Magic Realism

Ravi Subramanian is a bestselling author and is the co-founder of Enchantico, India's first book subscription box for children
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Arshia Sattar’s retelling of the Ramayana is a rare triumph

Ramayana For Children | Arshia Sattar | Illustrations by Sonali Zohra | Juggernaut | 240 Pages | Rs 499

MY PET PEEVE these days, actually it’s been one for quite a while, has been the reading habits of children—rather, the lack thereof. Walk into a bookstore and you would find most of the space occupied by toys, gadgets and stationery. As a parent, I consider myself extremely lucky that my daughter not only reads voraciously but also writes. How many parents can consider themselves as lucky? In today’s day and age, not many. Walk into bookstores overseas and you would find almost 30 per cent of the shelves dedicated to children’s books. Not in India. Unfortunately, children’s books suffer. It is not just the books, but children who suffer. A generation that grows up without access to books or without reading enough of them is bound to be a cultureless one. Books lend balance to thoughts and perspective to situations. Most of the lip service that publishers and others in the trade give children’s books, sadly, remains just that—lip service. Few realise the gravity of the situation.

However, a few things have changed in recent times that have given me some comfort. Good and bestselling (carefully chosen words) authors from the adult genre are beginning to write for children. Devdutt Pattanaik, for instance, is someone who has made the transition very smoothly. He writes as much for children these days as he does for adults. And publishers have made sure that he gets visibility, his books are stocked, they look cool (of course they read well, else he would not be where he is), and are accessible. Children’s books need role models. Someone to break out from the clutter and demonstrate that books written about India, for India, by Indians are as good if not better than their international counterparts. Ramayana for Children by Arshia Sattar, published by trendsetting Juggernaut, fits that bill effortlessly.

That India is a country rich in culture, traditions and mythology is known to all of us. Today more than ever, it is important for the young generation, brought up on an overdose of Norse and Greek Mythology, to learn from Indian epics and pass the knowledge on for generations to come. Though the great epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are extremely huge and detailed, a version brief enough to cover important milestones in the sagas and yet not too lengthy to let wander the concentration of young minds or exhaust them has always been an unsaid requirement.

Ramayana for Children is a beautifully written book based on the Indian epic Ramayana which was originally written by Valmiki. Though it has been rewritten many times over the years, Arshia Sattar’s retelling of the tale is refreshing, stimulating and completely faithful to Valmiki’s script at the same time. The presentation of Rama as a human being is truly inspiring.

Arshia Sattar’s credentials are impeccable. An award-winning author, an academic, a translator, one would normally expect her to have fallen prey to her own high standards. I was a bit circumspect when I first started reading Ramayana for Children. I had expected flamboyant prose that held, in itself, the potential to put off children, but was pleasantly surprised.

The child-friendly language that she has used is one of the strongest points of her writing. The simplicity with which she explains complicated plots, relationships and the politics of the great epic is truly commendable. The explanations are such that young minds will be able to understand and connect with the story while taking away the lessons of dharma from Lord Rama.

Magical characters, monsters and demons, and wars between good and evil have always fascinated children. To add to it the love story of the just and valiant Lord Rama and his beautiful and supportive wife Goddess Sita is like placing a cherry on top of a yummy cake. However, the best part is the way Arshia Sattar has presented the story with her magical words. It is rightly said that a bad storyteller can make a good story sound bad while a good storyteller can make a repeat story sound new and breathtakingly exciting. This book begins with King Dasharath’s childless life, takes pace with the birth of Lord Rama and then takes the reader on such a good rollercoaster ride that putting the book down halfway becomes an enormously difficult task.

THE ILLUSTRATIONS IN this book are used outstandingly well. They assist you in imagining the unimaginable with a dazzling crystallisation of characters and events.

For someone like me who has read more than just a few versions of the Ramayana, I expected just another attempt at the recreation of the great tale of valour, love and righteousness. However, I was delighted to find myself turning page after page without allowing anything or anybody between me and the story.

Arshia Sattar is an accomplished author who builds her characters from inside out. She is less interested in describing the physical aspects of her characters and more in giving us a glance into their flickering selves within. Strong characterisation is one of the reasons that a reader will develop a close attachment to those in this book.

A word of caution from the writer within me for first-time readers of the epic: the Ramayana is not a simple tale. It is not just a story. It does not have happy endings the way we usually want stories to. It does not even have a ‘happily ever after’ for the protagonists. The Ramayana, though not considered a ‘love story’ by many, is a story of the unspoken love between Lord Rama and Goddess Sita that cannot just be read and forgotten. Especially when the version you are reading is by Arshia Sattar. She takes you on a journeyacross hills and mountains and rivers and oceans to a land where the characters come to life and you begin to live with them. She has the ability to make everyone sound so true and alive that you begin to feel their happiness and pain, their joy and sorrow, and their disappointment, anger and despair. It is a journey that you live only to want to experience it again. And though the ending is not happy, not in the clichéd sense at least, it will leave the reader wanting more.

I have never wondered what happens after the end of the Ramayana until now. Arshia Sattar has involved me in the lives of the epic’s characters so intimately that my curiosity and hunger to know more have risen considerably.

Her writing is generous. The story has strength and hence shall live on through the assorted riffs and retellings of each new generation. This book, however, is a recommendation I shall make to everyone for a long, long time.

The role of grandmothers in story telling and passing on tales of the Ramayana from generation to generation cannot be underestimated. Yet, Ramayana for Children is so good that it could easily put grannies out of business.