"Rama and Lakshmana were restless. They were born to a life of action. A life of palaces and wars, chariots and weapons.
The peace of the forest was not for them.
And one day, danger came in the form of Surpanaka, Princess of Lanka..."
And so begins the tale that put me to sleep on countless nights as a child - Valmiki's Ramayana. My paati would tap me gently on my head while reciting the story in an almost song like fashion. A humming fan for accompaniment, the journey of two brothers and a lady deep into a forest filled with the most exotic creatures, was the highlight of my hot summer day. Valin, Kumbakaran, Hanuman and sage after sage would teach me about right and wrong as well as honour.
Written by Samhita Arni and beautifully illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar, this latest rendition from Tara Books will bring much joy to the grandmothers of today. Told from the perspective of Sita, it caters to the young ones but often winks at us from beneath the myth to expose how women were perceived at the time. My grandmother never lingered on Ram's killing of Vali or on Hanuman's clever acquisition of the arrow that killed the invincible Ravana. While she narrated the rejection of Sita, it never occurred to me at the time that the consequences of honor and duty are often cruel, and how so much of the way women are treated in sections of society today can be traced back to how even the best of men acted in similar situations.
Arni's narration, while grammatically incorrect at times, is short, sweet and bursting with childish enthusiasm. The book is the first graphic novel to use Patua art and the muted colours seem perfect to recite a story where nature plays such a critical role. The Patuas of Bengal come from a long line of painter-singers who illustrate a story frame by frame to form a scroll which is then displayed when they perform a narrative. I think this is perfect starter Ramayana for children and even teenagers.
I read the book out loud to my sister-in-law to kill time on the way back from South Bombay to Juhu and the journey went by in a flash. We laughed as familiar names brought back childhood memories and her eyes widened in indignation as Rama rejected Sita for the second time. I still had some of the book left and I read aloud even as we entered the house as the story just had to be concluded.
Only yesterday the book sparked arguments in my religious Brahmin household where Rama is revered and his final action is considered righteous. Only as you read the Ramayana do you realize how many of its separate elements are so embedded in our psyche.
The Mahabharata might be the more literary of the two, but I do think for children this remains the perfect bed time story.
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