One of the greatest classical scholars and translators of our time, Arshia Sattar’s thought-provoking classic translations of the Ramayana and Uttara, and Lost Loves transport the reader into the fascinating and intriguing world of the characters from the epic that have inhabited our childhood and whose stories haunt us. Here she tells SheThePeople.TV Books Editor Archana Pai Kulkarni why she feels fortunate to have the opportunity to look at her past work with the new eyes and ears and hearts, and why we must reclaim the text as belonging to all of us and fight the politics that gives ownership only to some people.
Why did you choose to translate Adi Kavi Valmiki’s Ramayana and not a later version? Is it because he is quoted to be a contemporary of Rama, a witness of its unfolding, and the first author in all history to bring himself into his own composition?
I chose to translate the Valmiki text because it is the first full-blown telling of this story within the framework of Hinduism. I was curious about the putative origins of the story that appears in almost every Indian language and has been responded to by everyone over the centuries – women, Dalits, Muslims, Jains, people of indigenous communities, atheists too. People are still telling the Ramayana the way they want it told. Look at the works of Amish and Anand Neelakantan. This is a story that haunts the Indian imagination, I wanted to get to the earliest version of it that we have.
We don’t know anything about the so-called historicity of the Ramayana, so I would avoid questions like Valmiki being Rama’s contemporary. We’re also not sure that Valmiki was the first author to place himself in his own story, it’s likely that the Mahabharata was composed before the Ramayana and it could be that Vyasa used this literary motif before Valmiki did.
When and where did you first hear the story of Rama? You have mentioned that you were fascinated with Hanuman. What is it about him that caught your imagination?
Like so many other people, I first heard Rama’s story when I was a child, at bedtime. It was a story that I listened to, I didn’t read it for myself until much later. And I’ve kept reading it since, in different versions (including Amar Chitra Katha), in more and more adult versions until I came to Valmiki’s text. That’s a version that few people are familiar with. Most people know the version that is told in the language that is closest to them – Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali – and they assume that’s a translation of Valmiki. It’s not. All these versions are unique and different.
I was curious about the putative origins of the story that appears in almost every Indian language and has been responded to by everyone over the centuries – women, Dalits, Muslims, Jains, people of indigenous communities, atheists too.
Isn’t everyone fascinated with Hanuman? Isn’t he everyone’s favourite character? A talking monkey who is both funny and wise, who can fly and speak Sanskrit and who can change his size when he wants. I think Hanuman can only be an Indian character because we see monkeys around us so frequently.
In times when we are becoming increasingly individualistic, narcissistic even, if we go by the fact that much of social media is ‘all about me’, how does one relate to the threads of ‘the other before self’ and ‘what will people say?’ that pervade the epic?
But social media is all about ‘what will people say’ – about what I’m wearing, who I’m with, where I am, what I’m doing, thinking, eating. We seem to be living for the opinion of others more and more, showing them who we are and what we can do and expecting them to validate these things. Rama also lived a life in which he was constantly watched and judged. Perhaps not by choice, but certainly by circumstance. We now seem to be doing this by choice – demanding that people watch us and comment on our thoughts and actions. I’m not sure that the Ramayana is about ‘other before self’ at all. Yes, Rama places Dasharatha’s wishes before his own comfort, Lakshmana goes to the forest in the most unselfish way, but in the end, Rama chooses his reputation as king over his love for his wife.
Readers find it tough to condone the cruelty meted out to Sita. Humiliated and pregnant, she was shunted out of her rightful home late in the evening, escorted to the forest and left to fend for herself. In the context of this a-dharma, how does one make a case for Rama, the Purushottam, the perfect man, for whom reverence is an expectation?
This is one of the questions that I’m trying to answer in my new book. I don’t think the question here is one of a-dharma. Rather, it’s a question of a choice between different dharmas, that of a husband and that of a king. Rama faces the same dilemma as his father did. And he makes a very different choice. Whether Rama is the ideal man or not is really up to the reader to decide.
Apparently, Rama was not aware that he was God. Often, as one reads the narrative, it becomes a matter of debate whether this amnesia, this susceptibility to human emotions was convenient or calculative or cosmic. Do you think the Rama’s ‘humanness’ absolves him of some of his questionable decisions and flaws?
It’s only in the Valmiki Ramayana that we can think about whether or not Rama is god and whether or not he knows it. And that’s because the Bala and the Uttara Kandas, where Rama’s divinity is clearly stated, were composed later and added to the text. In all the Ramayanas that follow, Rama’s divinity is the starting point of the story. Rama’s acts that are less than noble remain so, no matter what his status, divine or human. For me, the more interesting comparison is between Rama and Krishna, both avataras of Vishnu, both with the cosmic task of restoring dharma. We think of them so differently, showing understanding for all of Krishna’s actions but being so quick to criticise Rama. Yes, that criticism is predicated on the idea that Rama is presented to us as the ‘ideal man,’ but we should, I think, spend some more time on considering how these two divine men are perceived and received by our dominant culture.
You have mentioned the kind of reactions you have often received – the raised eyebrows, the disbelief that a ‘non-Hindu’ could be interested in what is considered a ‘religious’ Hindu text. Did you ever feel or were you ever made to feel like an ‘outsider’ invading ‘guarded’, ‘exclusive’ territory? Did you have to tread cautiously?
Never more so than now – look at the reaction to a Muslim man being appointed to teach Sanskrit at BHU. It’s no longer about a religious text, it’s about access to a language that has been deemed ‘Hindu.’ It also goes back to early ideas that Sanskrit and its texts were restricted to upper caste Hindus. How unfortunate that we have returned to some of the most reprehensible ideas – that knowledge is not available to everyone – from the past.
Can you sketch in a bit of the background and the influences that shaped you and contributed to your expansive outlook? Who or what encouraged you to claim the epic as your own?
I read myths and stories from different cultures all through my growing years – Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavian, from Africa, folk tales from everywhere. I still have many of those books and I read them again, every now and then. I’m as enchanted by them as I ever was. I think what this showed me was that people are the same everywhere, we have the same hopes and fears, ambitions and aspirations. We ask the same questions but the answers we get are most often determined by our cultures and environments.
And, of course, I grew up in a very liberal home.
I never thought that the Ramayana was not mine. Why shouldn’t it be? It’s a story that I grew up with, it’s filled my dreams with characters that I love, it’s taught me how to be a better person, why would I have to claim a text that’s mine already.
People are the same everywhere, we have the same hopes and fears, ambitions and aspirations. We ask the same questions but the answers we get are most often determined by our cultures and environments.
You had to learn Sanskrit to be able to read and interpret the original text? What were your other challenges? How did you overcome them?
Learning and reading Sanskrit is enough of a challenge, believe me.
What part of this project gave you the most joy? What was vexatious or uncomfortable?
Translating Valmiki’s beautiful images, especially in the Sundara Kanda, gave me the most joy – the satisfaction of seeing one of his exquisite similes come alive in another language is unmatched. I’m sure all translators feel that, when an image from one language really works in another, or when you can say exactly what the source text says and it sounds natural in the target language. It’s always hard to translate cruelty, or violence, or something bad that happens to a character that you are fond of. It’s hard to translate against your own politics, for example, when the Valmiki text is harsh or derogatory towards women. That was hard for me.
Which character, apart from Hanuman, do you like most? Why?
Lakshmana has always had a hold on my heart, this man who gives up everything in his own life to go into the forest with his brother. Out of love, loyalty, out of a desire to make sure that Rama is protected and can come back to reclaim the throne which is rightfully his. Lakshmana is brave, courageous in battle, a man of strong opinions who is not afraid to speak his mind, especially when he disagrees with Rama. But for all that he is outspoken, the one thing that Lakshmana never talks about is what he has given up and what that means to him.
You have said that you find heartbreaking, the moment when at the end of the ‘Yudha Kanda’, Rama tells Sita that she is free to go wherever she wills and that he can’t possibly take her back home. This makes the intention and outcome of the battle appear more tilted towards a public redemption of the king’s honour, rather than the rescue of a loved one. In this context, how does one identify with Rama’s conflicted personality and look at it with compassion?
Rama himself talks at great length about how he fought the war for his family’s honour and not only to get Sita back. That’s not a matter of interpretation, it’s right there in the Valmiki text. I’ve written an entire book about this, “Lost Loves,” where I talk about how we might understand Rama empathetically. We don’t have to agree with his actions or endorse what he does, but there are ways in which we might see why he did what he did. He remains true, nevertheless, to himself. For some people, this helps us to perceive Rama with some compassion, because we see him bound by codes and obligations and impulses that may not apply to the rest of us.
One question pervades the complex labyrinth of the epic. Destiny or Free will? There is a divine plan at work, various boons and curses operating that have already sealed the fate of many of the characters, and the apparent helplessness of those embroiled in the unfolding of the events. Is there any room for choice, if everything was preordained and unstoppable?
That’s one of the great questions that we must confront when we read the Hindu epics because karma and to some extent, dharma, also restrict the choices that a character has. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that, I try and deal with some of that in my new book which will be out early next year. It’s also difficult to judge the actions of characters if they are not acting from choice. But I believe that even within this determined universe of action, we all have some choices. And what we choose, however restricted that choice is, makes us who we are. Sometimes, we become free to act if we reject the dharma that we are born into or the dharma that we have learned. That really is the essence of Arjuna’s dilemma in the Bhagavad Gita. Fortunately for him, god shows him the way out of his problem. The rest of us are not so lucky and so we make mistakes.
Is it better to approach the work as literature and look at Rama (a God in the world of men) as a literary character to better empathise with his condition, choices and flaws?
We should all be free to see Rama as we choose – to some of us, he is god, to others, he is a human prince who shows us how difficult it is to do the right thing, to others, he is a literary character. For many people in southern India, Rama represents the aggressive expansion of northern ideas and culture. The point is that no one should tell anyone else how to regard Rama – Rama is polyvalent, he can mean different things to different people, he has meant different things to different people over the centuries. That is why the Ramayana is such a rich text, it welcomes everyone.
Sita is commonly regarded by readers as a weeping, helpless woman, a doormat who accepted her humiliation without protest, as compared to the fierce Draupadi. This despite the fact that she was one of the earliest known single mothers, braving it out in tough terrain, and who chose not to return to Rama. What do you have to say about Sita?
There’s a lot about Sita in my book “Lost Loves.” What we tend not to remember when we talk about Sita is that she is the one who decided to leave Rama forever. What could be more independent and powerful than that? Yes, Draupadi is the overtly fierce one, she is the angry one, goading her husbands to fight back against the humiliation that has been heaped on her. And rightly so. But Sita acts for herself and by herself. She asks for the trial by fire, not so that Rama will take her back, but because she wants to show everyone that she is innocent, that Rama is wrong to doubt her. At the end of the story, when she calls upon her mother, the earth, she is done with proving her innocence. She leaves her husband and her sons to look after each other. It’s the patriarchy that has persuaded us to see Sita as gentle and submissive and weepy. She’s not that by any stretch of a woman’s imagination.
We should all be free to see Rama as we choose – to some of us, he is god, to others, he is a human prince who shows us how difficult it is to do the right thing, to others, he is a literary character. For many people in southern India, Rama represents the aggressive expansion of northern ideas and culture.
You were forced to look back on your work and confront your own politics about the Ramayana. You sought answers to often-asked questions to which you had tentative responses. Has translating the Uttara Kanda been a revelation or are there still loose ends that need tying up?
I chose to look back on the work that I had done 20 years ago. And I hope that my answers will always be tentative and by way of suggestion rather than dogma. I wish everyone were more circumspect when they talk about Ramayana rather than closing off the text with a single, unimpeachable answer. While I think Valmiki’s Uttara Kanda is an attempt to tie up narrative and theological loose ends, I know that my continued engagement with the text is simply because the more I read it, the more I want to talk about it. There’s always something that I haven’t considered, some new idea calls out to me that I want to share with others who love the Ramayana as I do. And also with those who I might persuade to give it another look.
It is surprising that there is no mention of the Lakshman Rekha in the critical edition of Valmiki’s text, when the term is common parlance. Is this some kind of patriarchal insert/afterthought devised to create boundaries for women, which cannot be transgressed?
We believe that the lakshmanrekha appears for the first time in Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas but everyone seems to think that it was always in the story, precisely because the metaphor is widely known and used. Tulsi’s text was created in a very different historical moment form Valmiki’s. Each Ramayana speaks to its own time and place, it has its own physical landscape in its flowers and trees, it has its own cultural landscape in terms of customs and practices. Clearly, women were treated very differently from Valmiki’s time when Tulsidas was writing.
Do you think some readers refrain from reading the Ramayana because it is weighed down by the politics and morality of those who claim its ‘rightful’ ownership? I have heard readers comment that they would rather read a Harry Potter. It would be a pity if an enchanting text is disdained because of the rabid propaganda that overshadows its true essence. What do you feel?
I must say that I find it a little hard to swallow Harry Potter as a substitute for Ramayana, but that’s my problem.
Obviously, I feel that we should all continue to fight for our right to read Ramayana. I don’t know why people don’t read it, maybe because in the 21 st century, many people feel the story is regressive. Some versions of the Ramayana are difficult to deal with for a modern individual, but not all of them. You have to find the one that speaks to you. I think also, people don’t want to develop a relationship with the Ramayana because they don’t want to be associated with the prejudice and the politics of hate that have surrounded the text since the 1980s. And that’s precisely why we have to reclaim the text as belonging to all of us and fight the politics that gives ownership only to some people.
When you wrote the Ramayana for children, what was your vision? Did you leave out the sour deliberately to create a sweet, feel-good, easily palatable narrative? Why?
I didn’t leave out the sour to create a sweet tale, though that it what one of the reviews said, to my great surprise. The brothers mutilate Shurpanakha, Rama kills Vali unfairly, Rama rejects Sita at the end of the war and he banishes her when she is pregnant. All the uncomfortable parts of the Valmiki text are in the version that I wrote for children.
What are you working on now?
Another Ramayana book, of course. I’m looking at some of the other characters and exploring their relationship with dharma.
The Ramayana has been your lifelong companion. How has your own outlook been affected by this companionship?
It’s made me think a lot about my own actions, I try to see where they are coming from and where they might be going. It’s made me think about personal responsibility in terms of what dharma could be, in a modern world.
What do you like to do when you are not writing, if at all? What is a day in your life like?
I try and write every day but I guess my days are like anyone else’s. I read, I write, I cook, I meet friends, I go to the theatre, sometimes I teach. If I’m working on a new book, I translate. But I will say that I feel really uncomfortable on days when I don’t write. Some people feel that about not working out, I feel that about not writing.
What advice would you give to an aspiring translator of similar texts?
Read as much as you can, the text you’re working on as well as other texts around it, from the same period, by the same writer, texts that agree with your text, texts that contradict it. Read before you write. Read more than you write.
Image Credit: Arshia Sattar