This conversation took place as a part of the CANTO Poetry Festival 2023, an international multicultural multilingual travelling poetry festival, which was held across New Delhi and Kolkata in March, 2023. Vivek Narayanan, poet and scholar, spoke with Lina Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, translator and scholar as a part of the Kolkata chapter of the festival.

Could you perhaps give us a bit of context for about your book, After? Correct me I’m wrong, I believe it took you 12 years to complete this. Is that correct?
Yes, that is correct.

That is an exceptional amount of time. But I think it shows in every page. If you could tell us a little bit about this and then perhaps we can delve into the work.
This book is a kind of delving into or an experimental translation of the ancient and very influential South Asian epic Ramayana. It is something that every Indian knows and doesn’t know. An epic, surprisingly, with a lot of mysteries hidden in it. On the one hand, there is a burden of a tradition of too many Ramayanas. At one point, even in the 14th century, you have poets saying that there are so many Ramayanas that it’s hurting the shoulders of the elephant that carries the planet. We need some other poems in the mix.

It is a poem that has seeped into all aspects of South Asian life. Its influence reaches across Asia. People feel it may have an influence, for instance, on Medieval Chinese and Japanese motifs. In places like Indonesia, you have interesting cases where the Ramayana lives on as a folk epic without the burden of a religious interpretation.

We can come back to that. But, the point is that the only way to keep tradition alive is, ironically, through innovation, through re-evaluating and rethinking it. It has always been that way with the Ramayana, which is a multiple tradition. Everybody should read AK Ramanujan’s famous essay on many Ramayanas. But, it’s a basic truth that the Ramayana already exists in multiple versions.

I think that is partly due to the fact that it is drawing from an oral bardic tradition. By the time it is being written down, it already exists in all these different versions, all these different ways of looking at the story and the poem. I think that even if you look at modernism, what [Ezra] Pound is doing and so on and so forth…the process of innovation always begins with some kind of revisiting or re-evaluation of the past. It is an examination of those multiple traditions around the Ramayana and those multiple Ramayanas which are already captured inside Valmiki, the earliest Sanskrit version. Ramayana may have also existed in other languages in the oral tradition before it went into Sanskrit.

But, Valmiki’s Ramayana is the earliest version we have available to us. It already contains almost like a kaleidoscopic multiple Ramayanas, multiple ways of looking at the story. I’m going to take up a couple of flashpoints. Now, the interesting thing about the Ramayana and, I think, all ancient epics is that, on one hand, they seem to be in praise of the king but, on the other hand, they are often also very critical and pessimistic of the king and the workings of power. This is true across the world. I think it’s true in the Ramayana as well.

This is a story about the young Rama. There is a warrior priest called Vishwamitra who comes in and wants to take in Rama for military training. His father is not happy about it. This is where Rama is first learning what it might mean to be a king and the kinds of violence that he may be implicated in. This is the sage and he is taking Rama out for his first kill who is a very dangerous woman called Tataka.

“Sage, tell me, who is she,
This disfigured one, with the rage and the force of a thousand elephants
How does a woman come to be so strong
that entire armies crossing into her forest are simply torn to strips of skin
and lumps of half-chewed flesh.
Rama, she is Tataka.
Once the most beautiful and kind woman in the world,
jewel of a daughter to the virtuous and powerful Suketu.
Wife to the gentle Sunda, mother of the fearless Maricha.
It happens that her husband was killed and
she and her son were cursed with these,
the hideous unbearable forms you see.
Now she hates Agastya and all of us with every drop of her being.

Sage, who killed her husband Sunda?
Who disfigured Tataka’s body?
Rama, you must never hesitate to kill a woman, not for a second.
This is the immortal unwavering rule for a man charged with the burden of kingship.”

From this side, in a way, we would see that Vishwamitra, supposedly the elder, is telling Rama that he shouldn’t think twice about killing a woman in combat. You would think that is where Valmiki’s sympathies lie. But, in fact, this is a question that is much debated in the ancient texts – whether you can kill a woman in combat or not. The legalistic manner in which this question is sometimes solved is that the woman is disfigured, instead of being killed.

So this is the first option that appears to Rama.

“Tataka, I’ll spare the woman,
snip her nose and nipples first.
And if that warrior’s bluster has not yet left her,
I will kill her then and only then.”

Now, Valmiki often has doubles. On the one hand, Tataka is what we now call a “rakhshasi”. Sometimes translated as demon or often depicted as demons. But, right in the Valmiki version, there is also another story over there. This is the story of Tataka as a Yakshi, a female spirit. It’s actually quite beautiful.

So this kind of double tiering and multiplicity which I’m talking about, that is found all over the place in the Valmiki Ramayana. This is another take on Tataka, which is owed partly to a depiction of the story at the Mattancherry Palace in Kochi.

“Tataka the Yakshi
The most beautiful woman in the world, some say.
But, strong. Stronger than elephants and wise as any mother, and keen,
with her son by her side, the shape-shifting Maricha still a toddler.
Hand linked in hand, they slipped through the forest they made.
To the clearing of the settlers’ camps.
Sacrificial fires burn there now, that had to be stopped from taking hold.
Dawn steals upon them all.”

This is my favourite page. I hope that it doesn’t sound disrespectful when I say that it is absolute lunacy to look at it, such phenomenal chaos. I think what really attracts me to your work, and to myths in general, is a return to what Mircea Eliade called “the myth of eternal return”. That basic element of what a myth is. Mythology and epics are connected, of course.

A myth is a story of origin; that is all it is. There are all these other nomenclatures for all these other stories that have magical elements. For instance, this must take place at this location, it must have a beginning, middle and end, it must end in marriage, it must end in tragedy…but the myth is always just an explanation of the universe. Someone looking at something and saying this must be understood. This is where it came from, this isn’t where it came from or this is the answer to the question that it poses.

To have the answer look like this is one of the truest things I have ever seen. Sincere answers to the big questions, the questions that literature takes on aren’t the questions that science takes on. They are questions that elude all of the measurements that we have developed. And they look like this. This is the answer to a lot of the big questions that I’ve been able to figure out in my adult life. How do you deal with immigration? How do you leave a country you love but are also critical of? How are you critical of a country where you’ve arrived at? You never feel like home there but it is also a place you love. How do you fall in love? Like all of those questions, not a single one of them look like neat lines. They look like this.

I’m just so appreciative of experimentalists that take the time and risk. Because we both know that selling a publisher on a page that looks like that is quite difficult. Even conceiving of a way to make the page look in a way that can still be affordable; a page that doesn’t look like a page but is still a page in essence. It is incredibly difficult and it is really noteworthy to say that this book really accomplishes that and I’m grateful for it.
Thank you for that.

We’re still on the question of whether it is acceptable to kill a woman on the battlefield or not. More generally, the question of whether it is acceptable to involve civilians in the battle. Those words,
“never hesitate to kill a woman”, Valmiki uses them again about a thousand pages later. This time, the woman in question is Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana. She’s been abducted by Ravana and right now Indrajit, Ravan’s son, decides he wants to spook the opposing forces. He creates a kind of phantom Sita, like a ghostly half-doll half-ghost Sita, which he is now going to kill in front of the enemy army.

“Not Sita, but a Phantom

On Indrajit’s arm, Sita but a doppelganger zombie.
Limbs collied and smeared with crud.
Empty eyes, dishevelled.
A single braid across her bone-thin face.

A single soiled rag to wear, Raghava’s darling.
Inspecting the spectre, Hanuman’s own face, twisted by tears,
concluded that it was indeed Sita.
He’d seen her, just recently, that jewel of Janaka.
And watching this other joyless one, standing in the chariot.
Her hair in the Rakshasa heir’s fingers.
Our Mahasimian thought called his troops to the site.
Indrajit pulled the Sita clone toward him.
Unsheathed his sword and leaning it, slapped that apparition with his free hand on her stand in
the chariot.
Slapped and slapped the figure even as the simians watched with shrieks of ‘Ram Ram’.
Watched through tears of pain.
“Believe me, I never hesitate to kill a woman, not for a second.
Not if it could cause pain to the enemy.”
So said Rama’s enemy, that son of Ravana.
Right now, watch me. I’ll kill her myself.
I’ll cut her up and then I’ll kill Rama, Laxmana, Sugriva, and I’ll kill you, Hanuman.
Even in her state, the pumen of the lovely thigh,
of rapturous shape.
Glistened in the blue hour, hope’s sweet foundry.
Indrajit drew the blade diagonally across her.
From clavicle to hip, and the pieces fell to the ground.
The deed done, he said,
“Witness my Wrath! Rama’s woman is slain.”

Not far away, the simians heard him with open hanging mouths, palms down.
For this calamity that had fallen, sure as the evening sun had allowed it.
Sita’s face, moon white mine, with even holes for eyes.
Split apart and scattered to the winds.
Sita, angel of death, in your dusk blue cloth.
And the body before the moment’s knife, already lifeless.
Sita, field of marigolds.
Chalkface, clown head, holy shroud.
The sunken spots were the ones that watched you.”

So, I’ll do one more poem. Just going with this idea of the multiplicity of the text, which is so crucial to the Ramayana. There are a number of poems with the same name where I constantly retake the text/passage in different ways.

There are four books to After. There is “City and Forest”, which is the first book. That is the first three books of Valmiki. Then, there is “Dreams and Nightmares”, which is the second book. Then, there is “War” and there is “After” or “Uttara”, which is the later history of Rama and of the Ramayana.

In there, I have a sequence on Abdul Rahim’s Ramayana.

Abdul Rahim was a very fascinating character. He was the head of the Mughal armies, translator of the Baburnama from Turkic – which was his mother tongue – to Persian, poet in Sanskrit, a bookmaker and he also commissioned one of the three Akbari Ramayanas. It is an incredible translation project that really gets going in this era where they are translating huge amounts of Indian texts into Persian. The Ramayana was very beloved. Abdul Rahim probably helped greatly in the translation, because he was an accomplished poet in both Persian and Sanskrit. He commissioned Hindu and Muslim painters. I have a whole sequence which is just reading the images in this text because I can’t read the Persian. The images often show how closely the painters have been reading the text.

The head painter on this particular image is Kazim. The poem is:

“Not Sita, but a Phantom
The same scene that you saw before.
Not only the nausea of the scene,
not just the harshest, most meaningless cry.
Nowhere the armies arrayed the mirages of distance.
Not from the height of the chariot,
and the sword, not the ritually certified, diagonally cut.
Not Hanuman, so close here as to be implicated.
And Sita.
No, not her, but the representation of her.
Not the representation of her but her limbs twisted
like the children of Kushanavo.
Not the text, filled with choicest curses.
Not Indrajit, Ravana’s talented son and practicing magician.
Looking here like a hardcore thug,
despite the loveliness of his shinlets.
Not the artist who lives in the exploitation of violence and pain.
Not the apprentice who hankers after style.
Not the critic whose chin feels slightly displaced.
Never the reader, the distracted assassin.
Not Valmiki, whose debts are absolved.
Not we, whose role is in the quelling of the air.
Not the deuce, by which it is kept unspoken or unrevealed.
Not the people, of whom it is said, would rather have it fed to them.

Not the soul, whose price is dignity.
Not the individual signature that confirms the collective guilt.
Not the numerous unpainted pages of the manuscript,
all the way from early in Valmiki’s fourth to well into the war.
Not the trace of missing images, in the hearts where they may have been hidden.
Not the history, for which the living pages were made.
Nor the one into which they were written.
Not the zone for which life itself was a kind of memory.”

That was extraordinary. When we spoke you mentioned how important it was for you that reading should also be performed. I’m so glad that I got to see how you perform rather than the very common poet monotone that we both know.
Yeah, that’s something which has always been very important to me. For me, it also kind of links back to the oral tradition around the Ramayana. I’m glad to have the opportunity to have some time to perform as well.

I really love what you were saying about how, in order to preserve, you have to experiment. I understand that this is irreverent and I hope that is fine as it’s not my culture to be irreverent with. But the entire time I read this book, I was thinking that the Ramayana would be such a great video game. Like, truly, it is built in the epic video game scale. The way that you preserve something for future generations is not by putting it into a glass box. But, hurling it full force into the future and see what little bits and parts can really have some power.
I think that some of the Ramayana characters are already in video games. My students have run into them. You’re right, that’s entirely appropriate. The Ramayana has always kind of spread radically like that into different forms. Painting, as we’ve seen, dance and others. But, there’s another thing you said. How irreverent should we be? For me, I had to find a place in which to critique the Ramayana. There are a lot of problematic aspects here, especially in the Valmiki Ramayana.

It’s a very obviously patriarchal text in many places. While engaging with these texts, there’s always that question of whether we’re going to valourise them or do a critical reading. For me, I found that the critical reading actually opens up the text. It was by way of doing a critical reading that I really began to discover the riches of the Ramayana. It was almost a way in which the text was also responding to my critical reading and so on.

In fact, the way to keep, again, our traditions alive is not by enshrining them in amber or freezing them but to be able to tap into them and engage them. Curiously, a critical reading of the Ramayana, for me, was what really opened me up to its riches. Also, it brought forth the possibility of multiplicity.

I think that what you are saying makes perfect sense. The way that we think of criticism or any of the critical theories, they begin with exegesis and a hermeneutic breakdown of the most common text that everybody knew, the Bible. I am fairly irreverent with the culture that was given to me, because it is mine to be irreverent with. It is the universe I was given and it is my job to take it apart to understand it and re-make it in as many images as I possibly can.

The Bible, for example, is the thing that was given to me. I don’t want irreverence to be made to seem mundane. Perhaps mundane is the wrong word. Irreverence, what it really is and can do, is something that can really bring the text to us. That’s what it is. We are commanded to understand these texts as best as we can. The thing that we understand the most is our own body, our own flesh and our own dirty experience. To bring those texts into that experience, that corporeal element is to “follow commandments”. Exegesis or hermeneutics with the Bible, there’s nothing more natural than to bring it down. We are commanded to read it and feel it to be perfect. To be perfect within the text is to take it apart.

It makes perfect sense to me. I simply do not understand or know this text, as well as you do, so I’m very careful to tread lightly on it. But, I hope that all of the holy texts, for all those who inherit them, are given as close a reading as you present. Only then can they become more than what they are. In glass boxes, their creative potential is hindered.
Yeah, that’s right.

Now, I can speak for the Ramayana. Romila Thapar, for instance, has shown that dissent has a very long history in India. There are long traditions of argument, dissent, and multiple ways of approaching it. Ramayana has been that way and, for me, I really want to see it as a world text. I don’t want to see it as a text that belongs to any particular religion or region as it has that kind of potential for me. As I think any epic should, any of the epics from around the world that we ignore.

The other thing we haven’t talked about is that there are African epics, indigenous American epics, and there is a huge world of thought there which goes beyond the Greco-Roman tradition. But, the Ramayana has also, from the start, been a Buddhist text and a Jain text. Some of those are very early versions. We’ve seen that very long tradition of Muslim Ramayanas. We’ve seen it move across places. In my class, I actually encourage students to do their own Ramayanas at the end of the class. They come up with fantastic insights into it, by bringing the Ramayana into their own lives, thought processes and context.

I think that there is a difference between someone who has a superficial understanding of the text, someone who has an emotional understanding of the text, and then also someone who has spent time delving into the text. These produce different kinds of reactions. But, I’m weary of prohibitions, I guess. I think the Ramayana really has the potential to be taken up across cultures. It already has, it already holds that history. That’s actually rather appropriate for the poem I was going to read.

In the last part of the book, we have scenes from contemporary India. Sometimes, it’s not specifically the Ramayana itself but the Ramayana’s concerns with ethics, statecraft, and the life of Sanskrit in contemporary India. This one actually contains a translation in it – a kind of loose translation done for my mother, Padma Narayanan. It is a translation of a Sanskrit song or hymn called “Maithreem Bhajata”, which was written in the 1960s by a kind of interesting and innovative religious leader. It was sung at the United Nations by a very famous singer called MS Subbulakshmi. I won’t sing it for you.

But, this translation is also given to the protests at Shaheenbagh, against the Citizenship Amendment Act. It was an extraordinary protest of Muslim women at Shaheenbagh. It begins with a quote and, then again, a free translation of a section of a very famous poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It is called “To Shaheenbagh, in Absentia”.

“Bas Naam Rahega Allah Ka,
Jo Gayab Bhi, Hazir Bhi,
Jo Manzar Bhi, Nazir Bhi

Yes, the name alone will stay,
the unseen still here,
and the thing seen, being also the observer.

I wasn’t there at Shaheenbagh, those winter days
when thousands gathered.
When it seemed all of Delhi,
in the brilliance of its inventiveness,
in the earnestness of its grit, was there.
Is it true the roads almost belonged to us?
That we took in faces with such renewed curiosity
and songs stuttered forth in the unbelievers hands.
I’ve known what it means to rub shoulders in a place like that,
when the glance of touch and the touching glance

slipped like its own innocent being
through the evening’s rush.
This melancholy distance of the seen
And the thereness of the unseen.
The way something would sprout at the most innocuous traffic light—
an idea or body, or refurbished refurbishable item.
And soon the corner will come to that and only that.
And the goods and minutiae of traffic and crowds
will learn to flow around it;
in both impatience and attentive embrace.

I wasn’t there at Shaheenbagh, in those first days of its glory.
To see it hold this way,
Class to memory and habit.
But whatever happens, the name will stay.
Swim to the skies above us,
given as token to the witness of paradise;
and the real blood it asked of us.

“Maithreem Bhajata”, a translation for Padma Narayanan:

Grow friendship at the heart,
see other souls as you see your own.
Give up war, give up competition.

Give up the acquisition or occupation by force.
Invent, thrash out and make real the three Daas –

Damiyata, Datta, Dayadwam
Restraint, charity, mercy and prosperity for all the peoples.”