I can’t think of a greater delight than discovering an author whose work I’ve never read before. In the last few months I’ve been fortunate to discover four such wonders. Even better, as far as I was concerned, was that each of them have published either a continuing series of books or a completed series, so there is no end of fodder for my considerable appetite. I have something to do while waiting for the next installment of Harry Potter!
I don’t have any specific process for picking out new books; I usually wander through the aisles of a book store or library, and if a cover catches my eye, or I spot a title that sounds good to my ear, I’ll take the book off the shelf to give it the once-over. Most books have some sort of plot summary, either on the back cover or the fly leaf, and that will be the first thing I check. As these are invariably written by the author’s publisher, they aren’t much use as assessment of the book’s quality, but they usually give enough detail to offer clues as to whether the book merits attention.
Primarily when it comes to fiction I seem to be drawn to the world of what’s known as speculative, or fantasy, and even then my interests narrow the field further. The standard sword-and-sorcery tale holds little or no interest, nor the typical space adventure. What draws me to this genre is that, of all fiction, it most resembles story-telling, and so the nature of the story is of utmost importance. Ones that extrapolate from the various traditions of original peoples are a major attraction, or conversely, invented a world with its own past and peoples.
Ashok K. Banker’s adaptation of the 3,000-year-old epic of the Indian sub-continent, Ramayana, falls into the former category. At first glance, it could appear to be too exotic and unapproachable for a Western reader who knows little or nothing about that history or culture. But the author has ensured that no one’s enjoyment be diminished by their background. (Interestingly enough, he has published separate editions for Indian consumption, whose only differences are a different prologue and the exclusion of the glossary.) He seamlessly tells the story while integrating instruction and education through the context of events. The inclusion of an extensive glossary of Sanskrit words and concepts at the back of each volume is an added benefit, if clarification is needed, but I found such moments few and far between.
When I began my reading, the first three books of six had been published: Prince of Ayodhya, Siege of Mithila, and Demons of Chitrakut. In the first book we are introduced to an India of ancient times. There has been peace for thirty years between the mortals and the demon Asura, who occupy the island kingdom of Lanka. Prince Rama’s father, the king of Ayodhya, had repelled their last invasion with assistance of the other city states, and now lived out his days enjoying the pleasures of his wives.
But as we learn, all is not right in the world, and even now the demons, led by their lord Ravana, are plotting their return to dominance. Why, if they could invade and defeat the Gods in their own city, what hope do mortals have? Through dark magic, their forces have infiltrated to the very heart of the kingdom, and set in motion events that could very well see the end of mortal kind.
Prince of Ayodhya outlines the various plots being hatched and introduces us to the principle characters. The battle lines are drawn, and Rama is prepared for his destiny through training and tasks. The book also begins our education in the concepts and beliefs that guide the actions of our hero, and shows how he is prepared to be the exemplar of all that is ideal.
Siege of Mithila introduces us to the woman who is to be the love of Rama’s life, the princess Sita. She is the daughter of the King of Mithila, a man who after the end of the last war had renounced all violence, and turned his state into a haven for all things spiritual. Of course, this means it is the ideal place for the demons to begin their martial conquest. But as with all good villains, the Demon lord Ravana has more then one arrow in his quill. In Demons of Chitrakut, when Rama returns in triumph from defeating the demon armies with his new bride in tow, instead of being feted as a hero he is sent into exile for fourteen years, along with his brother and his wife. Through his black arts, Ravana has managed to corrupt the king and bring about this drastic turn of events.
The Ramayana was written by the original good thief Valmiki, who far predates the one mentioned in the story of Christ. As atonement for his past sins, he became a sage, and wrote down the story of Rama to teach the values needed to lead the exemplary life. As in all epics, there is a Hero, Rama of Ayodhya, a beautiful princess (his wife Sita), his loyal companions, the flawed but basically good father, and a villain.
Ashok Banker’s adaptations are lushly written with love and devotion. He has taken an epic poem and set it into more approachable prose. Written in English for an English speaking audience, we know that nothing is being lost in translation. The books are a fine introduction for those of us who have little or no understanding of the culture and history of one of the oldest societies in the world, and our guide is one of the more accomplished writers in India. If you are like me—your understanding of India has been limited to seeing the occasional Bollywood movie, and various western interpretations of eastern beliefs—these books are a breath of fresh air. Alive and vital, they manage to entertain and educate simultaneously.
At no time during the reading of the stories did I feel Mr. Banker overtly explaining concepts and ideas central to the belief system extolled to the detriment of the story. His wise use of incidents and characters (which is the manner of all good epics and parables) served to fill in the copious blanks in my knowledge without once making me feel like the story was being interrupted. Soon after beginning I was able to just sit back, and enjoy the lush panorama unfolding before me without worrying about missing out on any key points of the tale.
A word of warning. Do not do what I did. That was sit down and attempt to read through all three books in sequence one after the other. As with all piquant items, one must give the palate a rest between course,s or risk a dulling of the senses. These are books to be savoured as a delicacy; take your time and don’t rush, or you run the risk of missing out on the nuances of taste at your disposal.