By Vaishnavi Jayakumar,  First Published : 15 Mar 2009  in New Indian Express, Chennai

ramieAt the end, one is left with two niggling questions. Why, in this anti-hero age, is there no book of Ravan? (Or everyone’s favourite Karna for that matter). The second is, Who is Devdutt Pattanaik? The answer to the latter is far more interesting than all the facets of Ram covered so exhaustively in the book.

Pattanaik is probably no stranger to Future Group employees as their chief belief officer (the retail guru Kishore Biyani shuns orthodox HR in favour of traditional storytelling). Nor to the “management-philosophy-from-ancient-wisdom” neophytes who have abandoned Jesus CEO or Chanakya on Management for a regular dose of management fable in Pattanaik’s ET column.

I much prefer Pattanaik on Ram to centuries-old literary predecessors — from Valmiki to Michael Madhusudan Dutt. It goes without saying therefore that I’m one of those who started off with Amar Chitra Katha’s blue-skinned Ram, graduated to Rajaji’s stodgy (and sometimes spin doctored) prose and thought myself clever for scheduling doctor’s visits while the rest of India watched Ramanand Sagar’s creation to avoid endless delays in dreary waiting rooms. (Didn’t work — ended up glumly watching, along with many other patients in the doctor’s crowded clinic!)

More recently, I’ve been intrigued by Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s The Slaying of Meghnad, Shobhana’s Maya Ravan, Ramchandra Gandhi’s Sita’s Kitchen, Subramania Bharati’s The Horns of the Horse, and am, like countless others eagerly looking forward to Mani Ratnam’s Ravan. So who is Ram? Take your pick — obedient son, valiant warrior, great king, weak householder, opportunist with elastic morality. Or all of the above? Centuries of creative rewriting of history, in a smokescreen of rules changing along with the propaganda of the day, have resulted in a confusing legacy that cannot be seen in isolation. There is enough fodder in this exhaustively researched book to provide furious, heated debate and inevitably abusive exchanges (especially of the Internet variety-liberally sprinkled with asterisked epithets!). You never know — maybe the Lord God/dutiful king/heroic warrior/marauding Aryan/wimpy husband will regain his rightful place on Google dethroning the lowly computer RAM. (True, some people may call the iPhone the jesusphone, but this hero worship of machines has to be an unhealthy trend).

But I digress. The real hero of the Book of Ram is Devdutt Pattanaik. Deftly steering through a minefield of potential controversy, he presents the various tellings of the Ramayan in its pan-Indian literary lineage. Emerging from familiar grandparent folk-lore are delightful variations on a theme — Sita as Kali, Sita as Ravan’s child, Mandodari the frog princess, Rambha’s curse, Manthara as martyr, Ravana’s dying words and the unfortunate Jai and Vijay — Vishnu’s doorkeepers.

What really makes Pattanaik India’s modern day Aesop is actually outside of the Book of Ram. Soon after the exhilaration of Indian Oscars, Vishnu’s gatekeepers gain stature after Pattanaik’s tribute to India’s Oscars by defining what Jai ho really means by examining two similar words ‘Jai’ and ‘Vijay’ often used interchangeably. In Vijay, there are winners and losers. In Jai, there are no losers, no one is defeated, for one triumphs over oneself.

To a post 26/11 India’s knee-jerk, ominously vigilante sentiments, Pattanaik’s panacea is the tears of Gandhari…a mythological moral message far more relevant today than the Ramayan’s rigid deontological ethic principles. “Dharma is about listening, not speaking; dharma is about giving, not taking; dharma is about helping the helpless; dharma is about affection, not domination. Dharma happens when hungry men share their food. Gandhari’s children died because they refused to share their land. Draupadi’s children died because she could not forgive. So long as we refuse to share, so long as we refuse to forgive, so long as we find excuses to justify our greed, war will happen and heroes will never find peace. Follow dharma and there will be peace in the world. True peace, not peace born by dominating the other. Not forgiving is never the answer. Look what is happening in Israel — an unending spiral of violence because both sides feel they are ‘right’.”

While one might start the Book of Ram with pet peeves and theories about heroes or gods, barely concealing a weakness for the underdog, by the last chapter you can’t help the twinge of pity for Ram who rejected destiny and desire for the far more daunting duty. Sadly, his core ethos as “Maryada Purushottham” is anachronistic today.

It may well be that the “The Ramayan reflects on the problem of the human condition, of how desire and destiny make the world impermanent and tragic. It also offers the solution by showing us how to live a spiritually fulfilled life through responsible conduct.” However, Hindu sacred texts also emphasise, “as a man can drink water from any side of a full tank, so the skilled theologian can wrest from any scripture that which will serve his purpose.”

With worthy sentiments like Dasaratha’s “so has been the way of my ancestors: give up your life but never your word” becoming harder by the day to live by, we may just have to wait till the next Treta Yug rolls around for this to happen.

No matter how much he extols Ram’s virtues of Dharma against Ravan’s law of the jungle, Pattanaik forgets that humans are also animals (arguably evolved ones). A cynical vote bank could well be justified in dubbing the current Ramraj propaganda a more realistic, accurate Ravanraj.

— The writer is co-founder of the Banyan, free-thinker and  a Horton fan. jayakumar.vaishnavi@gmail.com