A story is made up of events, but is both more and less than them. While the events may mean multiple things, the story forces them into specific interpretations and discards the rest. SL Bhyrappa deconstructs the classic Indian epic of the Ramayana into events, and back together into a different story in Uttara Kanda—one that focuses on Sita and the other women.
Bhyrappa is a well-known figure in Indian literature, and has never been one to hew to the mainstream. In his dozens of books written over decades, he has created a very individualistic—yet references-backed—vision of Indian spirituality and culture. It takes someone with a deep understanding of the storyteller’s art to notice the flaws in an epic, which is what Bhyrappa has done here.
The book begins with Sita in exile, struggling to manage her twin toddler sons. Her situation is dire, and were it not for her loyal maid with experience of bringing up children, and her sister Urmila, who sends over supplies, she would be worse off still. As she thinks back to her past days, and how she landed up here, we, the readers, begin a unique unseen narration of the entire Ramayana and beyond.
Unique—because, in addition to this being Sita’s viewpoint, it is also told completely in a limited first person. Epics are made easier to swallow by being, in writing terminology, third-person omniscient—the narrator knows everything happening everywhere—but Bhyrappa brings us the true terrors of Sita’s existence by narrowing the narrative. Information often comes to her days, or months later, through sources with their own bias. When Sita does not know what happened between Kaikeyi and Dasharatha, neither do we, until someone tells us. And when Sita is trapped in Raavana’s Ashok Vana, we have no idea of whether Rama knows about her, or whether he plans to do anything about it. And thence, we see that what sounds fair and just for the men in the story, sounds so unfair to the women. They’re expected to follow the conventions despite the whole picture never being made clear to them.
Indeed, none of the men in the cast come off looking good when examined closer. Whether it is Rama, who uses dharma as a crutch rather than an ideal, Sugreeva who lusts after his brother’s wife, or even Dasharatha who makes rash promises driven by lust again. Even Valmiki is a character here, and Bhyrappa points out how Valmiki, when writing his epic, is inclined to focus on the men’s story and end it at a point when things are looking good, instead of including the depressing aftermath.
Bhyrappa makes the story more believable by removing the traces of the supernatural from the tale. Hanuman, now, is a man named after the mythical Hanuman. The golden deer is just a deer and the disguised voice emanating is never explained. The magical bridge to Lanka is now replaced by rocks that were already there. It has the effect of making us look at the characters as more human and less literal Gods. A God may make his wife miserable to satisfy dharma, but how do we feel when a normal man does it?
The translation of the book by Rashmi Terdal is superb, achieving the twin goals of being fluent, and of bringing the native ethos to life. Rewriting epics has been a popular genre in Indian literature, with the regional influences adding extra colour to the plot. In Marathi retellings, for example, family members get called Dada and Mama—here, this is a Kannada version, so Terdal has retained the Anna, Appa, and Thaatha salutations. Characters eat millets and refer to them by Kannada names—navane, ragi, sajje.
This book is further proof of the riches in Indian literature—writers and books—that translation is bringing to new readers. An absorbing, thought-provoking read!