What happens when you listen
This essay opened with a folk tale about the many Ramayanas. Before we close, it may be appropriate to tell another tale about Hanuman and Rama’s ring. But this story is about the power of the Ramayana, about what happens when you really listen to this potent story. Even a fool cannot resist it; he is entranced and caught up in the action. The listener can no longer bear to be a bystander but feels compelled to enter the world of the epic: the line between fiction and reality is erased.
A villager who had no sense of culture and no interest in it was married to a woman who was very cultured. She tried various ways to cultivate his taste for the higher things in life but he just wasn’t interested.
One day a great reciter of that grand epic the Ramayana came to the village. Every evening he would sing, recite and explain the verses of the epic. The whole village went to this one-man performance as if it were a rare feast.
The woman who was married to the uncultured dolt tried to interest him in the performance. She nagged him and nagged him, trying to force him to go and listen. This time he grumbled as usual but decided to humour her. So he went in the evening and sat at the back. It was an all night performance and he just couldn’t keep awake. He slept through the night. Early in the morning, when a canto had ended and the reciter sang the closing verses for the day, sweets were distributed according to custom. Someone put some sweets into the mouth of the sleeping man. He woke up soon after and went home. His wife was delighted that her husband had stayed through the night and asked him eagerly how he enjoyed the Ramayana. He said, ‘It was very sweet.’ The wife was happy to hear it.
The next day too his wife insisted on his listening to the epic. So he went to the enclosure where the reciter was performing, sat against a wall and before long fell fast asleep. The place was crowded and a young boy sat on his shoulder, made himself comfortable and listened open-mouthed to the fascinating story. In the morning, when the night’s portion of the story came to an end, everyone got up and so did the husband. The boy had left earlier but the man felt aches and pains from the weight he had borne all night. When he went home and his wife asked him eagerly how it was, he said, ‘It got heavier and heavier by morning.’ The wife said, ‘That’s the way the story is.’ She was happy that her husband was at last beginning to feel the emotions and the greatness of the epic.
On the third day he sat at the edge of the crowd and was so sleepy that he lay down on the floor and even snored. Early in the morning, a dog came that way and pissed into his mouth a little before he woke up and went home. When his wife asked him how it was, he moved his mouth this way and that, made a face and said, ‘Terrible. It was so salty.’ His wife knew something was wrong. She asked him what exactly was happening and didn’t let up till he finally told her how he had been sleeping through the performance every night.
On the fourth day his wife went with him, sat him down in the very first row, and told him sternly that he should keep awake no matter what might happen. So he sat dutifully in the front row and began to listen. Very soon he was caught up in the adventures and the characters of the great epic story. On that day the reciter was enchanting the audience with a description of how Hanuman the monkey had to leap across the ocean to take Rama’s signet ring to Sita. When Hanuman was leaping across the ocean, the signet ring slipped from his hand and fell into the ocean. Hanuman didn’t know what to do. He had to get the ring back quickly and take it to Sita in the demon’s kingdom. While he was wringing his hands, the husband who was listening with rapt attention in the first row said, ‘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.
Everyone was astonished. They thought this man was someone special, really blessed by Rama and Hanuman. Ever since, he has been respected in the village as a wise elder and he has also behaved like one. That’s what happens when you really listen to a story, especially to the Ramayana.11
(‘Three hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translation’, extract from The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, edited by Vinay Dharwadker, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.)
[Ramanujan first wrote this essay as a lecture delivered at the Workshop on South Asia at the University of Chicago in 1985-86. In a revised and expanded form it appeared in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 22-49, from where it is reprinted here. The second section of the essay draws on a short paper on ‘The Ahalya Episode in Two Ramayanas (Valmiki and Kampan)’ which Ramanujan presented at the Association for Asian Studies Conference in Boston in 1968. Gen Ed.]
This paper was originally written for the Conference on Comparison of Civilisations at the University of Pittsburgh, February 1987. I am indebted to the organisers of the conference for the opportunity to write and present it and to various colleagues who have commented on it, especially V. Narayana Rao, David Shulman and Paula Richman.
1. I owe this Hindi folk tale to Kirin Narayan of the University of Wisconsin.
2. Several works and collections of essays have appeared over the years on the many Ramayanas of South and Southeast Asia. I shall mention here only a few which were directly useful to me: AK Banerjee 1983; P. Banerjee 1986; JL Brockington 1984; V. Raghavan 1975 and 1980; Sen 1920; CR Sharma 1973; and S. Singaravelu 1968.