The cover image of Vivek Narayanan’s After is muted, but haunting. In the foreground, a strong current is skewed to fall upon us like a deluge. To the back and left, a boat being rowed upstream by two brown-skinned men, a pair of harnessed horses and four passengers including a woman wearing a wrap around her head, two men of blue-tinted skin shouldering quivers with arrows, and another man at the aft of the boat. The image credit in the small print inside reveals that this is “Crossing the
Ganges river on the Way to Exile,” from the Guler Ramayana series of 1775/1780. Yet, there is no Ramayana in the title, nor even a mention on the front cover. The book is quietly titled After.

A category of its own

A good example of a book in such a category is After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (1994) for which the editors Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun commissioned more than forty poets to “translate, reinterpret, reflect on, or completely reimagine” Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Personal and contemporary concerns and perspectives are fore-fronted to the extent of sometimes not even recapitulating the story; the assumption, of course, is that the reader already knows the story, or the backstory.

An example is that of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Mrs Midas”, which tells the story of Midas from the frustrated perspective of his wife. Even as some of the poems draw our attention to social concerns, they also re-inscribe and perpetuate Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and testify to the enduring power of the legends on the minds of people for centuries after. Narayanan’s title locates his book within this category.

Carry this term over into the Indian context, and the category gets complicated. A near equivalent to translation in Sanskrit and many Indian languages is “anuvād” which literally means “to speak after.” (Anu-gam would be to go after, walk after, follow). 12th century CE Kambar in Tamil, 15th century CE Krittibasa in Bengali , and 16th century CE Tulsidas all speak after the many Ramayana re-tellers who came before them, and we attribute individual visionary genius to their retellings. Re-vision is happily accepted as a part of creative vision. Whom does Narayanan speak after?

After Valmiki

More reputed than read, Valmiki is a pet legend, our thief-turned-seer, the man who, we were told, was at first so sinful he could only utter ma-rā -ma-rā (ie death) instead of rā-ma rā-ma. Valmiki’s status is also that of the ādi-kavi, first poet. When Valmiki sees one in a pair of lovebirds fall to a hunter’s fatal arrow, he spontaneously utters poetry in the śloka meter. Thus, śoka (grief) became śloka, a metrical poem.

Valmiki is also the storyteller who acts as a witness, and becomes a part of the story. When Sita takes refuge in Valmiki’s ashram, the story arrives at Valmiki’s present, who automatically becomes its contemporary witness. Brilliantly, the poems of After also pull over into Narayanan’s – and our – present. The book is aptly dedicated to Arshia Sattar, a rigorous scholar and translator whose lifelong work with the Valmiki Ramayana has been a fountain at which many of us have studied and to which we return. Sattar’s translation continues to be a definitive reference, and her essays and books sensitise us to nuances in Valmiki’s poem, especially those relating to Rama’s dilemmas.

Naryanan writes in his preface that he has done a “close study” of the Valmiki Ramayana, and explored it through a “play of fragments.” The sequence of poems in After follows the books and chapters of Valmiki. The last section of “Notes and Sources” gives us a book-by-book story, and many poems have footnotes with explanations of context, author’s own commentary and notes on sources. Narayanan makes it a point to acknowledge sources outside Valmiki; thus, the reader learns what is and is not in the Valmiki Ramayana.

Helping the reader also go after sources, Narayanan shares a bibliography of texts and translations of Valmiki including free online translations. Such detailed references expand the canvas for us, and at the same time, reclaim and legitimise all those who came after Valmiki and before Narayanan. Such an apparatus is a generous and confident gesture, and also (I take it as) a dare.

After a closer review

“Book Three: War” begins with a poem (225), which is after a poem in Valmiki’s Yuddhakanda, and Sarga 81 of the OE version. By OE, Narayanan is referring to “the Valmiki Ramayana translated, transcribed and annotated by Desiraju Hanumanta Rao, KMK Murthy, and others. It can be looked up online.

Valmiki’s poem describes how Indrajit conjures an image of Sita and dismembers her in front of the Simian army. When I (dare) go to this internet source, I find many details echoed, and then made more evocative. Valmiki’s “Māyāmayīm Sītā” (stanza 5) translated by OE as “illusory image of Sita” becomes “phantom Sita” in Narayanan’s poem. Valmiki’s stanza 9 describes Sita’s single braid and emaciated appearance. OE translates: “That Hanuman saw Seetha, the wife of Rama, the best among women, bereft of joy, wearing only a single braid of hair, looking miserable, with her face emaciated due to fasting, dressed in a single worn-out clothing, unadorned and with all her limbs covered with dust and dirt; in the chariot of Indrajit.” Here is Narayanan’s opening:

Not Sita, but a Phantom

On Indrajit’s arm   Sita: but doppelgänger zombie
limbs collied and smeared with crud   Empty eyes 

Disheveled: a single braid across her bone-thin face
a single soiled rag to wear Raghava’s darling

Valmiki calls Sita “rāghava-priyām, and Narayanan follows. Next, Valmiki tells us what Hanuman is thinking, and so does Narayanan.

The descriptions are close. “Janakātmaja” (stanza 11, born of Janaka’s ātman) becomes “jewel of Janaka,” and “hata-ānandām” (stanza 5, joy gone) is “joyless one.” Many other phrases echo the source text such as Hanuman’s agony and tears, and the cries of “Ram-Ram.” Having gone that far, Narayanan even replicates some of the phonetic joys of Sanskrit – or perhaps simply cannot help the sound-play – with “her hair” and “heir’s finger’s.”

Valmiki’s poem comments on retaliation. When Hanuman disparages Indrajit for killing a woman, Indrajit notes that it is permissible to kill a woman if it distresses the enemy. Narayanan also focuses on this point. Commentators over the centuries underline the karmic echoes, and so does Narayanan, repeating lines from his own Tataka poems (25 and 27).

Narayanan is responding tightly to the source text. Even though After is categorically not a translation, and only responding to fragments of the narrative, these poems return the reader to intense moments in Valmiki’s narrative.

After past, present

After the anecdote of phantom Sita come several other snippets from the Ramayana war, including the delightful poem “Kumbhakarna’s Sound System.” Interspersed with poems that describe dramatic details from the battlefield, we suddenly find Maoist insurgents and torture in Kashmir.

The front matter of the book has a statutory warning: “[t]his is a work of fiction and all characters and incidents described in this book are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” On the one hand, this deflects persons unaware of the history of diverse narratives of Ramayana. At the same time, such a note becomes crucial when we suddenly encounter the section of After corresponding with the war section of Ramayana, and begin to recognize the recent past and present.

Nothing prepares us for this shock, although methodologically, poem after poem of close mapping and documentation has already primed us for something as bare and precise. As Narayanan explains in his pithy and straightforward style, every retelling is “answerable to the questions of the present.” This also answers why there is no “Ramayana” in the title. Only an “After” could provide the space and distance with, and within which, Narayanan could write. As it unfolds, After occupies a liminal space where boundaries between fact and fiction, history and imagination, are blurred.

After all

There is no such thing as “the” Ramayana. Its story permeates our life through many media and languages – from Ramkathas and Ramlilas on ground to television series and literature. Modern fiction writers have dived into this epic poem and come up with new findings – Ashok Banker gave us a riveting Tolkienesque read, Anand Neelkantan showed us the Ravanayana and Amish transformed Sita into a warrior princess. Filmmaker Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is but one of numerous cries for justice. As for poets – Kannada poet Kumaravyasa imagined the serpent Adisesha that carries the earth, groaning under the weight of many Ramayana poets (therefore, he wrote a Mahabharata).

After centuries of retellings and countertellings, translations and adaptations, dialoguing, and arguments, there is plenty of room for Vivek Narayanan’s After.

After, Vivek Narayanan, HarperCollins India.