Myths and legends naturally fascinate us, especially when we’re children and adolescents. From the time we first hear fairy tales, through tween and teen obsession with vampires, wizards, and witches, and into reading latter-day literary iterations like Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter juggernaut, these stories open up our world. Arshia Sattar, a scholar and translator of South Asian literature, has performed a great service by creating, together with brilliant illustrator Sonali Zohra, Ramayana: An Illustrated Retelling. This volume from Restless Books encapsulates the enormous foundational Indian epic Ramayana in a package written for older children and young adult readers. But it’s accessible for all ages, and many adults ignorant of Indian legends, like me, will find it of interest, as well as visually striking.
The Ramayana, the epic poem recounting the story of the god-hero Rama and credited to the Hindu sage Valmiki, was first written down over 2,000 years ago. Its characters and episodes have resounded through the centuries. In line to inherit his father’s throne, the young prince Rama is instead banished to the forest for 14 years at the jealous whim of one of the king’s wives. A peaceful rustic interval with his wife Sita and loyal brother Lakshmana ends abruptly when Ravana, king of the demonic rakshasas, abducts Sita and imprisons her on the island he rules, hoping to convince her to forsake Rama and become his wife. Rama and Lakshmana muster an army of monkeys and bears to rescue her, among them the great monkey Hanuman, son of the god of the wind.
Sattar captures a number of the epic’s moral lessons, presenting characters as avatars of courage, faithfulness, cruelty, and various kinds of fallibility. She doesn’t gloss over the complexities of the human condition and the contradictions of character that can make life so difficult. For example, the text makes much of Rama’s subjecting Sita not once but twice to humiliating tests of loyalty – and getting his comeuppance. This noblest of warriors also shoots the monkey king Vali in the back, out of revenge. Conversely, the evil ten-headed Ravana, while “strong and powerful,” was also “learned and was a brilliant musician.”
Like the heroes and heroines of many a young people’s story, Rama eventually learns of his divine origin, and that part of his purpose on earth is “to ensure that humans know the difference between right and wrong.”
Sticking mostly to English’s Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, Sattar’s plainspoken fairy-tale-style prose at times rises to literary heights.
The monkeys, large in size and powerful warriors themselves, clapped and shouted as Hanuman pressed down upon the mountain which groaned under his weight as he prepared to leap into the open skies. He rose into the air, his arms outstretched, his legs spread out behind him, his great tail curled above his head. His eyes gleamed like stars, his body shone like a bolt of lightning as he flew upwards, piercing the clouds and disappearing from sight…He flew past the moon and the planets and past the places where the heavenly beings lived. He flew higher than the highest mountains and whitest clouds. He flew steadily over the vast waters with the Wind, his father, pushing him gently from behind.
Prose like this, along with the many-faceted story and the gorgeous illustrations, should make this an appealing read for older children and maybe even an exciting serial bedtime story for younger ones. Just as important, it’s likely to capture some children’s imaginations, inspire them to seek out the Ramayana and other legends and epics, and learn something of the wondrous mythologies of India and other ancient cultures.
Zohra’s magnificent batik-like illustrations marry description and fancy. Dark mouthless masklike faces, ferocious warrior monkeys, terrifying demons, and evocative landscapes create a mystical world teeming with life and color, beauty and terror. They not only add a rich dimension to the story but stand on their own as beautiful works of art.