Banker’s book presents Rama as a human being: A very relatable human being who is vulnerable to a variety of emotions. This was quite refreshing. As much as I loved N.T. Rama Rao and thought that NTR was the best Rama on TV, he was a pre-determined winner. All Ramas I’ve seen or read would come in with divinely grace and would conquer everything with a smiling face. The god-like attribute in them diminished every other attribute. I never remember the valor, dharma or toughness as Rama’s attribute. It was just his divinity. The staid face and the constant habit of being correct in everything. Banker presents a Rama who is angry, scared, romantic, forlorn, tough, skilled. He presents a warring kshathriya with extraordinary tactical acumen, a playful person, a confused person – in essence a exemplarary human being. While this ‘human mode’ is good, I wouldn’t say this was the best aspect of the book. There are two aspects to Banker’s book which really made me a fan of his work. These are two aspects which no grandma story, TV series or movie ever touched upon.
1. Cultures & People: This book widened my perspective towards life. It really put to me, in proper context, the philosophy surrounding judgmental attitudes and responsible criticism. This book juggles with a variety of cultures with diametrically opposite viewpoints. It has a very clear way of showing differences across cultures, opinions, people and ways of life. It shows that different cultures might not hold the same opinion on even fundamental things. The same culture will change its morals and opinions on a single issue over time. Quite simply, what we hold as fundamental or common sense is just an opinion that might change over time. And, without being judgmental, it beautifully drives home the point that different opinions on the same subject are valid under their own individual context. While many people verbally assert that there is no one way to live life or that there is no one truth, this book very clearly shows how we could view this information. Saying so is very easy. Showing through a believable example is another job.
2. Upholding Dharma: The second aspect was in showing Rama’s sense and unwavering intent of upholding dharma. The key does not lie in merely telling us Rama held on to dharma under even the most trying of circumstances, the key lies in creating situations, those trying circumstances, where it is tough for the reader to determine what the right path is, forces the reader to guess and guess incorrectly. This is really different from typical Rama stories of ‘do good be good’ – where it was plainly obvious to everyone as to what the right path was. If the common man completely ‘got’ Rama’s sense of dharma there would be no difference between him and Rama. I wouldn't be interested in that kind of Rama. I don’t want the plainly obvious, I can get that somewhere else. I want the subtly obvious. Like many excellent opinions of any time and age, I would expect the common man’s agreement with Rama’s actions to be inversely proportional to the purity of the said action’s value. Hold my brain to the fire, make me flinch, make me disagree and call the author a fool and then make me realize I was wrong, I’d love you as an author. This book brings all this out wonderfully.
With this being said;
Sex and The Ramayana
Sex, is an important topic as far as any adi-kavya discussion is considered. I have seen many folks attribute sexual undertones to seemingly odd/"magical" passages of adi kavyas such as Mahabharatha or Ramayana. The ones that begin with "you know they would have actually 'done it' but our clever ancestors hid it from us". Such attribution is usually followed by some smug patting each other on the back. It almost suggests as if Valmiki, Vyasa or Kamban would shy away from the truth to protect us from the sexuality of Ramayana (or the other way around). What is worse is that it arrogates an assumption that we are the most sexually liberated generation ever and are more free in discussing sex than any other generation. Nothing could be farther away from the truth. This is just factually wrong. It is also very insulting to the adi-kavya authors. Vasishta's levitate in the air sexual technique with a queen in Ikshavaku dynasty has been described by these authors as the source of continuance of the Ikshavaku clan. If the king could not deliver, the people of those times and the authors were, for lack of a better word – ‘liberated’enough, to be satisfied with the next best thing - a Rishi delivering the seed to the queen. The authors did not think twice about describing any such sexual situation in all its detail. It is 'we' the reader who interprets the purity/impurity of that act. The reader from another era might consider this normal. To the adi-kavya authors if somebody was gay or bisexual or if somebody had sex with animals they would be described and not just describe it but architect it in temples. Sex and orgies have been described without a second thought. If sex happened, no details have been spared. Valmiki and Kamban were very detailed and descriptive in their references to the sexual lives of the people in those times. It is Tulsidas, in catering to the main audience of the epic, who moderates and removes all elements that describe the sexuality of those people. He wasn’t wrong or right. He was Tulsidas.
When one ponders all this and wants to put everything into perspective, one has to consider the question of the segmentation of the Ramayana. Who reads the Ramayana? Who narrates stories of Ramayana? Who hears the Ramayana? What is their age group? If I were to make a guess, I'd venture and say if 100 people hear or read the Ramayana, about 99 people would be less than 15 years or older than 60. Only one person in hundred would fall in the 15-59 category. All the doubting-Dhandapaanis would agree that is inappropriate to narrate how Dasaratha pressed and fondled Kausalya's breasts to people younger than 15. They youngsters can get all that from somewhere else. The old people aren't interested in Kaikeyi's well shaped body and her superb anatomy. They may be interested but it is reasonable to assume they are not into Ramayana for the sex. On the other hand consider this - Who narrates the Ramayana? Again if I ventured to guess all people who narrate Ramayana to others are aged 60 or over. These are people who narrate it for religious purposes. The sex of Ramayana is not what interests them. So it is very natural that the versions of Ramayana they narrate, hear and discuss would lay emphasis on the religious, philosophical and moral aspect of Ramayana. So if someone grew up and is now between 25- 50 years old and is upset that nobody told him about the sex in adi-kavya, it is only his/her fault. Valmiki /Kamba Ramayana is available for everyone to read. Go read it. If you haven’t done that then blaming some oldman, who is making up his own story as he tells it to you, for not giving you the details is just lame.
Ashok Banker corrects the gap with a Ramayana for adults. His book is more sexual than any modern version of the Ramayana. He is faithful. To put his book in perspective, Valmiki and Kamban indulged more (much much more than Banker) in their description of women and sex. Valmiki puts the number of official concubine's of Dasaratha at 350, Kamban puts it at 64,000. That is the reflection of the old times. This was casual in the ancient royal life. To put Dasaratha and the old kings in perspective, Rama was a weird oddity of those times. His one-wife policy was so weird that his contemporaries shuddered and thought he was unusual or eccentric. They even thought he had problems. Sugreeva and Hanuman wouldn't be able to come to terms with the fact that Rama, a prince, would not want to spread his seed across as many women as he could get his hands on. Valmiki describes Rama as the odd person of those times. Banker observes this of both Valmiki and Kamban (they) "depicted sex honestly and without any sense of misogyny. Valmiki neither comments nor criticizes Dasaratha's fondness for fleshly pleasures, he simply states it. When Rama takes leave of his father before going to exile, he does so in the palace of concubines, and all of them weep copiously for the exiled son of their master". Banker is quite simply right when commenting on Valmiki's description of every part of a women's anatomy in great detail "there is no sense of embarrassment or male chauvinism; he is simply extolling the beauty of women characters just as he does for male characters". I couldn’t help but appreciate our man Kamban when Banker says "Even in Kamban's version, women are depicted in such ripe full-blown language that a modern reader like myself blushes in embarrassment. Yet the writer experiences no awkwardness or prurience in these passages - he is simply describing them as he perceived them in the garb and fashion of his time". And Banker in his own book does talk about Dasaratha brushing against a maid's breasts, Kaikeyi's body and refers to Dasaratha's thoughts morning-after he makes love to Kausalya after a long time. He does so with no affectations whatsoever. The questions Hanuman and Angada ask Rama regarding is curious one-woman choice is to put it simply, a work of beauty.
There is a segment in Banker’s book, where hanuman meets Rama for the first time, which left me very impressed. They get into a cultural-difference discussion and Hanuman is offended by Rama’s suggestion that Vanars and humans are similar. He argues that humans are barbaric and vanars are better because a Vanar female can choose to procreate with any male without her husband having any say in it. Hanuman is dumbfounded as to how a human male can have so much say in a human woman’s biological behavior. Hanuman is also offended when he is called a monkey. He questions Rama if humans can also be called monkeys just because they share the same ancestors as monkeys. These are delightful discussions and I thoroughly enjoyed them.
Rama gets the highest honor a man can get by being called, not just a yoddha - a supreme warrior, but a Maryada Purushottama, as he is a person who upholds his dharma under all circumstances. Under the direst of circumstances, under the severest of threats and under no practical obligation to follow the rules, Rama is shown to abide by dharma. Usually this concept isn’t presented well in religious discussions. It is wrapped in gooey sentimentality. Valmiki wasn’t maudlin when he wrote this. It is simply a term to suggest fastidious adherence to dharma ( that depends on Manu Vaivasvata’s code of life). It might make as much sense today as IPC would make in Aranya Khanda, but it is a dharma based on the kshathriya way of life as Rama knew it. That his contemporaries neither understand the dharma nor expect Rama to follow it make both dharma and Rama more interesting. The contents of the dharma maybe regarded as an anachronism now but it is interesting to see Rama follows it with a rigor and discipline that borders on maniacal obsession to follow rules. This aspect, understandably so, has never been shown in Amar Chitra Katha or TV. That’s why I love this book. Read it and see the way it presents Rama’s profile.
Rama is presented like a rule-following robot, intent on executing the task. But in following the rules he is presented as more ‘deep’ than a typical ‘Rules Ramanujam’. He is not interested in loop holes, exceptions to the rule or an easy way out. He wants to follow the real philosophical intent of the Dharma regardless of whether people consider some terms of the dharma as ‘subject to interpretation’. The real intent is also not very obvious. It has to be found. If the substance of Dasaratha’s promise to Kaikeyi is that Rama has to go in exile, it does not matter if he can still be king by exploiting a technicality. Similarly, it does not matter if you hold an opinion on him and don’t express it. Not verbalizing an opinion is a minor technicality when your opinion is known to him. He will go for the substance of the rule. The form that the substance is wrapped in is immaterial. He will go after the value of your opinion regardless of whether it is expressed in verbal form or not. This is often frustrating to his contemporaries and the reader. It should be so. Adherence to rules isn’t easy to explain as the violation of it is. This is a hard concept to put one’s hands around but if you do get to understand this and get a sense of the philosophy behind Rama’s actions, it is a wonderful experience. The consistency of his actions is unbelievable.
Banker’s class lies in creating a situation where we can see an apparent contradiction on the surface and a consistency several layers beneath. This was Valmiki’s area of expertise and Banker does well to understand that and recreate this important aspect in his own book.