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Anil Menon: The Speculative Ramayana

It is not clear when we humans began to exchange long bursts of sound for entertainment, but there is a good chance the very first such exchange, the first story, was a love story. And it probably went something like this: Ug the caveman falls in love, there are helpful people, unhelpful people, reversals, late-night bro chats, unexpected twists and turns— who would’ve suspected the mammoth! — and at the end of the telling, people left with smiles and people without. Ug the caveman’s story still makes bestseller lists, wins Grammy awards, worries Booker Prize judges, and is quite routinely made into a major motion picture coming soon to a theatre near you.

The persistence of story is not surprising. A human being is what a story uses to reproduce itself. Ciaran Carson in her novel Fishing For Amber writes that stories have three features: ‘if told, they like to be heard; if heard, they like to be taken in; and if taken in, they like to be told.’ This is especially true of the Ramayana. The large number of retellings and reinterpretations of the Ramayana suggests that to hear the story is to be seized with the desire to remake it in the manner it should have been told, should have been fashioned.

A scene from Ramayana: “Jatayu Vardhan” by Raja Ravi Varma / Wikipedia

Indeed, there is really no such thing as ‘the’ Ramayana. A. K. Ramanujan’s essay 300 Ramayanas brought much-needed attention of course to this fact. Some variants, such as the Jaina Ramayana, arose out of social counter-movements. Others such as the Kashmiri Ramayana or the Torave Ramayana arose out of the subcontinent’s sheer linguistic variety. If some were born in difference, then Brij Narain Chakbast’s Urdu Ramayana and Masihi’s Persian Ramayana reflects a time when Hindi, Persian and Urdu hadn’t yet gone their separate ways. Sometimes translating the story into a regional language to extend its reach had the effect of narrowing its moral complexity. But not necessarily. It is interesting to compare Kamban’s sympathetic treatment of Ravana and Vali in the Tamil Kambaramayana with the far simpler ethical world of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. While Tulsidas simplified Valmiki’s version, Kamban made it more nuanced. One radical retelling is of special interest. The Chandravati Ramayana, composed by a sixteenth-century female bhaktin, barely concerns itself with Rama. Here, Sita is the focus, and as Nabaneeta Dev Sen argued, what we have in essence is a feminist Ramayana.

And these are merely the more prominent versions from the subcontinent proper. A fuller accounting must include Sri Lanka’s Janki Haran, Thailand’s Rama Kien, Malaysia’s Hikayat Seri Rama, Cambodia’s Rama Kerti, Yasuyori’s Hobutsushu and the works that they have influenced in their turn. I’m careful to say ‘works’ rather than ‘texts’ because as Gulam Mohammed Sheikh has shown, we have only begun to explore the innovations of painters, sculptors and artists who worked in non-linguistic mediums.

Seen in this light, the attempt to establish a canonical Ramayana version, as the misguided Baroda Critical Edition project tried to do, is akin to chopping down a banyan so as to preserve a single vine. The tradition of ‘the’ Ramayana, one might say, is to depart from the tradition.

There is considerable flexibility in the point of departure. For example, in the Dasaratha Jataka, one of the many birth-stories of the Buddha, King Dasaratha (Suddhodhana) has three sons, Rama (Buddha), Lakshman, and Bharata (Ananda), and one daughter, Sita (Yasodhara). The Dasaratha Jataka makes no mention of Ravana, Lanka or the abduction of Sita. Since the Buddha has no immortal antagonist and the story is only interested in propounding the impermanence of the world and the mutability of all relationships, it chose to cast Rama and Sita as brother and sister (in that life) and do away with Ravana, Lanka and abduction.

Yet there are also limits to such transformations. Perhaps a story can be transformed only so far without losing its essence. For example Velcheru Narayana Rao argued that a version with an unchaste Sita would cease to be an interpretation of the Ramayan and become a new story which merely happened to share the same names.[1] Similarly, a Rama who doesn’t believe in dharma, a Lakshman who doesn’t love his brother, a Ravana who doesn’t desire Sita, a Hanuman who has no faith in the Ram-Sita jodi: such transformations seem to be fundamentally disruptive in a way that versions which have, say, an independent Sita or a modern-day venture capitalist as Ravana or a sympathetic treatment of Surpanakha are not. It would seem therefore that some transformations conserve the story’s essence while others dissipate it.

It is a tempting idea but a fundamentally mistaken one, I think. I do not believe stories have essences. At one extreme, the essentialist view— the typological view— leads to crude structuralist taxonomies with no role for historical, social or emotional context. At the other, it leads to a mystical view of literature where privileged groups get to decide whether this magical essence has been conserved or not. For example, consider a version of the Ramayana where Sumitra, Lakshman’s mother, and not Kaikeyi, Bharata’s mother, is the one who forces King Dasaratha to banish Rama. Let us suppose further that it is Bharata who accompanies Rama to the jungle and Lakshman who rules in Rama’s place. Intuitively, this makes sense. It is easy to imagine Lakshman as an ambitious would-be king. As the mother of the second-eldest son, it is more plausible that Sumitra rather than Kaikeyi is overcome with ambition. Since Bharata is the youngest brother and twice-removed from the throne, it is more plausible that he’s strongly attached to Rama and would accompany his brother’s banishment; it fits with our received understanding of the how the bond between the eldest and the youngest sibling in a traditional south-Asian family is supposed to work. From a structuralist viewpoint, there is little difference between the Valmiki version and our hypothetical version. Also, the Valmiki version only needs Rama to have a younger brother accompany him and does not make any special use of the fact Lakshman is the second brother. All in all, it is reasonable to claim the Valmiki version has not been transformed in a disruptive way.

Or has it? In the Valmiki version, Lakshman is the hot-headed brother, the one who prefers to do the right thing rather than the correct thing. In a story— in a world— where necessity rather than choice is the driving force, Lakshman is an exception. An exception that is, to Rama. His presence in any situation inevitably creates a tension for it is unclear what he will choose to do. It is true our hypothetical version is more plausible, but its very plausibility makes it less interesting than Valmiki’s version. The decision to have Lakshman rather than Bharata accompany Rama is one of the several counter-intuitive moves in the Valmiki version. The transformation has maintained structural integrity, even made things more plausible, but it has lost all the emotional undertones in the original relationship between the two brothers.

If so ‘minor’ a change can so distort the original, then it must be admitted that the ‘essence’ of a work, if at all it exists, is the work itself. There is no smaller component that if transferred to another story will conserve all the nuances of the original. Alternatively, we might say that there is no such thing as a minor change as far as fiction is concerned. There are only changes whose consequences we either choose to ignore or not.

If we drop the idea that stories have an essence, then as Wittgenstein indicated, we can take a far more liberal approach to stories and their transformations. What results is a family of stories related through various transformations. Rather than worry about whether a transformation conserves a story’s essence, we can study the transformations themselves. For example, a transformation might invert the gender of a particular character and leave everything else unchanged. For example, what if Sita were a man? Rather than quarrel over whether the story’s essence is lost in a gay Ramayana, we can talk more productively of what sort of transformations provoke imaginative resistance. Readers will still have to decide whether they found a particular transformation congenial or not, but they can no longer claim that it is because some magical essence has been lost.

In other words, following Wittgenstein, we may say that transformations produce new stories that are related to each other the way members of a family are related. Some members of a family of stories may be more well-known than others, some much admired, some disreputable, some more closely related than others, some right around the corner, some settled in far-away lands, and some hardly recognizable as part of the family. Some versions could share nothing more than similar names but still provide a sense of hello-brother-well-met (as I discovered in a Grayhound trip when a drunken co-passenger cheerfully assumed I was an Irishman because he thought I’d said my name was O’Neil).

If we start with ‘the’ Valmiki Ramayan, what are some possible transformations? One possibility is to consider mythic transformations, where the myth’s events add a grave resonance to the narrated events; for example, Arthur C. Clarke’s use of the Cyclops episode from the Odysseus myth in 2001 or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Another option is to work with counterfactual transformations, some of which we have already considered. What if Lakshman had stayed behind in Bharata’s place? What if Sita had been pregnant when Ravana abducted her? What if, in a version of the transposed heads myth in the Vikram and Betaal cycle of stories, Ravana and Rama decapitate each other in battle and the Gods intervene, return both to life, but not before a grief-stricken Sita accidentally swaps their heads? [2] There are of course many such counterfactual transformations.

However, most of the Ramayana variants we see fall into a few typical categories. By far the most common transformation is a shift in the point of view, usually producing a subaltern retelling. For example, in the Chandravati Ramayana Sita’s story is emphasized at the expense of Rama’s story. C. N. Srikantan Nair’s play Kanchana Sita and Sarah Joseph’s elegant short stories in Retelling the Ramayana (Oxford University Press, 2005) offer Dalit and feminist critiques of the myth. Anand Neelakantan’s imaginative Asura: Tale of the Vanquished (Leadstart, 2012) narrates the story from the point of view of Ravana. So does the graphic book series Ravanayan (Holy Cow, 2012).

Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction inspired by RamayanaAs might be expected, the shift to the subaltern’s point of view leads the narration to question value systems. In our call for submissions for the Breaking the Bow (Zubaan, 2012) anthology, we received a large number of submissions, from both male as well as female authors, narrating the Surpanakah episode from the mutilated woman’s point of view. Surpanakah’s mutilation seems to have appalled modern sentiments even more than the injustice shown to Sita after the fall of Lanka. Similarly, Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana (Groundwood Books, 2011), narrated from Sita’s point of view, makes it clear Rama did the wrong thing to reject his wife. There are other tweaks. Two characters— the asura sorcerer Mahiravana and the goddess Chandi— don’t appear in the original. Mahiravana is explicitly identified as a sorcerer rather than a sage, which is interesting because it implies there’s a distinction between spiritual powers (such as those possessed by sages like Vishwamitra) and sorcery. There’s a similar distinction in the nineteenth-century fantasy Hoshruba where the good guys use technological devices for special effects while the bad guys rely on sorcery. Also, in Moyna Chitrakar’s artwork, faithful to the Patua style of West Bengal, Rama and Sita are dark-skinned, Ravana and his brothers blue-skinned, thus inverting the color scheme of traditional representations.

In sharp contrast to such subaltern retellings, David Hair’s YA series The Return of Ravana (2011) and the graphic novel series Ramayana 3392 (Virgin Comics, 2007-2008) shares little more than a common namespace with the original story[3]. The former considers all of world history to be its playground while Ramayana 3392 (written by Shamik Dasgupta, artwork by Abhishek Singh) relies on the far post-apocalyptic future to provide a blank canvas on which to project its imagination.

The transformations in the last two works are different in kind from the others. When a transformation shifts the point of view or reverses a decision or introduces a new character or replots the story with the materials of the original story, then the author is not changing the context (backdrop) of the original story. For example, an author might write a story where Rama accepts rather than reject Sita after the fall of Lanka. It is a radical transformation, but nonetheless, the new story’s context is exactly the same as the context of the original version. The context of a story consists of those propositions about the story-world that the author need not specify explicitly. However, the context influences the story though it neither narrates nor perceives.

Consider a transformation where after the fall of Lanka, Sita is brought before Rama, rejected, and upon entering the fire it is discovered that she is in fact a robot with a positronic brain. This transformation produces a story whose context is radically different from that of the original. The introduction of a robot into an iron-age setting requires a different kind of reading. Or more usefully, we might say that it requires a speculative stance.

The speculative stance is partly one in which the reader understands that the context is also part of the story. It is worth clarifying this point. For example, in Austen’s Emma, the context is the late-19th century Victorian world and its social mores. She had no need to spell out its details for her readers. In Chapter 18, when they came across the sentence “Tea was carrying around, and Mr. Weston having said…”, Austen had no need to spell out the nature of tea or how it was drunk or why it was being ‘carried around’, rather than, say, shot across the room with rubber catapults. Tea and its mysteries were part of the context, part of the stuff both author and reader could take for granted.

If we were to substitute coffee for tea in a transformed version of Emma, then the change would manifest itself in some fifteen different places. Though the story would change in an important way (tea and coffee suggest different histories, politics). the context could still probably be taken for granted without much fuss. There is a strong probability that the context is still this world, the actual world with Dickens and cows and steam engines and God Save the Queen and thugees.

But what if Emma and her friends were to ‘carry around’ Moloko Plus, the drink Alex and gang glug down in Clockwork Orange and described by Anthony Burgess as “milk with knives in it”? A change of this sort transforms the story’s context in such a way as to leave the reader unsure what the rules of the new world are.

It is here that the speculative stance becomes important. A reader familiar with speculative works, familiar that is, with the idea that the context is part of the story, will continue to read with the expectation that the author will gradually provide enough clues to figure things out. Or not. Indeed, for a spec-fic enthusiast, this uncertainty, this necessity for the text to be read in a subjunctive mode is part of the charm.

Determining how the context needs to be fictionalized is a matter of technique. In a self-reflective work, such as Christine Montalbetti’s Western, supposedly ‘about’ two gunslingers approaching each other for a shootout, the story is deferred indefinitely by Shandyesque digressions on the landscape or such irrelevancies such as the ants crawling over a cowboy’s boots; the context is the story. In a surrealist work, such as Alice in Wonderland, mundane objects are turned magical. In magic realism, magic is as mundane as butter or gravity. For example, in Marquez’s short story An Old Man With Enormous Wings, the village is puzzled by their balding lice-infected angel, but only in the same way they would have been puzzled had a tiger or kangaroo strolled by. In a fantasy, magic is marvelous, distinct from the mundane. Realist fiction adopts the same stance as fantasy but bans magic altogether. Science-fiction also eschews magic but the context is expanded to include not just the real but also the possible.[4]

Science-fiction has evolved a dozen or so specific ways to perform this expansion, producing distinct sub-genres such as steampunk, cyberpunk, transrealist, slipstream, new weird, and so on. Fables take an elegant route for altering the context. In the real world, non-human objects like animals and teapots may have voices but cannot narrate. Fables, such as Kafka’s The Burrow or the Panchatantra, break this rule; much to our discomfiture, we can no longer rely on the discretion of our objects.

There are many other techniques. For example, since the act of writing fiction is itself part of the context, it too can be fictionalized. The moment we begin a story we start to impose patterns on events. Existentialist works, like Camus’ The Stranger, reject this necessity, producing an unsettling disconnect between actions, causes and reasons. Anti-novels such as Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy subvert the bourgeois comforts of the novel— plot, characterization, themes, motifs. So and on so forth.

Given all this, is Valmiki’s iron-age work a work of speculative fiction? Or more precisely, is it a work that uses speculative fiction techniques? It has fantastical elements and the function of fantasy is to make the naturalistic context uncertain by opening up the possibility of the supernatural. So, yes. However, the fantastical elements aren’t all necessary. We could conduct a Giacometti-type thought experiment. How much of the fantastic can we subtract from Valmiki’s Ramayana and still be left with something that captures the story’s emotional affect?

Well, there is no need for Ravana to have ten heads or any of the story’s other hyperbolic excesses. The asuras can be treated as the Other without demonizing them. The Surpanakha scene is essential; it sheds light on cultural values and has enormous emotional affect. There is no need for Jatayu. Ditto for the magical Bambi (Maricha); all that is needed for Sita to nag Lakshman to go look for his brother is to have Rama not return from a hunting expedition. What about the simians?

In lieu of Hanuman and the signet ring, Sita, grieving under the Ashoka tree, could just as well be consoled by a dream. It is not desirable to eliminate the simian function entirely, since that would also get rid of a critical conflict, namely, the one between Vali and Sugreeva. Besides, Rama needs to raise an army. The solution is to turn the simians into tribals, people sufficiently distinct to have a separate ethical system, yet familiar enough to be recognized as human.

Indeed, if we really scrape away the inessentials, we may end with the story of a man who will not compromise on his principles and a wife who has to pay the price for his choices. We would probably end with a text not very different in spirit from Michael Kohlhaas (1808) or Effie Briest (1894) or Asimov’s robot fables. Thus the fantastic elements do not seem to be necessary to tell the core tragic story.

Modern retellings seem to confirm this judgment. Though Valmiki’s Ramayana is a speculative work, subaltern retellings tend to result in works that are less so.[5] This is because the hegemony cannot speak of the way things really are and must either distract from, or elide over, the brute realities. Thus fairy tales flourish in an age of oppression; truths must be camouflaged, the texts must be full of answers. Later, the subaltern remembers with bitterness the forced play— the betraying pleasure— in these hegemonic productions. Determined to tell the story not told, determined not to use the tools of the hegemony, the subaltern vows fidelity to the actual and her telling turns mimetic.

Yet, is the naturalized version of Valmiki’s Ramayana free of the fantastic? When I consider the titular character in Michael Kohlhass or Baron Geert von Innstetten in Effie Briest, both Rama-type characters in their passion for the necessary moral action, I’m struck by their unbelievability as human beings. They are persuasive enough as characters; just not as human beings. And that I think is the crux of the matter. The core speculative element in Valmiki’s Ramayana, also to be found in the novels just mentioned, is the existence of an extreme human, a deontological being who’s driven solely by a moral code. It is telling that in science-fiction such beings have come to be embodied as Asimovian robots. In short, Lord Rama is the irremovable fantastic core of Valmiki’s work. So removing the other fantastic elements will do nothing to move the work any closer to naturalism or realism. The fantastic backdrop in Valmiki’s Ramayana— the ten heads, the talking simians, Jatayu, the magic Bambi and the rest— may feel unnecessary to modern readers and hence removable, but that is to confuse the need for speculation with the details of the work’s implementation.

Examples of the kind of stories that become possible in the speculative context can be found in the Breaking the Bow anthology.[6] It includes among other stories, magic realist and surreal retellings, a Ramayana episode in a cyberpunk setting, an alien Sita studying the human obsession with categorization, the Surpanakha episode cast as an American tabloid talk show, and a grim time-travel version where the story is traced to its actual origins.

Speculative techniques are far too powerful not to be included in every writer’s toolkit. It is a mistake to treat speculation solely as a characteristic of particular genres. It is a mistake to associate speculation solely with tropes like robots, aliens, elves and parallel dimensions. It is a mistake for a writer to turn their back on a body of techniques that can engage with the reader not just in terms of the specified but also the unspecified.

We have come a long way from that memorable day when Ug the caveman launched into his story, the first story. Doubtless, by the time he finished, the first critic had also been invented. Why on Earth, the first critic might have asked, couldn’t you have just stuck with just the facts? What was all that fantastical business with the mammoth? In time, we will find, the critic’s dissatisfactions will be addressed in the next story or the one after. That will provoke a fresh rash of discontent, more adjustment. For if stories are to reproduce, they must please their living breathing contexts, absorb them, make them part of the story. Ug is in for it.

A lovely instance of how the context can become part of the story is seen in a Telugu folktale collected by A. K. Ramanujan.[7] In the story, a man is forced by his cultured wife to attend a Ram-katha event. He sleeps through the first three sessions. Things happen to the sleeping man: the first night someone places a sweet into his mouth, the second night someone leans against him, and in the third night a dog pees into his mouth. He reports to his wife that the Ramayana is sweet, heavy and quite salty. His vexed wife, on the fourth night, forces him to stay awake and listen. As he listens, the epic gets hold of the man, and when Hanuman, en route to meet Sita, accidentally drops the all-important signet ring into the ocean, the man dives into the ocean and retrieves the ring for the simian lord. In a sense, the spec-fic reader is forever in that man’s position. The reader has to dive in, retrieve the author’s dropped hints, make the text whole.


[1] Rao, V. N., ‘When does Sita Cease to be Sita? ’, The Ramayana Revisited. Ed. Bose, Mandrakanta. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 219-242. [Goodreads]

[2] Mahadevan, Anand. ‘Switching Heads and Cultures: Transformation of an Indian Myth by Thomas Mann and Girish Karnad’. Comparative Literature 54(1) (2002): 23-41. In his version of the story, Thomas Mann named the wife ‘Sita.’

[3] I am grateful to Jaya Bhattacharji Rose for bringing Hair’s works to my attention.

[4] Hacking, I. ‘Possibility’. The Philosophical Review. 76(2), (1967): 143-168. Hacking argues that in the English language the word ‘possible’ may always be substituted with either ‘probable’ or ‘permissible’. I use the word ’possible’ in Hacking’s sense. The probability or permissibility of something is evaluated with respect to this world, the actual world. This puts limits on what is possible. Possibility is not plausibility. Since the two are easy to conflate, it is worth noting that: permissible things may be implausible (quantum teleportation); plausible things may be impermissible (spontaneous generation); highly probable events may be implausible (the birthday paradox); and plausible events may be improbable (curing cancer through will power). ‘Plausibility’ is a psychological concept (beliefs, expectations), ‘permissibility’ a quasi-logical concept, and ‘probability’ an empirical one (frequencies, odds).

[5] I am indebted to Geeta Patel for pointing this out to me. See also: Patel, Geeta. Lyrical Moments, Historical Hauntings. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2005:121-128.

[6] Menon, A. and Singh, V, eds. Breaking the Bow: Stories Inspired by the Ramayana. New Delhi: Zubaan Book, 2012. [Goodreads]

[7] Ramanujan, A. K., ed. ‘What Happens When You Really Listen’. Folktales from India. New York:Pantheon Books, 1991. 55-56. [Goodreads]


“The Speculative Ramayana” originally appeared in Kiski Kahani: The Ramayana Project. Imran Ali Khan (ed). Open Space Publications. 2012. Pp. 135-145. Reprinted with permission.

Anil Menon
Anil Menon's short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His debut novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Zubaan Books, 2010) was short-listed for the 2010 Vodafone-Crossword award. Along with Vandana Singh, he co-edited Breaking the Bow (Zubaan Books 2012), an international anthology of speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana epic. His most recent work is the novel Half Of What I Say (Bloomsbury, 2015). Website: