In this, the fourth book of Ashok Banker’s retelling of the Ramayana, Armies of Hanuman, we are reunited with our characters 13 years from the date we left them beginning their fourteen year exile. Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshman have fought alongside a motley band of outcast and outlaws against the Asur hoard for the whole time.
At the onset of the novel we learn that Rama has decided to end the war one way or another. Although still outnumbered 5-to-1, he has devised a plan that he hopes will even the odds in his favour. Although there are unexpected occurrences during the battle (the rakshasas meld together to form super beasts made up of fifty of their kind), Rama’s forces eventually prevail. Rama, Sita, and Lakshman are free to to spend their final year of exile in peace.
Or so they think.
If you are someone like Rama who has successfully conquered the rakshasas at every turn, you are bound to have made some pretty bad enemies. The rest of the story is bound up in the telling of the resurrection from near death of his major foe (Ravana the king of the Asura world), and his plots for revenge on Rama.
But allies can come from many places, and in this case Rama’s prowess as a military leader, and unfailing commitment to dharma (sacred duty), has attracted the attention of the vanar, a highly developed species of ape. Hanuman of the title has had Rama under observation for some time and has entertained hopes of enlisting his aid in restoring his king to his rightful throne. Through circumstances, they end up joining forces and becoming friends and allies.
In this fourth book Mr. Banker continues to do a masterful job of bringing an ancient story to life and making it accessible to those of all cultures. Again he has managed to walk the fine line of neither over-explaining concepts and beliefs to those who are unfamiliar with them, and thus boring others, while at the same time never leaving any reader in the dark. In fact, in this volume I found that, either from the knowledge I had accumulated from the earlier installments, or even cleverer integration on the author’s part, the story, the characters, and the moral lessons and education were woven together even more seamlessly. Maybe it’s because now that Rama and ourselves have proceeded down our paths together into maturity, we are living our teachings instead of learning them.
Whatever the reason, or however the Mr. Banker has done it I found Armies of Hanuman had an even better flow and narrative then any of the previous titles. Instead of admiration for simply managing the feat of presenting the story in an understandable way, competing with enjoyment of the tale, I was able to just sit back and read the adventures of Rama as I would any other novel. That is an amazing accomplishment on the part of Mr. Banker.
I’m left with only one question, being unfamiliar with the original text. (Out of interest I took out an adaptation from our local library that was done in 1910, and found it totally incomprehensible in terms of plot and story line, so I can’t use it as any basis for study.) It was the inclusion of Ratnaker’s conversion to Valmiki, the ant hill. Had the original author included himself in the tale as an example of how even the most corrupt could be changed for the better? Or was this Mr. Banker’s nod to the originator of the story?
The Armies of Hanuman is another example of Ashok Banker’s abilities as a story teller par excellence. The characters continue to develop and mature, his villains, although evil and despicable, are multifaceted and interesting, and the introduction of new characters is handled seamlessly and naturally. There is a certain organic quality to the way this tale is progressing; it’s like watching the development of an exceptional plant from a green and tender shoot to the point that it bears fruit. Right now we are beginning to taste its first sweet rewards. Well there you go. I hope you enjoyed it, and I really hope it makes you go out and buy the book—and if you haven’t bought the first three, do that too. It’s well worth the effort and the read.