For the past two days I have been reading and rereading a fascinating travelogue called An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley.
In the book, Buckley traces the journey of Lord Rama, as described in the Ramayana, right from his birthplace Ayodhya to Sri Lanka, where he defeated demon king Ravana and rescued his wife Sita but put her through the famous fire-test before taking her back. In tracing Rama's footprints, he tells the story of present-day India and the conflict in present-day Sri Lanka. What an idea!
Reading his book, I got to learn more about what is contained in the Ramayana than I ever got to know from the sugary episodes dished out on Doordarshan by Ramanand Sagar. Oh, those interminably long scenes that showed Arun Govil, playing Lod Rama, smiling forever. Several precious minutes would be consumed by that supposedly divine smile before Rama would proceed to mouth a dialogue. By the time he opened his mouth, the serial would be over and one had to wait until next Sunday.
Ramanand Sagar, needless to say, died a rich man. I know of women -- my mother included -- who had orgasms, of the devotional nature, by merely watching Govil's stupid smile. For them, it was not Govil but Lord Rama who was smiling. What the fuck.
But despite all the devotion, I wonder how many Hindu families actually possess a copy of the Ramayana. Even if they do, how many have read it and enjoyed it like a novel? Most of us are only aware of the select, cliched anecdotes that we have gathered from sources other than the Ramayana. But in reality, if Ramayana were to be made into a movie that strictly followed Valmiki's script, word to word, it would be given A-certificate.
Buckley knows his Ramayana. With the Westerner's curiosity, he has read and reread it. Throughout his book, he punctuates the accounts of his journey with relevant tales from the Ramayana, and in the process, summarises the epic for us in a lucid, matter-of-fact manner. Initially I skipped the Ramayana bits and stuck to his travels, but once I started the Ramayana part, I found it even more gripping.
So in the end, it always takes a Westerner to show us the way to the lanes and bylanes of our own country, our own history, our own mythology. Well why not, they have the passion, and when they pursue it, they pull out all stops. Had I hit upon such an idea, the first thing coming to my mind would've been: "But will I get such a long leave? And where will the money come from?" We Indians, like Rama, are tied down by duties and responsibilities. And the Buckleys, like Valmiki, get to write the books.