I to do the same translation now.
In many ways, my own ‘denial’ of the Ramayana for all those years, between 1997 and 2003, was a reflection of what happened to many of us across the country and the world who love and work with Ramayana materials. Those were the years when the then Hindu right was firmly entrenched in the national consciousness as well as in political power. This constellation of political parties, scholars, local politicians and men-on-the-street had appropriated Rama and his story, making it the basis of their antagonism towards those they perceived as hostile to Hinduism and to the ‘Indian’ nation.
What were we, those of us who worked with the Rama story and were of a liberal (if not always and entirely secular) bent of mind, to make of this? Was the story the Hindu right had taken as their own, the same story that we were telling? Was there something in the Rama story that lent itself to this kind of exclusionary cultural and nationalistic politics? Was our hero, the righteous but troubled prince of Ayodhya, really a vengeful warrior god? These confusions made us back off from the Ramayana, to collect our thoughts and reconsider our own relationship to the text and to the story. Many of us retreated from the public sphere and the aggression of its Rama-related discourse.
Those years of silence seem to have ended. Despite the occasional incident (like the recent vandalism at Delhi University over a reference to a Santhali version of the story in a prescribed text), the Ramayana has returned in all its pluralistic glory. Robust classical and folk performances, some mainstream and others subversive, continued uninterrupted through these years but now there are contemporary additions to this space making it even richer and more diverse, like the new television version made by Ramanand Sagar’s sons, Ashok Banker’s remarkable multi-volume recreation of the Rama story, and contemporary puppet performances that examine Rama’s actions and thoughts.
It is in this context, the years of silence as well as the new flowering of ‘three hundred Ramayanas,’ that I have had to re-think my own Ramayana work and my relationship to the text that I translated. Were I to translate the same text now, it would probably be much the same in terms of tone and texture. The same events and conversations would be included, the same peripheral stories and lengthy descriptions of the battle excluded. I would probably make the Uttara Kanda, the Epilogue, longer so that the English is more representative of the Sanskrit text where the last kanda is enormous. I would also increase the length of that section so that readers unfamiliar with the original text would not think (as they might now) that the Uttara Kanda consists merely of Sita’s banishment and its aftermath. What might differ would be the Introduction, parts of which are reproduced here.
Because of teaching from it and reading it over and over again in the past few years, I have developed a new intimacy with the text, one entirely different from the closeness that I had to it when I was translating. To my surprise, in this rapprochement, I find my thoughts going more and more to Rama. As a card-carrying feminist, I am shocked that it is he who draws me to him, compels me to try and understand his cruelty towards Sita and what it means for him to be king, perhaps even against his innermost wishes. I find myself more and more involved with Rama and am convinced that the way to a more complete understanding of the Ramayana, especially for contemporary women, has to be through an inclusion rather than a rejection of Rama and his questionable behaviour.