Recreating one of the most ancient and well-known works of world literature is a significant task. Historically, the Ramayana has acquired more importance than a mere piece of poetry. Regarded as one of the greatest epics in Hinduism, these words hold heavy religious significance. Reworking a text of this magnitude is quite a task, and Daljit Nagra’s contemporary reworking has the flair and charm of Valmiki’s original.
By his own admission, this text is not a singular look at the myth but rather a mixed view which incorporates the retelling of the story in multiple cultures and faiths. Nagra seeks to combine the elements, promoting the poem for a more secular contemporary audience; in this, he succeeds. The story of Rama, a human and avatar of the God Vishnu, has his wife Sita, kidnapped by the lord of Lanka (the Underworld), Raavana and Rama’s subsequent redeeming journey is, of course, an ancient one. What Nagra does brilliantly is to bring that story to a modern audience. He does this by focussing on the spiritual aspects of the story and using the poem as a medium to demonstrate ethics: moral choices and harsh sacrifices are made by the characters to serve a greater good. The duty of the son, and especially the duties of the brother, are highlighted. Placing a heavier emphasis on the moral, rather than the religious, align the tale to the Anglo- Saxon Beowulf. The poet’s use of contemporary words, like “horny” and “cool,” to describe age-old mythological creatures, actually works to the text’s advantage. However rude this language may appear, it contains a light hearted element … a certain tongue-in-cheek humour which makes for an entertaining read. Still more importantly, this is a retelling appealing to both young and adult alike.
Perhaps the single greatest achievement of this poem may be realised only when the words are read aloud. The rhythm is expertly crafted, and contributes significantly to narrative. Nagra also employs the use of visual onomatopoeia; sacred rings being ringed in the text and a monkey’s tail being just so shaped. There is an age-old, structural beauty in this translation which shares the characteristics of these long-loved stories, and a strange, yet palpable sense of intimacy in the text which creates unexpected connections. The speaker says, “All who would mock a fellow humanoid by jesting how they’re a monkey, I say it’s neither a fun- mock nor a wise jest. Now watch me show you how cussing a fellow by calling them monkey is dead ironic!” In addition, the use of rhetorical questions as interjections such as “Where are they?” or “Still no Sita?” strengthens the personal nature of that questioning. As such, Ramayana: A Retelling becomes a personal journey, involving the reader in a conversation. This intimacy highlights something beautiful which seems to be lost from a mere reading of the poem.
The story is primarily one of relationship and duty, examining Rama’s duty to his father and exile from the kingdom, … even though he already knows this is not the right decision. The deep bond between Rama and his brother Lakshmana, and their shared loyalty, propels the narrative. This is also a story of inner peace. Despite being endowed with extraordinary gifts, the characters still struggle. Hanuman, having been robbed by a curse of his true power, regains his potency, yet still maintains his loyalty to his appointed task. While the virtues of the good, triumphing over evil may indeed be the primary focus of the text, there are contained subtleties which demonstrate the individuals’ frailties.
Ramayana: A Retelling is perhaps one of those rare reworkings which lose very little from its transformation. Daljit Nagra not only brings the story to a contemporary audience but he does so without losing much of what made the original myth so riveting. By adding different elements, he also makes the story available to a much wider audience. Unimpeded by its original religious significance, Nagra’s Ramayana combines the best elements of an ancient epic with that of modern storytelling.