4 June 2017

Book Review: Uttara—The Book Of Answers

Ramayan's backstories

If we could stop trying to prove the truth of the epic, it can tell us much about ourselves. 

Uttara—The Book Of Answers. By Arshia Sattar, Penguin Books India, 286 pages, Rs 499.

I staunchly believe that Lord Ram travelled in the Pushpak Viman. There were no Wright brothers at that time. But the Pushpak Viman existed. We need to prove this now.” So said Jigar Inamdar, a senate member of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, to The Indian Express on 24 March, defending the university’s issuance of an annual diary and planner that credited mythical Hindu sages with scientific inventions. It may seem odd to begin a book review with a quote from the newspaper. But Inamdar’s assertion lets us see how the Ramayan has become something more than a great civilizational legacy in contemporary India—and something much less than one.

A multilayered literary treasure is being flattened into something that must be defended rather than actually read. The Ramayan is no longer an ethically complex story to be experienced in a variety of ways, as believers and non-believers in India’s many regions and subcultures have done for centuries, but something to be pushed on to us as religious and scientific truth.
It is in this terrifying context that we must read Uttara: The Book Of Answers. Arshia Sattar has rendered the Uttara Kanda, the seventh book of Valmiki’s Ramayan, from Sanskrit into eloquent, yet lucid English, and included some thoughtful essays on the text. Uttara seems a natural progression for Sattar, who translated Valmiki’s Ramayan in 1996, and who has since published a Ramayan for children, as well as Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish, a fine set of essays on Ram’s sense of self. But as she writes in her acknowledgements, Sattar did not always find the Uttara Kanda interesting. For her 1996 Ramayana, she shaved its heft down to what she then saw as its few significant events: “Sita’s banishment, Ram’s reunion with his sons and Sita’s final and irrevocable departure.”
In her current Introduction, too, Sattar acknowledges that the Uttara Kanda might be read as recording a dull time after the tumultuous events of Ram’s life, his exile, and the biggest battles are really over: This is a text in which “nothing much happens”. In terms of style as well, she points out that the Uttara Kanda and Bala Kanda (the first book of the Ramayan, dealing with Ram’s childhood) do not have the glorious poetic verve of the epic’s central sections, and read more like the sectarian Puranas “in both language and attitude”.
Much of the Uttara Kanda consists of Ram asking questions of the sages, and backstories being related to him in return. If the five middle kandas—Ayodhya, Aranya, Kishkindha, Sundara, Yuddha—gave us the splendid narrative and rich characters we know so well, the Uttara Kanda is like a coda designed to explain why these characters acted as they did. So we return to Hanuman’s infancy, to explain why he did not know his own strength. Or we hear of Vedavati, who leaps into a fire to escape Ravana’s harassment, and whose return to earth as Sita is foretold “for the destruction of that rakshasa”.
The Uttara Kanda’s backstories revolve around boons, curses and past lives, thus shifting the characters’ decisions towards predestination and away from free choice. For instance, it tells of how Ravana once raped the apsara Rambha and was cursed that “his head (would) split into seven pieces” if he ever took another woman against her will. This becomes the uttara (answer) to the implicit question: Why did Ravana not violate Sita while she was his prisoner?
The Uttara Kanda thus robs Ravana of a rare redeeming characteristic—that he does not think of raping Sita. Departing radically from the Sundara Kanda, where Ravana’s effulgence is such that even Hanuman says he “has all the signs of a great king”, the Uttara Kanda portrays him as a harasser of women and belligerent challenger of kings and gods, placing him in a long genealogy of aggressive rakshasas.
Meanwhile, Ram gets treated less and less like a human being with frailties, and more and more as a god. He is Vishnu, and he can do no wrong. So even when he abandons a pregnant Sita because of the common people’s “vulgar talk”, Lakshman is persuaded to stop questioning Ram’s actions by his charioteer Sumantra, because the sage Durvasas predicted this fate. Ram’s kingliness is now also tied actively to caste: In the text’s most shocking moment, he kills a man “performing the best of penances” simply for being a Shudra, and is congratulated by rishi Agastya for having restored the caste order.
On a lighter note, reading Uttara can tell you why the peacock has a patterned tail, or serve as a much needed reminder of Indic standards of beauty, where “lovely hips” always win. If we could just stop trying to prove the truth of the Pushpak Viman, the epic can tell us many truths about ourselves.
Published in Mint Lounge, 3 June 2017.

PS: If Ramayana books interest you, my 2013 review of Devdutt Pattanaik's Sita (also for Mint Lounge) may be of interest.

1 comment:

Tanuj Solanki said...

Thanks for this article about the book. I've often been charmed by its beautiful cover. But being currently engaged in the Mahabharata, I've tried to not delve into the Ramayana for the time being.

I've been writing a weekly column on the Mahabharata in the New Indian Express. Based on my reading of the Bibek Debroy's translation. Sometimes, even when I quote or paraphrase something (as opposed to interpret or opine upon), some of my Facebook friends get quite angry. This happens especially when I note something not-so-sanguine about the Pandavas. It always surprises me, the fact that even the Pandavas, who are no gods, are being defended so vigorously.

About women's bodies, it seems that that Valmiki and Vedavyas had access to similar ideas. There is a lot of 'O one with the wide hips' in the Mahabharata. 'She was robed in a single sheer garment' is often a precursor to some sort of seduction (predestined, of course).

One of the ways in which my reading of the Mahabharata has improved is to mentally delete all instances of brahman-boons and brahman-curses driving character's motives or desires. Did Sattar's essays have anything to say about the interpolations, addendums, etc.