Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Letterboxed Ramayana, or what Valmiki never told us

For the past week, our letterbox has been clinging feebly to the building wall, its sides twisted out of shape and blown outward, the flap dangling at an odd angle, the interiors clearly visible. From a certain perspective, especially at twilight, it looks aesthetic – a possible entry for an abstract-art exhibition under the title “Yawning Steel Maw Contemplates the Futility of Life” – but it’s no longer equipped to do what it was built for, so we’ll have to junk it and get a new one.

And all because late one night, some ruffian stuck a little bomb inside and then stood back watching as the thing exploded. This happens every year around the same time, and since the sound is always loud enough to make us spring up horizontally from our beds at 3 AM, we have come to see it as our annual Diwali wake-up call. Halloween has nothing on our Festival of Frights.

Diwali is said to mark Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya after his long forest-exile and victory over Ravana, and in keeping with tradition I spend my nights dreaming disjointed dreams about the missing letterboxes and postal misadventures that played a key but unrecorded role in Valmiki's epic. For example, the following little-known scene:

Flashback The Lankan monarch Ravana trembles to learn that an army of monkeys, bears and squirrels is marching towards his palace, growling and chirruping with great ferocity. Even worse, Ramanand Sagar is outside with a video-camera.

Ravana: Vibheeshana, what’s all this? Didn’t Rama get my note?
Vibheeshana: What note was that, bhaiya?
Ravana: The one where I told him Sita was being too querulous to have a decent conversation with and could he please send someone to collect her at the earliest.
Vibheeshana: Bhaiya, my spies tell me that some of the monkeys were playing around with firecrackers. They blew up Rama’s letterbox with the note still inside, so he never got to see it.
Ravana: What! Why wasn’t I told about this earlier?
Vibheeshana: I sent you a telegram as soon as I heard. Didn’t you get it?

(In the background, unseen by Ravana and his brother, two courtiers from the Lanka postal department exchange glances and giggle. Outside, war-cries, conch sounds and lugubrious tunes from the Sagar TV music factory can be heard.)

Thus a needless (and, one has to say, boring) battle was fought.

Note: most of the above never would have happened in the first place if King Dasharatha had succeeded in sending Rama a letter recalling him from exile after just a few months - but unfortunately he couldn't because the devious Kaikeyi stole his notepad. Just as well, because this would have made the Ramayana shorter and less dramatic (not that it’s a very dramatic epic anyway, especially compared to this one).

But back to the present, and letterboxes aren’t the only things at risk in our colony at this time of year. In our makeshift parking lot last Diwali, I found an unmonitored child carefully placing an anaar just beneath my car. “But uncle,” the blossoming terrorist said when pressed for an explanation, “iss se aapki car helicopter ke jaise ban jayegi.” I clipped him on the ear and sent him off, but it was difficult to get much sleep for the rest of the night. Troubled dreams came again.

Flashback 2 In the final battle, as Rama draws closer, Ravana tries to make a getaway in the flying chariot he stole from his brother Kubera (who was the God of Wealth, so it’s okay, he could always buy another one). Valmiki’s original draft included the following exchange between Ravana and his charioteer, now forever lost to human knowledge:

Ravana (in growing desperation): why isn’t this chariot taking off, saarthi?
Charioteer: Maharaj, the engineer forgot to bring an anaar to light under it.
Ravana (as the first of Rama’s arrows finds its mark): Aarggh, my leftmost head! (Falls, vanquished)
Joyous monkey: Yay, now we can go back home and invent a new festival. Back to the bridge, quick, before someone decides to use it as an alternate trading route. And don’t forget the firecrackers – I hear Ayodhya is full of nice letterboxes.


  1. Haha....very true!

    And the scene where Hanuman lights his tail and burns down the whole of Lanka makes me think of the rockets that fly like crazy and end up burning clothes hung in the balcony. Festival of lights, sounds....Happy Diwali

  2. now you have done it all! u are asking for trouble, believe you me.
    happy diwali.

  3. Daneel: why? It's such an innocent, harmless post about failed mail delivery and the eternal battle of good and evil.

    Sangeetha: Yes, it's open season out here - rockets regularly whiz into the sides of DDA flats in the neighborhood. And it's not like these are skyscrapers or anything...

  4. And again you show scant regard for our epics and make the great Lord Rama and the great Lordess Sita into 'butts' of your jokes. You will rot in hell, Jai Arjun Singh or whatever your name is. If you can't respect your history and your past, then by Bajrangbali, you won't have a future.

  5. ah! black muddy river said it, in the proper tone.

  6. Shamya has failed to condemn your obvious hatred of the innocent pleasures of the children whose taxes will finance your old age.

  7. Are you sure it is some ruffian and not the Monkey Man, hitherto attaining cult status in Delhi, who blew up your mailbox? I mean the connection with the Ramayan is complete then, no? Shubh Deepawali.

  8. Shame on you for the disrespect you show to your heritage!

    God will punish you - actually he already has by sending off incarnations of the Vana-Sena to blow up your mailbox on the anniversary of the great festival of light, which celebrates something or the other to do with the saga of Lord Rama.

    And why do you find a bunch of bibulous, lecherous gamblers more dramatic than the purity of the Raghuvamshis??

    Your preferences speak volumes about your characterless character!


  9. hi jai " the grinch who stole diwali", let kids be kids ..this is what they do .. dont u remember lighting crackers? ...well i hope u also light some crackers and enjoy ..i am noticing that u have something against all hindu festivals and epics,so u keep making fun of them.its getting boring

  10. Daneel: no, actually the "proper tone" is the Anonymous comment just above this one. Black Muddy Shamya tries hard but even he can't quite simulate the angst of the genuinely offended.

    Aishwarya: don't misquote me. I love all children who pay my taxes! Nearly as much as the invisible pink letterbox-destroying monkeys.

  11. Anon/BV: you sound perturbed. Not a nice thing, it being the festive season and all. Maybe this post will cheer you up?

    If you can't respect your history and your past, then by Bajrangbali, you won't have a future

    Shamya: oh I respect my history and my past all right - just don't expect me to respect someone else's.

    Your preferences speak volumes about your characterless character!

    DD: quite. 18 volumes, to be precise.

  12. It is a brilliant post. I started hating Diwali since the time I comprehended that noise can kill.

    I am generally in the foulest of moods this time of the year. My darkest desire is to strangle the Kids who blast crackers right under your nose and then scurry off giggling like middle earth's orcs.

    Grrrr---throw these crackers in the fires of mount doom at mordor.

  13. hi jai, i dont appreciate your pithy comments about the ramayana/ the mahabharata/ hinduism in general ... for u it is a story/work of literature whatever for us (i am referring to the majority of hindus/indians) it is a divine text which tells us how to live our lives , practice our dharma .it is sad to see some poeple in india turning away from our heritage while most indians in the west r turning to religion ..

  14. i dont appreciate your pithy comments about the ramayana/ the mahabharata/ hinduism in general...

    Anon: yes, I gathered that a long time ago. Likewise, I don't appreciate the blind and unquestioning acceptance of the Ramayana and Mahabharata as divine texts (or the blind and unquestioning acceptance of many other traditions, whether in Hinduism or in any other religion). And I don't think it's a particularly good thing at all that "most indians in the west r turning to religion". (For some of the repercussions of this religiosity, check some of the NRI comments on religious topics on Rediff.com or other online forums.)

    But what I find intriguing is this: you're very clearly in the majority and you know this, so what are you feeling so insecure about? Seek comfort in numbers. Treat these posts as the rantings of a pseudo-intellectual blogger, which aren't going to make the slightest difference to what the majority thinks anyway. Your cosy, tradition-based world is under no threat from us minorities, so relax - have an Isabgol!

  15. Jai, please see the last comments left in your last post.

  16. Anon: had seen them. Interesting stuff on AK-KM.

  17. I don't understand you Mr. Anon. Firstly I believe that you are suitably impressed by the Bourne identity. I am sure you will be delighted to know that you were sent to defend the rights of Hinduism against traitors like us.

    Jai has never once mentioned anything derogatory against Hindusim , it has all been in good fun and there is nothing wrong in being analytical. If you view Mahabharata as a great piece of literature alone it stands by itself as a great work of the ancient world.

    Mahabharata could never get its justified place as the greatest work of the ancient times due to unneccesary tampering with the script , also we Indians tended to treat it as a holy manuscript not to be spread to the western world.

    As an epic this work is greater than the 'Illiad'. There are so many layers in Mahabharata that the whole epic is justifiably magnificient and even contemporary.

    The problem arises when some sects treat it as another of those 'Krishna Leelas' and dilute the importance and magnitude of the great epic. You have so many unnecessary tales interwoven into the script that it is clear they were written much after the original epic.

    No doubt the philosophy of 'Bhagwad Gita' enriches the epic but too many Godly interferences also burden it.

    Mahabharata is a great insight into ancient Hindu Philosophy and thought , the Gita is a superb work on Indian Philosophy and it needs to be taken forward as such.

    When most of the Hindu sects take the two entities as some kind of holy scriptures which should be worshipped and not studied in an analytical way than it gives birth to bigots like you. I am sorry if Bigotry is a strong word but your post could as easily have come from the 'Adi Maths' as from anywhere else.

    Last 'Jai Arjun Singh' has not criticised the religion or the epics but has been analysing them with sensitivity towards general opinion. By Analysing Mahabharta and the Gita you can only enrich yourselves due to their many hidden layers of philosophical thought.

  18. Shwet: thanks for that defence, but you're setting yourself up for abuse.

    Incidentally, one thing I'm really amused by is the accusation that I enjoy making fun of Hindu epics - especially given how often I've mentioned in previous blogs that the Mahabharata is my favourite work of literature by far. What scares me is this insistence on turning it into a treatise. In my view, great fiction that explores the human condition is far more valuable and universal than a "sacred text" that claims to have all the answers and sits on a pedestal, demanding our subservience.

  19. And Amit, if you're reading this, sorry about the "human condition" bit in the last comment...it's the only way I know to sound profound.

  20. Tch Tch !!!! When will you ever learn ? Do you not know that few days prior to Diwali , you are supposed to take down the post-box into your home . That way , postman will deliver at doorstep and collect bakshis.

    Next thing you know , you will complain about postman asking for bakshis !!!

  21. Hi Jai,

    You've got the mahabaratha and the ramayana going on here right here in the comment section.

    everyone loves a good fight.

  22. hey lemme tell u, i havent come across such a good fiction lately. yeah however i will surely want to warn you against making fun of mythological characters, lest someone from RSS or the VHP come to you with a firman in hand to block your blog. so better do it with some moderation. at the end, thanks again for that humorous post. happy deepawali

  23. ...so better do it with some moderation.

    Rahi: But how? Do give me an example of how I can "moderate" this post while retaining at least some humour and at the same time not causing offence to anyone. It was hardly very insulting or extreme to begin with, but I assure you there are plenty of people in the world who would be lining up to feel offended even if it had been a lot milder.

    Glad you enjoyed it though.

    That way , postman will deliver at doorstep and collect bakshis

    Anon: so it's all about commercialisation then? Tch. So crass and bakshis-minded people have become.

  24. For Release: November 7, 2007

    Did you know that Delhi is India’s Biggest City?

    For more than 20 years, Mumbai has been officially considered the biggest metropolitan area in India in population.

    Now two demographers with the Washington, DC-based Population Reference Bureau have found that if the same definition for measuring Mumbai’s and Kolkata’s population is applied to Delhi, then Delhi is the biggest city.

    In India, an urban agglomeration is defined as a continuous urban spread constituting the urban population of a town or city and its adjoining urban outgrowths, or two or more physically contiguous towns together with their outgrowths.

    But India defines its urban agglomerations in a somewhat quirky way. They cannot cross state boundaries. This has no effect on the population size of Kolkata and Greater Mumbai UA, which are located far from state borders. But it does affect Delhi’s official population size.

    Any visitor to Delhi would immediately realize that excluding its major suburban industrial and residential areas in neighboring states from the urban agglomeration population leaves the city at a distinct disadvantage compared to other UAs. When driving from Delhi to contiguous Faridabad city in Haryana state, one scarcely notices any change in the surroundings. But even contiguous suburban cities and towns such as Faridabad and Gurgaon in neighboring Haryana, and Ghaziabad in neighboring Uttar Pradesh, cannot be included in the Delhi UA.

    Click on http://www.prb.org/Articles/2007/delhi.aspx for the full article and links to supporting information, including related tables for Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata.

  25. I'm a huge Mahabharata-enthusiast myself. And, yes, I think Ramayana is not a patch on the Vyasa epic. Glad to see a few others sharing the same view. I mean, most often, these two epics are put together on the same plate and appreciated for their philosophy and whatnot. I just lose my enthusiasm in that case!

    Probably the greatest quality of Mahabharata can be appreciated by seeing how well it worked even in its "sanitised" versions -- the TV serial version for one. That is to say, the core plot is itself so profound and strong, intricately weaving together the various subplots and the thematic bearings therein, that it simply can't be sanitised into a simplistic, "good vs. evil" epic even if one tried hard. (I am not looking down upon the makers of the TV version per se, but I see "sanitisation" of greatly popular epics like this -- not to forget that they are closely linked to religion and belief -- as an inevitability.)

    Why, I've not read any of the scholarly versions of Mahabharata myself. My fascination for the epic has come only out of the TV serial version, comics-like book versions, common folklore versions and other random readings.

    P.S. Of course, if anyone thinks it's just ignorance on my part and not the lack of merit in Ramayana that makes me think less of Ramayana, I'm all ears and all that jazz.

  26. Good one! :D
    Have tried doing the Anaar thing on a toy car years ago. Was interesting to watch it in action to say the least. Long story.. anyway :
    Happy Diwali!

  27. Damn Google.
    But now I am genuinely confused!
    I wanted to say what Black Muddy Shamya said, and that's the tone I wanted!
    Why do you want to thrust anonymous' tone on me?
    -Daneel olivaw

  28. ABC Radio National On Krishna

    Me thinks a perspective from that side of the world that did not grow up with the epics.

  29. Zero: I agree that the Ramayana isn't a patch on the Mahabharata, but part of the problem is that the Mahabharata is so rich and complex that anything would fall short in comparison - which is why a lot of us who aren't too concerned with the religious aspects of the epics dismiss the Ramayana as simplistic, and more obviously built on a straightforward moral lesson. Besides, as a literary character, Rama is even less interesting than Yudhisthira. But I'm sure that looked at on its own terms, the Ramayana is a rich work too.

  30. True, I completely agree with you. The Mahabharata is too tall an order for anything. It's only when the two epics are equated, I feel hard-pressed to point out the enormous gulf between them.

    Just as a clarification, I like the Ramayana too. I didn't mean to dismiss it as simplistic per se. (After all, it has stood for many ages and opened itself to diverse interpretations.) I was trying to point out how impossible it is to retell Mahabharata as a simplistic, "good vs. evil" tale. It's the magical way in which the epic marries pervasive cynicism and bleakness with worldly, existential hope. On the other hand, I think the Ramayana lends itself quite easily to that kind of "sanitisation" (pardon the repeated usage, it helps me get to the point quickly).

  31. Yes, and what amuses me is that even when people try to look at the Ramayana from a more complex, unconventional perspective, they still end up being simplistic: for instance, the whole angle about Rama not being the "ideal man" after all because of his treatment of Sita, and the fact that Ravana, the supposed "villain", never tried to force himself on her, etc. Even these revisionist perspectives have the effect of pigeonholing the characters - it's almost as if the Ramayan lacks inherent complexity, so there's only so much you can do with it as a reader/interpreter.

  32. When I was around 12 years old, I sent a rocket flying downwards from my terrace (7th floor). It 'rocketed' downwards as planned and burst under a car or next to it. It was great fun till the neighbourhood grandpas came and gave me a hiding.

  33. From Kolkata ka Osama to dapper, suited-booted anchor-man on Headlines Today? What a transformation.

  34. Fantastic post. Looks like a shoo-in for the November Blog Mela.

  35. ahhh.. thank you, thank you for this.

  36. Brilliant post. But Ramayana is an epic and henceforth we may leave it as it is without questioning.


  37. Ramayana is a religious script and obviously very close to Indian's heart as it was also the very first epic that must have had millions glued to TV sets every morning.
    But there would have been possibilities of it not becoming an epic has misunderstandings between people would have been avoided. This would have been possible only by putting your ego at peace.