Aubrey Menen's place in the Indian English literary canon has largely been forgotten. Even in the rare, flattering mention, he's described as a satirist – a term the literary hegemons assign to anyone who happens to be funny while they're being serious. However, to describe Menen as a “serious” writer would be an act of slander, but relegating him to mere comic relief would be an equal disservice.
This vague middle ground that Menen straddles stems from the fact that his writings eschew any discernible ideology, even that hallowed literary ideal of seriousness. It is from this precarious gaze that Menen wrote Rama Retold or, simply The Ramayana, as my dog-eared, secondhand American edition is titled.
At the time the book was published in 1954, no side would have the iconoclast. His efforts to "secularise a religious book" seemed like the natural course to take in the fledgling republic, but this endeavour, according to Menen himself, was nipped in the bud by an uncertain Jawaharlal Nehru who was "afraid of being criticised." Menen, in his trademark pithy style, dismissed Nehru's vagaries as the deep-seated “childhood guilt” of a man who “believes in nothing”, that results in one’s being particularly sensitive to matters of religion.
In another corner, the conservative statesman C Rajagopalachari, who would soon come out with an abridged English translation of the Ramayana by both Valmiki and by the Cholan Tamil poet Kambar, offered the rather puerile criticism that the book was "nonsense but of the unreadable kind, i.e., pure nonsense", a tone that evoked a headmaster chiding his ward for a particularly scurrilous note that he was caught passing.
Rajaji wasn't alone. Even the journalist MV Kamath chimed in, saying the book was “an abomination …in no culture is virtue and decency laughing matter", thereby successfully genuflecting to the sanskaari status quo. Thus the book was unceremoniously banned from being imported into India (it was originally published in England) in 1956, and the ban is upheld to this day. Years after the fact, Menen suggested that “efforts should be made to lift all bans on all books. But not by me. My job in life is to write books, not chew the cud over them.”
Indian outrage hasn't evolved much over the years, Rama Retold would have received more or less the same reaction had it been published and released in modern India, with a few death threats thrown in for good measure. Menen pays no subservience to the sacrosanct. In the introductory passage he positions his re-telling as an attempt to wrestle the grand narrative away from the claws of the Brahmin orthodoxy, under whose purview, he felt, the story had been distorted beyond belief.
Menen keeps returning to the inherent flaws of Brahminical thought in long, dialectic passages, chapter after chapter, like an obsessive compulsion, but never at the cost of good humour. The punchline at the end of these meanderings bear no marks of a person who has read MN Srinivas’s theories on Sanskritisation – that the so-called lower castes increasingly adopt the ways of the so-called upper castes – and holds strong opinions on the subject. Menen's observations certainly come from being extremely well read but there's a tough, reasonable sense of morality that takes primacy over any bookish learning. He is a pugilist of common sense.
The evidence of this is that the Brahmin institution isn't his only victim. Nobody in the great epic is spared. The spotlight falls on Rama rather late in the narrative, and he is seen as inertia personified, superficially endowed with all the glowing traits that the holy books ascribed to him (“generous, warm-hearted, loyal, well-meaning, intellectually brilliant, idealistic”) but ultimately “a damned fool.” King Dasaratha is portrayed as a blithering womaniser incapable of passion with any woman he goes to bed with (“Rama's wife, Sita, was devoted to him; the King was devoted to his wives, a very different thing.”).
Laxman (or Luxmun in Menen's retelling) is nothing but undiluted brawn and obsequious loyalty (“His moustaches and his brother were the things he loved most in the world."). Sita's impishness is something that develops over the course of the story, but we are introduced to her as “a good woman, a good wife and a simple soul. We must put up with her."
The notable exceptions to Menen's ring of fire are Ravana, who is seen as a great warrior, a shrewd king and a consensual, kind love interest of Sita (she willingly heads to Lanka with Ravana, after developing what can best be described as a crush on him) and the author of the original Ramayana, Valmiki himself, who is pretty much the protagonist in Menen's retelling. Rama lands up at Valmiki's Ashram of Gluttons during his exile, a place where a hybrid of hedonism and stoicism are championed above all else.
From this point, Valmiki sticks around for the duration of the story, offering long, unwieldy parables (Menen's own inventions, another notable deviation from the source text) that force him to unlearn the ideas of morality that were passed on to him by the Brahmins, and question the very exercise of attempting to interpret and decipher the meaning of life itself. Menen clearly identified a literary forebear in what he perceived was a skeptical Valmiki,who's physical characteristics ( "high forehead, a narrow face, and a long nose dividing large eyes that were full of intelligence") aren't too far a departure from Menen's own visage.
It is in Valmiki's lengthy, comical philosophical tracts that we see Menen at his stylistic best. He is a master of the stealthily placed landmine: a singular, pithy sentence at the end of a passage that is completely worth the mental gymnastics one endures traversing the rich terrain of his ideas. In one paragraph, he begins with one of these aforementioned landmines, summing up Western hermetic thought” “The simple idea that first led monks to turn their backs on civilisation was Heaven. Heaven was a place much better than Rome." After this the soliloquy ends with this emphatic ditty contrasting the former with Indian thought: “The simple idea which arose in India centuries ago and which has shaken Indians, and many who are not, ever since is that of moral obesity.”
Menen’s comic rhythms don’t follow the Vaudevillian, Perelman-esque beat, but are more indebted to Oscar Wilde. His carefully considered dark humour stems from experiences and observations that anyone who has steeped in the soil of the Indian subcontinent would be more than familiar with.
Take, for instance, his diatribe about Indian classical music: “(A)mong men of taste and fashion it was considered essential to have a nodding acquaintance with this immense compilation of criticism, and the habit of listening to a good tune and enjoying it died out. Instead a musical performance became a desperate business in which both the listeners and performers tried to display their erudition." At a time when writers like Raja Rao and GV Desani had already grappled with what it was to be an Anglophone Indian writing in English, Menen was figuring out the place of the Indian satirist.
A week ago, I was at a multiplex watching a new Bollywood movie in which a yesteryear’s megastar poses the question, "Are you a virgin?" to a victim of molestation during court proceedings. A man from the audience took the opportunity to answer the question for her by bellowing in the negative and descending into a fit of manic, dissonant laughter. It reminded me of a line that appears right at the end of Rama Retold, probably Menen’s most quoted one, and reserved for his favourite character Valmiki: "There are three things which are real: god, human folly and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.” India has still not figured out how to laugh.