OPINION: Ram’s Lila, An Exile’s Kingdom

Satendra Nandan’s NADI: Memories of a River was published last July. His new book, Brief Encounters, is due for publication on Girmit Day, 2015.   Fiji is full of festivals.
25 Mar 2015 11:36
OPINION: Ram’s Lila, An Exile’s Kingdom

Satendra Nandan’s NADI: Memories of a River was published last July. His new book, Brief Encounters, is due for publication on Girmit Day, 2015.


Fiji is full of festivals. This is the season of Ram Naumi.

My favourite festival used to be Diwali, the festival of lights until the vulgarity of some spoilt its lighted beauty by their noise and ostentatious exploding of Chinese fire-crackers frightening dogs and cats and pointless preaching.

Walking in the streets of Suva or Nadi, I was always moved by a silent house, unlit and uninvited, standing between two garishly lit bigger structures. But that is another story.

This is the week of RamNaumi. The great Indian epic Ramayan is celebrated in songs and ceremonies today in many corners of our world. It demotically and ostensibly tells us of the great fight between good and evil. It may be that but it’s much more than that.

Vergil’s Aenied, Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey are not as much part of the human psyche as the eponymous hero of the Ramayan.

The Roman , the Greek and the Aryan gods and goddesses had a lot in common—always waging battles and searching places for conquests on their civilizing missions. They may have had the same origins—millennia ago.


Second Indian epic

The Mahabharat, the second Indian epic, of course, is the longest of all world poems and no book compares with the inexorable vision of its brutality, the wonder of its poetry in the Gita, and the final image of a nuclear winter’s desolate landscape on which walks the lonely figure of Dharmaraj, the real hero of the epic, with his dog: and the sun rising in its glory on the snow-peaks giving life to all through its Life-force. When all is done, nothing can be undone.

The marvel is how often the Mahabharat has been enacted in real life: the world wars, the partitions, the civil wars.

The world is still fighting the bloody, brotherly wars while commemorating Gallipoli.

Reading the Mahabharat you cannot but marvel at the fertility of the human imagination and the futility of human ambition.

Shakespeare puts it thus in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what’s this quintessence of dust?

But the Ramayan is different in scope and its exploration. It has probably more meaning for Fiji’s Indenture experience for it mirrors exile as a perpetual human condition in which one finds oneself. The young prince and his wife are banished on the eve of Ram’s coronation. They return to their so much goodness.


Good and evil

The fight between good and evil is a simplistic version of our world’s realities which are more complex and full of contradictions. I saw it in on the Ramlila grounds of my childhood in the village of Votualevu. I’ve given glimpses of this remembered enactment in my recent book Nadi: Memories of a River.

In India there are at least 200 versions of the epic in different parts of the cultural mosaic of the subcontinent. No-one really escapes its immense influence or the myths that surround and shroud it. Its appeal is unsurpassed and even now people are prepared to kill in its holy name.

All religious texts are colonising texts. They may be divinely inspired but they are written by the human hand. In all the satanic verses are either elided or edited out. Committees are set up to rewrite the texts—that is how we’ve got the King James Authorized beautiful version of the bible, published in 1611.

In India some film-makers and the so-called custodians of cultural purity constantly try to preserve the authenticity of the original. But there’s no original text: Every religious or sacred scripture is first transmitted through the oral traditions. As it’s passed on from generation to generation, it changes in its narration, and then written down by many propagating their own ideas and ideals of the times: so many edited versions appear. Recite then write; revise and write again and again. And so much is lost and added in translations.


Burning passion

The fundamentalist follow it with a burning passion–even Gandhi couldn’t resist it: his idea of RamRajya finally led to his assassination by the RSS a fundamentalist group which somehow has taken upon itself to protect Hinduism!

It was, therefore, particularly refreshing to hear recently prime minister Narendra Modi, an RSS stalwart, proclaiming that there’s only one supreme sacred text in India: The Indian Constitution.

But myths give solace to millions: the Ramayan is more popular than any epic read and sung by illiterate people, revised and recreated by poets, interpreted by academics and politicians, acted by Bollywood, and used as a political weapon. This is true of every religion, including the Communist Manifesto.

In India all these co-exist in various forms, voices and accents. Holy texts have been used for good and evil deeds among people. Like any other text—of grand narratives by which men and women live and die. And worse : kill by waging holy wars!

In Fiji the Ramayan has a special resonance. Imagine my paternal grandfather: in his teens, walking on a little path, pugdandi, from the dun-colored mud-huts. Perhaps looking for a lost cow , a stray goat or a fallen mango, suddenly confronts a person of Indian origin—a recruiter; he promises to give him a job—just come with me, whispers the serpent’s tongue as they approach a forked path.

Suddenly he’s on a bullock cart, then a train and finally in that teeming city called Calcutta. After a few weeks he embarks, with many others, on a boat going to Phiji in the Bay of Bengal! Not far from here but the money is good as it’s today for many who fly to the USA or Europe. The means and money have changed; the motivations and the lure is the same.


Island arrival

After weeks and months they arrive in the islands. They never return to their homes to see their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors or the grazing cows so holy in the evening dust raised by their home-coming hooves and moos.

How do they survive such a terrible, crippling displacement. This is where the exile of Ram and Sita becomes a healing, ennobling epic. If they could live in the jungle for fourteen years, could we not survive for five or ten?

And finally return to our native soil, mulk? But life is no guarantor of promises—it takes its own course. They work, live and die on the islands, creating a new world. This is the true gift of exile.

That is why the Ramayan is an epic of exile par excellence. I know it helped my illiterate maternal grandmother to survive and live a life no matter how lethal the daily task. If her god and goddess could do it, why not she? Every evening she sat in the shadow of the mango tree with bats threatening from above. She had the genius of a midwife and brought forth many babies in the villages.


Ordinary things

But now remembering her I realize that all that is important is the ordinary things: making fire, cooking rice and lentils, cleaning the vegetables and utensils, washing soil from freshly dug dalos, boiling a kettle of milky, sugary tea. How we sat and relished it. Then as the day darkened, she’d go and light a lantern in front of the multi-colored portrait of Ram, Sita and Laxman with Hanuman baring his heart with the image of all three. That was enough as an act of worship.

And in the morning pouring a lotah of water on a tulsi plant to the brilliant rising sun over Sabeto hills,where the Sleeping Giant lay in its ancient lapidary slumber.

But unlike Ram , there wasn’t a return for many girmityas or their children. They had to celebrate their Diwali in the islands, surrounded by the largest ocean. Ships, whips and sea-waves were once far from their imagination in India, though they were bound in the chains of other injustices, visible and invisible.


Literary creations

Ramayan is about many things and ideals: some noble some ignoble. We all need the evil devil to be good.The redeeming feature of scriptures is to read these texts as literary creations, often of great ethical concerns and moral dilemma and how we try to cope with these in our daily lives: from preventing a nuclear war to how we treat our neighbors. Therein lies their value, their ambiguities, their human appeal to our humanity. We can interpret them according to our own knowledge and experience. Their meanings exist in our reading.

When Sita is being abducted the trees, the birds, the animals, the sky, the hills and mountains and rivers are outraged—as if the ethics of environmental balance is being destroyed by an heinous act. Ravana was a learned demon. He should have behaved better, especially towards a woman. After all his mother,sister and wife were women.


Mother Earth

Sita was born of the Earth and when, after years, Ram suspects her fidelity, she is taken by Mother Earth. These, too, are important strands in the story: the treatment of life’s companion.

And of love: the legend has it that Ramayana was written by poet Valmiki. One morning as he sat by the river watching two birds in love, he suddenly saw a hunter with a bow and arrow. The hunter kills one of the birds. Its mate is inconsolable in its unimagined anguish of death.

When the poet saw this grief in a bird, he sat down and imagined the story of Ram and Sita so that people in exile, at home or abroad, may derive strength and solace and live on, giving life to the Other. And even in death they are not divided: they can sing as the Easter sun rises over the green fields of sugar cane and the blue waves of the ocean.

This was the Birth of Poetry :the beginning of one our world’s greatest love stories about our lives.


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