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Many Ramayanas

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“Many Ramayanas,” edited by Paula Richman is an excellent compilation of stories and observations on Ramayana.

In his key-note essay, “Three hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan begins with this beautiful folk tale.

“How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.

One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, “Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.”

Now Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.

He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. “Look, a tiny monkey! It’s fallen from above? Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali). The King of Spirits (bhut), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.

While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came to see him. They said to Rama, “We want to talk privately with you. We don’t want anyone to hear what we say or interrupt it. Do we agree?”

“All right,” said Rama, “we’ll talk.”

Then they said, “Lay down a rule. If anyone comes in as we are talking, his head should be cut off.”

“It will be done,” said Rama.

Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more than Laksmana, so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. “Don’t allow anyone to enter,” he ordered.

Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra appeared and said, “I need to see Rama at once. It’s urgent. Tell me, where is Rama?”

Laksmana said, “Don’t go in now. He is talking to some people. It’s important.”

“What is there that Rama would hide from me?” said Visvamitra. “I must go in, right now.”

Laksmana said, “I will have to ask his permission before I can let you in.”

“Go in and ask then.”

“I can’t go in till Rama comes out. You’ll have to wait.”

“If you don’t go in and announce my presence, I’ll burn the entire kingdom of Ayodhya with a curse,” said Visvamitra.

Laksmana thought, “If I go in now, I’ll die. But if I don’t go, this hotheaded man will burn down the kingdom. All the subjects, all things living in it, will die. It’s better that I alone should die.”

So he went right in.

Rama asked him, “What’s the matter?”

“Visvamitra is here.”

“Send him in.”

So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, “Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must now he given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods.” That’s all they wanted to say.

Laksmana said to Rama, “Brother, you should cut off my head.”

Rama said, “Why? We had nothing more to say. Nothing was left. So why should I cut off your head?”

Laksmana said, “You can’t do that. You can’t let me off because I’m your brother. There’ll be a blot on Rama’s name. You didn’t spare your wife. You sent her to the jungle. I must be punished. I will leave.”

Laksmana was an avatar of Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.

When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva, and others, and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.

All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. “Rama Rama Rama . . .”

Then the King of Spirits asked, “Who are you?”

“Hanuman.”

“Hanuman? Why have you come here?”

“Rama’s ring fell into a hole. I’ve come to fetch it.”

The king looked around and showed him a platter. On it were thousands of rings. They were all Rama’s rings. The king brought the platter to Hanuman, set it down, and said, “Pick out your Rama’s ring and take it.”

They were all exactly the same. “I don’t know which one it is,” said Hanuman, shaking his head.

The King of Spirits said, “There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go.”

So Hanuman left.

This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana.”

Each article is enlightening and a delight for anyone who is interested in Ramayana. A cheaper Indian edition is available on Amazon or Flipkart now.

I gifted this book to my friend Anisa, when we met for dinner at one of my favourite restaurant, “Indigo Deli” at Lower Parel in Mumbai.

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Art

Gopala

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Because I’m a good woman, I forgave you this time.
Would any other woman have let you off?

You follow me around like a servant,
you say humble things,
yet when I ask you to come home, you don’t.
Why do you hurt me like this?

Now I’ve got you all alone.
If I hold you prisoner in this house,
who is there to release you?

Because I’m a good woman

You hold my hands, you say nice things.
But when I ask you to get into bed,
you say, ‘I’ve taken a vow,’ and do nothing.

Now I’ve caught you.
If I tie you down to my bed,
who is there to release you?

Because I’m a good woman

Only for a bet in a game you enter my bedroom.
When I call you, ‘My handsome,
my Muvva Gopala!’ why this indifference, dear parrot
in the land of the Love God?

If I choose to make love to you now,
Who is there to stop me?

Because I’m a good woman

~ Kshetrayya, translated from Telugu by A.K.Ramanujan, V. Narayana Rao and David Shulman | Art by Keshav Venkataraghavan

 

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Stories from far and near

Sitayana

“What’s so wrong about loving someone passionately? Would noble men and Rama himself, judge me differently, if I was fair, beautiful like Sita and not a rakshasi?” Surpanaka cried profusely. The rakshasi who coveted Rama and attempted to kill Sita once, and had been savagely repulsed by Rama and brutally mutilated by Lakshman, and who was instrumental in waging the war against them, to seek her revenge.

It was all over. Ravana was dead and Rama lived happily with Sita in Ayodhya. Surpanaka was a woman depressed with the pain of unrequited love.

“If I can’t have Rama, then Sita shall not have him too. War and violence is not an option anymore, but deceit?” For death alone would stop Surpanaka.

Surpanaka shape-shifted as a cat, and was peeping into Rama’s private chambers, from the branches of a tall Arjuna tree. Her cat eyes penetrated even the pitch darkness of the night. She could not find him. She remembered Rama’s handsome muscular features. At this nostalgic moment, Sita walked into the chambers combing her lustrous long hair. “Sita is an epitome of beauty, no doubt, but she can never match me, in the pleasures that a woman can give a man”. Surpanaka was teething in anger and greed. She wanted to confront Sita and warn that her happy days are counted, but resisted venturing into Sita’s quarters.

Next day, a hermit wished to meet Sita. Surpanaka had disguised herself as the hermit. Ayodhyans always revered hermits and gurus. Sita was surprised, why a hermit wanted to meet. After the customary welcomes and prayers, Sita inquired the reason for his visit.

“Devi, could you paint the picture of Ravana?” Sita did not feel comfortable at the request. “I have never set my eyes on the demon ever. All I have seen is his feet”, said Sita. “Then can you paint his feet” insisted the hermit. It was considered discourteous to ask why. Sita paints Ravana’s big toe and gives it to the hermit. The hermit leaves after thanking her.

Surpanaka was happy at the success of her mission. She completes the rest of the painting herself; strong ankles, thighs, waist, broad chest, shoulders, hands and the head. It was the painting of a handsome tall dark muscular warrior that Ravana was. She takes the completed picture to Bramma and pleads that he gives life to the picture, so that she could see her dead brother alive again. Bramma was pained at her request. Ravana was an earnest Shiva bhakta when he was alive and makes him come alive in the picture.

It was noon and Sita was having a pleasant conversation with Urmila and other sisters. Surpanaka appeared before her out of nowhere. Sita shuddered at the sight of Surpanaka in her room. It reminded her, of the cruel times from the past.

“I am not here to harm you, but wanted to remind you of a life, that could have been, if you had chosen Ravana over Rama”, said Surpanaka.

Sita was surprisingly very calm and did not raise any alarm. To the contrary she felt deep sympathy for her. Sita closed her eyes to pray Mata Devi. Sita wished that peace fall upon Surpanaka, so that she forgets her pain and anger. When she opened her eyes, Surpanaka had vanished, but there was a picture floating in the air. It was the same picture of Ravana that Bramma had brought to life.

Sita was very unsettled with the sudden turn of events. Ravana’s picture starts pulling Sita. She gets very perturbed. Urmila and all the maids, try to get the picture off Sita. They decide to start a fire and destroy the picture. Urmila throws the picture into the fire. The paper and the painting stay intact. “Let us throw this wretched thing into the old well”, exclaimed one sister. The picture flew back immediately, only to get stuck with Sita. Sita was desperate. She chants ‘Rama’ japa and surprisingly, that subdues the picture. Everyone has a breath of relief.

All of a sudden, Rama walks into the chambers. Everyone decide, to not make much of what happened and retire to their rooms. “Sithe!” Rama always addressed her that way, when he longed and missed her. Rama had just returned from an official visit to Videha. Rama and Sita had become closer after the war. They missed each other’s presence, a lot more than before. Love liberated Sita from her worries and depression that she had suffered in Lanka. However Rama became more possessive and protective. Sita liked this side of Rama too. “I am going to leave you one day”, she would tease him. Rama would seal her lips and assured her that he would never allow that to happen. After great persuasion, he confessed to her, that he thought of committing suicide that day, when he stood powerless, when Ravana took her away.

Today was an extraordinary day. Things had suddenly unfolded and Sita did not have the time to inform the elders. She quickly hides the subdued picture under the bed. Rama affectionately approaches Sita and embraces her. He unties her blouse and tries to make love. Sita remains distracted and does not reciprocate. Rama does not understand but leads her to the bed. When both of them sit on the bed, the picture below the mattress kicks Rama out of the bed. Rama is on the ground and is very unsettled. Sita couldn’t get a grasp of what happened. Rama is angered and he wonders why Sita had kicked him out of the bed. He regains his composure and decides to approach Sita and his eyes land on the picture of Ravana lying on the bed.

“Sita, what do you have to say for this? So the dhobis, did speak the truth? You did have an affair with Ravana and you have chosen to keep this picture in his memory. Women are twisted and unreliable”, Rama was delirious.

She had not seen Rama consumed with anger, like that, ever before. She froze hearing his accusations.

Hearing the screaming, Urmila, Kausalya and other women rushed to her chambers. Urmila pleaded to Rama about what had happened. Rama was possessed by anger and he was unwilling to listen to their reasoning and justifications.

“Sita will be banished to the forest for this action”, Rama makes this statement and leaves for the Royal court.

Sita was still unwilling to explain or speak her mind. She had completely withdrawn. Sita was still coming to terms with what was happening to her. Her Rama doubted her again, when she was pregnant. “How could he doubt me?” this thought was continuously ringing in her mind.

Urmila, Mandavi and Srtakirti, all the wives of Rama’s brothers go to the court to defend Sita’s case. “You think that Sita is in love with Ravana. All of us are in love with him, so send us all to the forest. He was a rakshasha, no doubt, but he never laid his finger on Sita, when he had all the powers to do so. He was evil, but he never questioned the integrity of his loved ones. By questioning Sita, you have shown the impurity of your heart to the world. Be warned, that generations to come will remember and discredit you for this action. Just because we are women, did you think you could pass any rules against us, without any objection?” Urmila was furious.

Rama remained silent and while he was coming to realize the gravity of his decision, Sita relinquishes all her clothes, jewellery and was on her way to the forest.

He had lost her.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Stories from far and near

No strings attached

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“You are really stupid and have no culture”, Rani Kunjamma was furious. Raja Kodachayan was wringing his hands with a very troubled face. He knew his wife had a bad temper, but today, she had hit the roof. Raja’s ancestors once controlled over 1000 villages and administered under the Tanjore Nayaks. The rule had crumbled after Raja Kodachayan took over. After 50 years of rule, rather misrule, he controlled less than 18 villages. He was short, stout and with a big paunch. He had absolutely no interest in governance or even the vices of kings. He loved to eat, sleep and play kabbadi with the stable boys. It was Rani Kunjamma who was holding the fort, last couple of years.

Earlier, Rani had invited some pundits, poets and musicians to be state guests for the Tamil New Year celebrations. She believed that their chants, music and poetry would change the kingdom’s misfortunes. However our Raja had other plans. He along with little boys tied chameleons to their kudumi (tuft of hair) while they were sleeping. The learned men were so frightened and angry after the incident that they vowed, never to return to their land.

Raja, his eccentricities aside, still loved and respected his wife immensely; but, he had to find a way to win her trust and make her believe that he was cultured and artsy. He summoned his minister for counsel. “Let us call a famous musician to perform at the sabha, and you would enjoy his music, comment wisely and award him gifts. Rani would then realize that you’ve become cultured”, he ended it with a wicked smile. “I do not know anything about music?” Raja intervened.

“I have a plan. I will find a learned music critic, who would sit behind your throne. A string would be attached to your ‘kudumi’. He would pull the string every time the singer needs to be appreciated. And that’s your cue”. Raja knew that this was a devious plan, but he was used to being puppet.

On the day of the concert, the sabha hall was decorated with flowers, lamps and designer curtains, specially organized by the minister from faraway lands. Rani has always been a champion of the arts, so she hid her differences and agreed to attend. She had also invited her friends from other kingdoms. “I am hoping, you and your king are not playing some funny tricks?” Minister shook his head sideways, while his eyes slowly wandered behind the throne.

The singer was a very famous person and had a large fan following. He brought with him a large entourage of musicians. The minister had to pay a hefty sum to make him agree. The critic was brought from Mysore so that no one would recognize him. He was a short and lean middle-aged man, just the right size to hide behind the throne. The critic gave Raja a list of expressions that he could use, when he pulled the string. The minister made sure all the arrangements were in order. Rani Kunjamma and her friends were seated in a way that they would not be able spot the critic.

After the opening remarks and salutations, Raja raised his hand to signal, that the concert may begin. The singer had a quick chat with his musicians to check the order of songs. Sooner the tampura player began, Raja exclaimed, “Besh besh”. The critic had tightened the string and Raja mistook that as his cue. The singer was confused at the sudden and unexpected appreciation.

“Ninnu kori…”, singer was off to a flying start. There was pin-drop silence in the ‘sabha’. At the right moment the critic pulled the string and Raja was quick with his response, “ada ada”, while swaying his right hand. Everyone in the audience was surprised and delighted at the sudden change in Raja’s demeanor.

Rani Kunjamma, was a little circumspect initially, however felt happy that her husband had changed for the best.

The singer was at his best, and the minister was increasingly becoming confident that his mission would be successful.

After the initial ‘kritis’, the singer started his main piece, ‘Sri Kamalamba’ in Sahana Raaga with gusto. The critic pulled the string, at right intervals and Raja was acting to the script, with the right expressions, hand swaying and head shakes.

The singer was very excited at the response from the Raja that he decided to indulge a bit during the ‘Alaap’. He waited for Raja’s “besh besh” and “ada ada” during various points, but surprisingly Raja remained still and quiet. He grew worried, if he had done anything inauspicious that would have upset the Raja.

In the mean time, the critic was still tightening and pulling the string at the best parts and was also surprised at the lack of response. The minister who seated himself at a strategic location so that he could monitor the critic and Raja was now confident that something had gone wrong.

Raja Kodachayan though looked confident and composed all while, was now shivering. He was getting impatient and worried if the mission would succeed. He was determined to win her acceptance.

Suddenly a honey bee entered the sabha hall and went buzzing around the ears of the council of ministers, the princesses and then came on to the Raja. Raja quickly caught the bee in his right hand. He has always been good at catching insects, lizards and chameleons. A skill, he had learnt from the stable boys. Unmindful of the concert and the sudden excitement of having caught the bee, he stood up to show his capture to the audience. At this moment both the minister and the critic realized that the string had been cut.

The singer still continued singing with a confused expression on his face.

Raja regained his stance and realized that the string had been cut-off. He was afraid that Rani would think of him as culture-less because he had not appreciated the singer for over half hour now. “Vidvan stop stop.” Everyone including the singer was shaken up, as to what has come about.

“Minister why don’t you tie the string again, so that the man behind can continue pulling and I can appreciate?”

While the minister was embarrassed, and Rani was teething with anger, our beloved Raja Kodachayyan was merry looking at the bee through his fingers.

Some people just don’t grow up.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Stories from far and near

A story can change your life!

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Along the banks of the Tungabadra river, lived Abuddhi and his wife Saraswathi. Abuddhi who worked as a farm labourer, was a simpleton with no ambition or enthusiasm. He loved eating and sleeping. Saraswathi, was educated, cultured and a teacher in the local school. She was quite the opposite in many ways.

Saraswathi tried hard to teach him culture, etiquette, and seriousness in life, but all her efforts bore no results.

During Ramanavami in the month of March, a famous pundit was visiting their village to perform the recital of the great epic Ramayana every night. He was a learned man and a master story teller. People would listen to his recital, which included storytelling, singing and dancing, with rapt attention all night. Last Ramanavami, he was sick and could not make it. People of the village grew sad and worried if some curse would come upon them. The village had been brimming with festivities this time, that the Pundit was performing at their village and thanked Lord Rama for breaking the jinx.

Saraswathi truly believed that her husband would benefit from attending the performance, and become useful. She nudged, cajoled, nagged, and forced him to go and listen. He grumbled as usual but decided to humour her. So he went for the recital scheduled in the evening and sat at the back. It was an all night performance but he could not stay awake. He slept through the recital. Early in the morning, when a canto had completed, the pundit ended the closing verses for the day and sweets were distributed to all devotees. Abuddhi, unmindful of all the proceedings, was still snoring. A volunteer stuffed Abuddhi’s open mouth with sweets. He woke up soon after and went home. His wife welcomed him with much delight. She was eager to know how the recital went and how he had felt. Abuddhi said, “it was very sweet”. Saraswathi was very happy to hear.

It took lot more effort to persuade him to go back to the recital the second evening. After much grumbling, he finally went. The pundit was exceptional that evening and even pilgrims from other villages were deeply moved and totally involved. A lot more people meant, he could not find room to lie down and had to sit up all night. A granny, who had brought her grandson, placed the kid on Abuddhi’s shoulder, because she could not find room. That did not deter him and he slept with his mouth wide open like the earlier evening. When the story of the night had come to an end, everyone got up and so did Abuddhi. The boy on his shoulders had left earlier but Abuddhi felt aches and pains, from the weight he had borne all night. When he reached home, his wife was eager to know how it was and he said, “it got heavier and heavier by morning”. She said, “that’s how the story is but pay attention to all details.” She was happy that her husband was finally beginning to feel the emotions and sentiments of the great epic.

On the third evening he felt more sleepy, located a corner quickly and continued sleeping with louder snores. Early in the morning after everyone had left, a dog came that way and pissed into his mouth. The sudden jet of luke warm water woke him up and he ambled home. When Saraswathi inquired about the earlier night’s performance he drew a confused expression and said, “terrible and very salty” wiping his mouth. Saraswathi, now confident that something was not right confronted him. He relented and admitted to have slept all nights. It made her very disappointed and sad.

Saraswathi decided to take matters into her hands. She went along  that evening and made him sit at the front row and warned him sternly. The story teller was at his best that evening. His recital made people cry when Sita was abducted by Ravana. Very soon Abuddhi got enraptured in the characters, events and emotions. He listened with rapture to the narration much to the delight of his wife. The story teller went on to recite how Hanuman had taken the big leap from the mountain towards Lanka, carrying Rama’s signet ring to Sita. “When Hanuman was leaping across the ocean, the ring slipped from his hand and fell into the ocean. Hanuman did not know what to do. He was worried, frustrated and stayed motionless, wringing his hands.” Abuddhi who was listening to the story with rapt attention was so moved by Hanuman’s predicament that he jumped and yelled, “Hanuman, I will get it for you.” Then he jumped dived into the ocean found the ring in the ocean floor, brought it back and gave it to Hanuman.

Everyone including Saraswathi were astonished. They thought he had become a special person by the blessings of Rama and Hanuman. Abuddhi became Buddhiman. Ever since, he was respected in the village as a wise man and behaved like one.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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