Staying true to Valmiki’s spirit

Arshia Sattar’s vivid prose retells an epic for the kids staying firmly focused on fascinating characters, human foibles and the wonder that is nature

Reading Arshia Sattar’s Ramayana for Children (Juggernaut) , is like sitting alongside a masterful storyteller, and listening raptly, as she narrates the familiar story. With her words, she deftly conjures up images of kings and princes, battles and victories, pettiness and bravery, jealousy and fast friendships.

Strong credentials

Sattar has a PhD in classical Indian literatures from the University of Chicago and has previously translated The Ramayana of Valmiki (Penguin Classics) for grown-ups, and has written The Adventures of Hanuman (Red Turtle) for children, among other books . Like The Ramayana of Valmiki, the children’s edition has also been translated from Valmiki’s original Sanskrit text. In her author’s note, Sattar writes, “It was composed in Sanskrit about two-and-a-half thousand years ago, perhaps put together from many other versions of the same story that people were telling.”

For many children, Ramayana is not a new tale, but Sattar’s book will invite young readers to explore the story in detail, discovering different nuances and facets of the narrative. “I guess the Ramayana has been sitting inside me for so long, it was dying to jump out into the world,” says Sattar, over email. “What I needed to be most aware of was language and vocabulary,” she says. “I worked with fewer words than I normally would; in a translation, you look for as many words as you can to express the original language text as accurately as possible. Here, it was the opposite. I had to use fewer words and still be true to Valmiki’s spirit,” says Sattar. The book is stunningly crafted. Sonali Zohra’s illustrations are evocative and compelling, recreating the forest and the characters in gorgeous Earth colours.

Retelling an epic

Like many other Indians, Sattar heard the Ramayana when she was about four or five years old. “A little later, I got familiar with myths and legends and folk tales from other countries. My parents were always buying me books like that and I was an early reader,” she says. The scholar shares that since then, different parts of the Ramayana have engaged her at different times in her life. “I guess that’s really what it is,” she says, adding, “The Ramayana can stay with you your whole life, it’s that rich.”

And that richness comes across in her storytelling. Most of us are well-acquainted with Ramayana ’s characters. But unlike a lot of the texts which cast the characters in a rather distant and other-worldly way, Sattar keeps them real. Dashratha, for instance, puffs and gasps when rushing to Kaikeyi’s Anger Room, something you don’t usually find kings doing in stories. Another time, when Sita faints, Rama and Lakshmana massage her feet to revive her. There’s also an inherent playfulness to the text. When sage Vishwamitra says that he’d like to take Rama to Mithila where King Janaka has set a task for suitors who want to marry his daughter Sita. “Lakshmana understood what the sage was hinting, and winked at Rama, who looked away with a smile,” writes Sattar.

The author says that she wanted to humanise the characters. “I wanted children to identify with them rather than see them as distant ideals who live in an entirely different universe and with an entirely different set of values and possibilities,” says Sattar. “Also, I enjoyed building character for these well-known and well-loved figures who can so easily be placed on pedestals and become all about morality. I think children will learn far more about ethical behaviour and good actions from characters that they see as human, facing the same questions and dilemmas that they do, experiencing the same confusions and finding solutions to them on their own.”

Not a morality tale

One such character is Hanuman. As Sattar says, “Hanuman is THE magic in the story. Who can resist a monkey that flies and speaks Sanskrit, or Hindi or Tamil or Bangla, depending on which language the story is told in. He’s an amazing character, simultaneously wise and silly, playful and serious, loyal and brave. He can do anything he wants, and he’s always trying to help other people, make their lives easier. For children, he’s the obvious entry into the story because he is familiar and magical at the same time. Adults get more involved with Hanuman as a symbol or an allegory. Either way, he’s the hook.”

The literary landscape for children is often dominated by Hindu mythology, but Ramayana for Children attempts to offer it as a story, rather than a moral or divine text. Sattar says this version is focused on the main narrative; the characters and events are in the foreground rather than the ideology and politics of the text. “Like any writer in any genre, you decide what it is that you want to say and then you try and say in the best way that you can,” says the writer.

For Sattar, it’s most important that young readers get to know and love the story of the Ramayana . “They can come to questions of sacred texts and complex understandings of god when they are older. It’s not that we should excise the idea of god from the narratives we create, but we should think about the fact that children are drawn to stories more than they are to lectures about morality and divinity. You can tell the Ramayana in such a way that children understand its central question: how can we be good, how can we do the right things even when it is the hardest thing to do,” she says.

Focus on nature

Another way that Sattar stays true to the original text is in the lyrical way that nature is an integral part of the story. As Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita go deeper into the forest, Sattar writes, “At night, they slept, warm in their beds of leaves and dried moss in the shelter of trees with wide canopies, watching the stars and listening to the night birds.” “Nature and its descriptions are central to Sanskrit poetry and Valmiki’s Ramayana is a poem,” says Sattar.

Of course, Sita was born of the Earth, and when she insists on accompanying Rama to the forest, he remembers that she “was more familiar with plants and trees and animals than he would ever be”. “Many contemporary interpretations of Ramayana see her as representing feminine nature. In this book, I thought it was important to distinguish between the masculine and the feminine, between the city and the forest,” Sattar says.

At a time when much of kid-lit engages with the urban, Ramayana for Childrenresonates with the story of co-existence with nature. Sattar explains that she also wanted to “engage children with the idea that nature is so close to us, it’s everywhere — trees, flowers, the sun and the moon, the rain — even in the city. We should know nature better than we do and think about it more than we do.”

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