Sep 16, 2016

Rendezvous with Rama: Speculative Fiction inspired by the Ramayana

‘And Brahma said: Let us defrag.’ Further speculations on the Ramayana by way of speculative and science fiction in one rollercoaster of an anthology, Breaking the Bow.

BYGautham Shenoy

The legend goes that the classical Kannada poet Naranappa, better known as Kumaravyasa, chose to render into Kannada the Mahabharata – instead of Ramayana – because he heard Adi Shesha, the cosmic serpent, groaning under the weight of the many Ramayana authors on the earth. That’s how many Ramayanas there were even back in the 15th century, from Jain counter-puranas that begin with paeans to Ravana’s greatness, and regional retellings to folk reinterpretations of the story that put Sita first (Sitayana?).
Add to that other versions of the Ramayana across south and south-east Asia like the Thai national epic, Ramakien or the Malaysian Hikayat Seri Rama and Malay stories in which in which Dasharatha is the great-grandson of the Prophet Adam and Ravana receives boons from Allah instead of Brahma. This not counting all the stories revolving around the characters from the Ramayana handed down from generations past and possibly never written down — like one of my favourite Ramayana stories, which, of all things, is scatological in nature. And now this, Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction inspired by the Ramayana, published by Zubaan books and co-edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh.

There is no ‘one’ Ramayana or an authoritative Ramayana, even though Valmiki’s Ramayana was perhaps the first to be penned down.

As Anil Menon, author and co-editor of Breaking the Bow, writes in his introduction to this anthology, ‘The tradition is to depart from the tradition’. And depart from tradition is what each of the 24 stories in this anthology does, encompassing a wide spectrum of speculative fiction genres using the all-too-familiar characters take off into uncharted territory and make us look at them, and the epic at large, in a new light. In her introduction, author Vandana Singh, co-editor and a contributor to Project Hieroglyph says she believes that Speculative Fiction comes naturally to us Indians, since we have a natural tendency to embroider and prevaricate, to let the imagination run riot, and to argue incessantly. And might I add, to exaggerate and look for the fantastic and the divine (or the demonic) in almost everything. But this anthology doesn’t include just Indian authors, but writers from across the world, and it is to the credit of the adi kavya that it lends itself so well to being rendered as a sci-fi or spec-fic tale.
Breaking the Bow in all its cover-and-cover glory
Breaking the Bow in all its cover-and-cover glory. Note the automaton deer and the ‘ten headed’ Ravana. In a nice coincidence (unintentional I presume), the cover illustration and design is by the artist Pinaki De. A coincidence because the ‘broken bow’ referred to in the anthology’s title is Shiva’s bow, called Pinaka and it is because of this, that one of the epithets of Shiva is Pinaki.

Kicking off the anthology is Kuzhali Manikavel’s absurdly hilarious The Ramayana as an American Reality Television Show: Internet Activity Following the Mutilation of Surpanakha, an accurate portrayal of contemporary online culture right down to the YouTube comments, user names, abusive trolls and The Real Rama’s Twitter updates, which always end with “Hope everyone’s having a great day!”, even if he’s just plugged his new video tutorial on ‘How to Wipe out a Rakshasa Army’. This one’s not for the easily offended. Though that can be said for most – if not all – of the short stories in Breaking the Bow. Surpanakha taking centre-stage continues with Neelanjana Banerjee’s Exile, about a Ramayana cosplayer who role-plays as Surpanakha in a second-tier club called Exile. Set sometime in the not-too-distant future, this story is interesting for its setting. A world where India’s slums have become refugee camps for American and European immigrants looking for a piece of the high-tech Indian Dream, with India’s technology infrastructure having hyperleaped anything going on in the ‘First World’.
If there is one person who is the hero of even more stories in this anthology than Surpanakha, that would be Sita. Sita’s Descent by Indrapramit Das reinterprets Sita, Rama and Ravana as AI nanite clouds in outer space, created by the Government of India but ones that still carry the psychological imprint of the people they’re named after, especially their tribulations. Sita the nanite cloud, having dipped through the sun as her agni-pariksha, is hell-bent on crashing into Earth to honour her namesake and right some wrongs.

If there is one person who is the hero of even more stories in this anthology than Surpanakha, that would be Sita.

In Pervin Saket’s Test of Fire, Sita is an alien, belonging to an advanced, extra-terrestrial race called the Styonkars who takes the form of a human to test if humanity is worthy of knowing the reason for its existence. (Spoiler alert: Earthlok is found undeserving) Swapna Kishore’s Regressions meanwhile portrays Sita as a time-traveller agent in the time of gender-centred conflict and a resident of Ambapur – a utopian commune of women, by women and for women, which is ever at odds with the patriarchal Navabharata in a futuristic India.
Good speculative or science fiction begins with asking the question ‘What if…?’ The story should ideally be born out of this question than become the story itself, as is the case with Kalyug Amended Molshree Ambasta, whose story can be distilled into, ‘What if Sita was a single mother of twins in today’s times, divorced when she was pregnant by her husband who is the current Chief Minister of the state and has just found out he has children who in turn are unaware who their father is?’. That’s why I call this anthology a rollercoaster; it has its ups, it has its downs and freefalling moments, but overall fun and yes, thought provoking.
One story that is definitely on the up-side is the story by an author whose 2012 alternate-history novel, Osama, pipped Stephen King and George RR Martin to win the World Fantasy Award, Lavie Tidhar. Tidhar’s story, This, Other World has Brahma defragging in a world of mass-distributed digitals and flesh-born, jacked-in physicals. Set in a future Bangkok and incorporating Buddhist elements, it’s a cyberpunk retelling of Rama and Lakshmana’s search for the abducted Sita, a meta-human cross-hatched with code.

Good speculative or science fiction begins with asking the question ‘What if…?’

Tori Truslow’s story, Machanu Visits the Underworld, meanwhile, draws inspiration from the Thai Ramakien to relate an incident of Hanuman’s son Machanu who visits the Thai version of hell. Rama steals the spotlight in Tabish Khair’s Weak Heart, which delves into the mind of a God and has Rama grappling with the burden and dilemma of being who He is. Abha Daweshwar’s The Good King perhaps has amongst the best endings, with the king in question being Ravana who rules a technologically-advanced Lanka and able to traverse wormholes and hop across parallel universes till he finds one world with a possibility that he can live with.
Breaking the Bow is definitely a good addition for the shelf of anyone interested in the epic or in spec-fic and science fiction. If one were hard-pressed to find shortcomings in this anthology, one would be that in some stories, the need to balance the reimagined tale with relatable messages about, say, social activism, weigh them down. Another fault – which is not really a fault, but mildly disappointing – is that almost all of the authors stick to the main characters and familiar incidents. Perhaps it is because the more familiar something is, the more we appreciate it (or not) when it is reinterpreted and recontextualised? Yes, it features automatons and robots, and even has a story that revolves around Ravana’s wife Mandodari, but where are the tales of the man-monkey hybrids (mutants?) or Kumbhakarna and Sugriva? Ram Sethu as a cross-dimensional quantum bridge? About Ahalya, a woman who got turned to stone and back again? There is definitely a tale there about a wronged woman and transmutation of matter. Hopefully Breaking the Bow will have an encore and we shall rendezvous with Rama again. Whether that comes to pass or not, one thing is certain. Rama’s journey, or Ramayana, is not done yet.
That’s it for this week on New World’s Weekly. Live long and prosper, dear reader! And if you have a comment to make or a quick Ramayana-inspired sci-fi premise of your own to share, please do so in the comments section below or tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD.
P.S.: The title ‘Rendezvous With Rama’ is a big nod to the hugely influential and multiple-award-winning Arthur C. Clarke classic of the same name. The titular ‘Rama’s is an alien spacecraft but one that is initially mistaken for an celestial object and in the grand tradition of naming such objects after gods, is named after Rama (because all the names of known Roman and Greek gods had been exhausted on other asteroids and comets by that point) with the unmanned craft sent to probe Rama named after Sita.

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.