MANY RA­MAYANAS AND ONE RA­MAN

India Today - - UP FRONT - by AR­SHIA SAT­TAR Ar­shia Sat­tar’s trans­la­tion of Valmiki Ra­mayana has been pub­lished by Pen­guin Books. Her new book, Lost Loves: Ex­plor­ing Rama's An­guish, is a se­ries of es­says on Valmiki’s text

Leg­end has it that the Kan­nada poet Ku­mar­avyasa, writ­ing in the 15th cen­tury, de­cided to com­pose a Ma­hab­harata be­cause he could hear the cos­mic ser­pent who holds up the earth groan­ing un­der the weight of far too many Ra­mayana po­ets. So far, no one has been out­raged by his “in­sen­si­tive” sug­ges­tion that there are many Ra­mayanas, too many Ra­mayanas, in fact. We haven’t stopped read­ing Ku­mar­avyasa’s mag­nif­i­cent poem be­cause of what he said. Five hun­dred years later, the work of A.K. Ra­manu­jan, Ku­mar­avyasa’s lit­er­ary de­scen­dent, has been re­moved from a univer­sity syl­labus for say­ing the same thing.

Ra­manu­jan was my teacher for six years when I stud­ied at the Univer­sity of Chicago in the 1980s. A more gen­tle and thought­ful scholar, a man more cir­cum­spect and re­spect­ful to­wards the di­verse ma­te­ri­als that he en­coun­tered in the course of his work, would be hard to find. Ra­manu­jan’s life, when I knew him, was en­tirely a life of the mind. He wrote his po­etry, he made his trans­la­tions, he taught his stu­dents, he thought about nar­ra­tives. Noth­ing ex­cited him more than one more story: one that he had not heard be­fore, one that was a vari­ant on a story that he al­ready knew, one that came from a marginalised lan­guage or cul­ture. It could only be Ra­manu­jan who, with his in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity, his en­cy­clopaedic mind and his unique ge­nius to see struc­tural and emo­tional con­nec­tions where the rest of us were blind and deaf, could write an es­say ti­tled Three Hun­dred Ra­mayanas: Five Ex­am­ples and Three Thoughts on Trans­la­tion.

Ra­manu­jan was trained in lin­guis­tics and taught at the ex­quis­ite but del­i­cate nexus be­tween lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture. He brought his lin­guis­tics to bear on what we read to­gether as lit­er­a­ture and equally so, he brought his sen­si­tiv­ity as a poet and trans­la­tor to dis­cus­sions about gram­mar and syn­tax. He was alive to the nu­ances of lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture like no one else I have ever known. Of­ten, he would ask, earnestly, “Tell me a story. Tell me a story that you have only heard, not one that you have read.” He taught a gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents never to dis­re­gard a vari­ant in di­alect or a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of a story—for such dis­tur­bances in an other­wise or­gan­ised and canon­i­cal sys­tem could only en­rich our un­der­stand­ing of what had be­come the (hege­monic) “orig­i­nal”.

I think Ra­manu­jan, my teacher and the pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, would have been per­plexed to find his es­say about the lit­er­ary tra­di­tions of the Ra­mayana be­ing taught in a His­tory depart­ment. I think he would have been sur­prised to learn that he him­self had been trans­formed into an his­to­rian by some parts of the me­dia. Most im­por­tantly, I think he would have been dev­as­tated that feats of the po­etic imag­i­na­tion that he be­lieved to be so pro­foundly lib­er­at­ing (and en­light­en­ing), those flights of fancy where truth lies not in fact but in metaphor, had been re­duced to of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive po­si­tions be­tween lib­eral and il­lib­eral schol­ars. It would have crushed him to know that his beloved Ra­mayana, that well­spring of joy­ous plu­ral­ism and vi­brant di­ver­sity that in­forms the cul­tures of the sub-con­ti­nent and be­yond, has been con­fined in the strait­jack­ets and corsets of the Right and the Left, the re­li­gious and the sec­u­lar, the his­tor­i­cal and the lit­er­ary.

A.K. Ra­manu­jan died in 1993. Twenty-eight years ago, I wrote an obituary for my teacher, Ra­man. I felt a thud­ding hol­low­ness at the time, a sense of per­sonal loss for a gen­tle man in a wrin­kled grey suit, a small man with a soft voice and a large head that seemed to strain to hold his enor­mous mind in place. Then, I con­soled my­self with the thought that his work would live on, that his re­mark­able in­sights would stay with us, that his spirit of in­quiry and his grace with sto­ries of all kinds would con­tinue to in­spire us to think more deeply and widely about what we read, whether sec­u­lar or re­li­gious, classical or folk. To­day, I find my­self writ­ing an obituary for his spirit. This is no longer only my loss—the mur­der of Ra­manu­jan’s way of think­ing im­pov­er­ishes us all.

I think Ra­manu­jan, my teacher and the pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, would have been dev­as­tated that feats of the po­etic imag­i­na­tion that he be­lieved to be so pro­foundly lib­er­at­ing had been re­duced to of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive po­si­tions be­tween lib­eral and il­lib­eral schol­ars.

SAU­RABH SINGH /www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

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