The Bridge of Rama, the fifth in Banker's novels on the Ramayana, raised expectations that are belied by his final volume. One gets the impression of an author in a hurry to bring the story to a conclusion. For instance, Ravana presents Sita with Rama's severed head, but we never get to know her reaction. The novel ends with the return to Ayodhya because the Rama Banker has lived with and understood cannot be one who banishes his beloved wife.
Actually, the sixth canto of the original also ends quite conclusively with no indication that anything more is to come. The childhood portion of the first canto and the entire seventh are considered to have been added subsequently. Banker's imagination in delineating Ravana's hordes and Rama's army is clearly influenced by the animal-headed warriors of Hollywood's The Scorpion King and the lizard-men and other half-animal-half-humans of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar and Pal-ul-don. The best-written portions of the novel are the detailed accounts of ambushes set by Rama for the Rakshasas, including a celebration of the fight-to-the-death by the aging female monkey chieftain Mandara Devi invented by Banker.
The novel may be reasonably satisfactory reading for those not familiar with Valmiki. But to someone who has read the mahakavya it is jarring to find Angad as Sugriv's son, no felling of Lakshman by Ravana's infallible missile and his rescue by Hanuman. Instead, Hanuman is despatched to fetch medicinal herbs only to find on his return that Garuda has freed the brothers from Indrajit's venomous serpent bonds.
Lakshman insists that Rama must uphold the high standards of kingship and that leads to the fire-ordeal. His logic is that it will prove Sita is not a disguised rakshasi, besides being pure. Rama refuses, but Sita overhears and volunteers to stamp out possible rumours in Ayodhya.
Banker's Lakshman grows into an unsavoury character, cruel and unappreciative of Rama's nobility in adhering to a code of battle. Some characters, like Surpanakha, degenerate. She is virtually all feline here and, unlike in the preceding volumes, plays no significant role, except suddenly becoming the occasion for a futuristic authorial voice-over announcing that Ravana's sorcerous projections will become the idiot box for an audience of couch-potatoes.
Hanuman, for reasons never clarified, is kept floating in the sky, watching the battle and reporting to Rama. With the supernatural powers Banker has vested him with, the reader is puzzled why he does not rout Ravana's host instead of permitting thousands of monkeys and bears to be slaughtered. Instead of the two brothers, it is Hanuman who kills the invincible Kumbhakarna by thrusting him into the maw of an erupting volcano off-stage.
Ravana allows Rama to kill him, making no attempt to avoid the mortal missile. He even shoots short so that his arrow falls at Rama's feet. Why he does so is not clear, except for vague references to his being the eternal opponent of Vishnu and that the time has come to end this conflict. These are Banker's ineffectual attempts to raise his fiction to a transcendent level, as in Ravana's pretentious statement to a bewildered Mandodari, 'The reason goes to the very soul of itihaas itself'There is no rationale...there is merely an event.' This fails to create impact because it does not evolve naturally out of what he has written previously.
Then there is the recurrence of the chanting of 'siyavar ramchandra ki jai' by Hanuman, rudely shattering the illusion of a world far far away in time. Banker has forgotten that he had drawn Sita as a spunky warrior-princess who impressed us in the first two volumes. What we have here is literally a wan shadow, emaciated and pregnant (another Banker innovation).
It is a relief to turn to Padma Sri P.Lal's condensation that was first published in 1980. It is a vast improvement over R.K. Narayan's pedestrian summary, R.C. Dutt's monotonous version in rhymed couplets, Rajagopalachari's retelling of Kamban's version for children and Ramesh Menon's recent semi-novelisation for the post-Star Wars generation. The book is enriched with sketches by the renowned artist Paritosh Sen, a fine introduction, annotated bibliography and glossary.
In the introduction, Lal refers to the upsurge of criticism against Rama's conduct with Sita, Bali, Shambuka and prefers not to enter into this area. The Gita Press, in its magazine Kalyan, ran a complete series of 700 questions-and-answers (Shankavali) on the Ramcharitmanas to tackle doubts readers raised. As with the companion volume on the Mahabharata, the transcreation mingles free verse and prose very sensitively as the context demands. Nothing of significance is left out and all the seven cantos are covered. Himself a poet of distinction, the transcreator movingly communicates the karuna rasa that is the prevailing tone of Valmiki's composition.
While doing so, he has kept in mind that primarily it was a recited composition, so that there is a need to create a direct impact that is not dependant on elaborate stylistic acrobatics conducive to a written text. As much as three-fourths of the book is in verse so that the lyrical quality of Valmiki is apparent to the reader.
For instance, here is his transcreation of Valmiki's discovery of shloka from shoka:
'Four lines of eight syllables each!
From my sorrow came this song.
From shoka comes shloka:
There is no poetry without compassion.'
Brahma exhorts him to narrate the story of Rama, the lord of dharma'both the known and the unknown, which indicates that the story was already in circulation'ending with the sublime assurance, 'So long as the mountains and rivers of this earth Stay on the face of the earth, So long with the story of Rama endure, So long will your fame remain.'
The birth of Rama, in Valmiki, is very much a design of the gods to bring about the destruction of Ravana. That is why the Uttarakanda had to be added to explain why Ravana was so important. In the 'Rama-katha' which Markandeya narrates to the Pandavas during their exile, there is an interesting detail absent in Valmiki. Manthara, seen as the prime instigator in Rama's exile, was actually a Gandharvi deputed by Brahma precisely for this purpose.
What Prof. Lal includes in the condensation is of interest. He gives the reader a description of the horse-sacrifice, which is absent in other abridgements, because it provides an insight into a ritual that is not known to most readers. 300 beasts of different kinds are sacrificed, including the king's own horse which Kaushalya beheads in three strokes and then lies that night beside the corpse. All three queens caress the dead beast whose fat is cooked by Rishyashringa, the officiating priest, to be inhaled by Dasharatha. The appearance of the dark-complexioned, red-faced, lion-maned person clad in red cloth out of the sacrificial flames to hand over a golden vessel full of payasam for the queens has been left out.
The story of Tataka has been included'that she was a beautiful Yakshi turned into a night-roaming cannibal by Agastya, because of which she hated hermits. Vishvamitra exhorts Rama to overcome his reluctance to kill a woman by citing precedents of Indra, Vishnu and 'many mahatmas' and de-sexing her as 'the enemy'. Thereafter, the brothers suffer no qualms about mutilating Surpanakha and Ayomukhi who are guilty of nothing except approaching them erotically (Lakshmana even chops off the latter's breasts).
After they have buried Viradha alive, the shocked Sita warns Rama against carrying arms because it sullies the mind with bloodthirstiness and begs him not to kill the Rakshasas indiscriminately. Rama turns her down and reveals the hidden agenda behind the extended exile, viz. ridding the Dandaka forest sages of the Rakshasas.
The transcreation of Rama's reply is powerfully reminiscent of Bhishma's to Satyavati when refusing to impregnate the widows of Vichitravirya: 'I am firm in truth. I will give up my life, I will give you up, Sita, I will give up Lakshmana, But I will not break a promise.'
The forest-dweller'whether beast or Vanara or Rakshasa, male or female'is regarded as an 'other' and is literally fair game, veritably at the mercy of the princes of Ayodhya. On the first night the brothers kill as many as four deer for the three of them! On the other hand, Manthara, the root of mischief, is spared by Bharata, because she is not seen as an 'other' but as a woman.
The condensation corrects the popular impression (stemming from the later Uttarakanda account) that Ahalya was raped by Indra. Vishvamitra tells Rama that she knew it was Indra but out of curiosity succumbed to his advances. The story also creates a mini-myth of why emasculated goats are sacrificed to the gods in memory of a ram's testicles being grafted on to Indra. There is a narrative hiatus in Shatananda's account of Vishvamitra's history as transcreated. The reader is left wondering what happened after Vishvamitra's resolve to abjure anger (p.27).
The entire chapter about Brahma blessing him with Brahminhood and his making up with arch-rival Vashishtha is missing. A significant passage that has been omitted is Rama's departing warning to his mother and his lament to Lakshmana about the uxorious Dasharatha. Further, Sita does not go into exile in bark clothes. Vashishtha intervenes to declare that she is not exiled and therefore she can accompany her husband wearing all her jewellery and royal clothing.
Another omission is that there is no mention of Hanuman giving Sita the ring Rama gave him for her. In the Rama-Bharata meeting the transcreation does well in giving us almost the full text which includes a detailed questionnaire Rama makes out containing the duties of a ruler, which is paralleled in Ravana's address to his court asking for advice on how to face Rama's army. In the latter, however, one misses Mahodara's celebration of following one's desires that is the mainspring of Rakshasa action set against Rama's extolling of dharma.
The condensation gives us some grim verses which we hardly associate with Rama, for the usual picture is that of a stern man of action, not that of a philosopher: 'Time passes, Death walks with us, and sits with us' Each new season is that much less of life' A man standing on a road Sees a group of travellers pass' 'Wait!' he shouts. 'I'm coming too.' It is everyone's road, everyone's journey, The same road, the same journey. There is no turning back in life. Only a going ahead'to be human is To seek what is happy and peaceful.'
Does it not sound like Yudhishthira speaking to Dharma-Yaksha? In this encounter we also come across a remark that dates the composition as post-Buddha, when Rama criticises sage Jabali's materialism as atheistic like a Buddhist and a thief, deserving punishment. With alacrity, Jabali retracts and pleads expediency. This became the launching pad for Rajshekhar 'Parashuram' Basu's brilliant short story on Jabali.
The condensation corrects another popular misconception that Bharata took away Rama's wooden sandals. Actually, he asked Rama to step into golden sandals and took them away as the emblem of the ruler. Again, it is not Shurpanakha who motivates Ravana to take vengeance by abducting Sita, but Akampana. Ravana is dissuaded by Maricha and only after that Shurpanakha goads him into the final act.
Of course, there is no drawing of the ubiquitous 'lakshman-rekha' in Valmiki to protect Sita.
What is of interest is that the disguised Ravana addresses her praising her physical assets in sensual detail, yet she does not suspect that he is not a hermit. Her reply provides the first indication of their respective ages: when exiled, Rama was twenty five and she eighteen.
A popular misapprehension that Indrajit was killed unfairly because his sacrificial ritual was interrupted is set right by Prof. Lal as he shows a straight fight first between Vibhishana and him on the battlefield followed by the final battle with Lakshmana.
Valmiki has no need of a mission by Hanuman to discover Ravana's mortal weakness. The gods enter the fray to provide Rama with a chariot and the Brahma-missile, while Agastya teaches him the invocation to the Sun god which lead to Ravana's death.
The condensation would have benefited by inclusion of Mandodari's deeply evocative lament where she says, 'Maithili was neither superior nor equal to me in birth, beauty and nobility. Yet you, obsessed, did not realise that.'
As in the Mahabharata, lust is the root of destruction. There are a number of lovely passages describing natural beauty of forests and rivers that have very sensitively been transcreated into appealing verse and enhance the beauty of this transcreation going hand-in-hand with the unusual production qualities of binding in handloom sari cloth with gold embossed calligraphy.