If there were to be a competition for the work of literature that’s inspired the most re-tellings, the Ramayana would win hands down. Zubaan Books will soon add to this vast ocean of spin-offs with an anthology of speculative fiction stories called, appropriately enough, the Speculative Ramayana. The editors, Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, are inviting submissions from anyone who can ‘surprise’ them. Here they talk a bit more about the project and the epic.
How did the concept of the anthology arise?
Anil: Vandana Singh, Suchitra Mathur and I had conducted a three-week in-residence speculative-fiction workshop at IIT-Kanpur last year (June-July). One of the participants, Pervin Saket, wrote a great story that interpreted Sita in a totally different way. It got us thinking about how an anthology of such stories would look like. The Indian epics are often listed as early examples of speculative fiction, so we figured it’d be interesting to see what modern spec-fic writers could do with something like the Ramayana. Vandana and I approached Zubaan Books. Both Urvashi and Anita loved the idea, and we all ran down the rabbit hole.
How many stories do you plan to include?
Anil: Not less than 10 and not more than 20. It depends on several factors: the sizes of the stories, the number of quality entries we get, the book’s pricing… I know we’ll make an all-out effort to include as many great stories as we can.
What kind of writers and stories are you looking for?
Anil: We are looking for spec-fic stories that use the Ramayana in an essential and innovative way. In other words, for those of us who know the Ramayana, the stories should immediately evoke some aspect of it, yet the stories should also have the essential flavor of spec-fic – an air of possibility that pushes into the unknown, beyond the obvious, the boring, so to speak. Vague? Of course. If we’re not vague, how will we be surprised?
Who is the book aimed at?
Anil: Books tend to find their readers, so I’m hesitant to corral the critters. As a kid, I read many books not appropriate for my age. That said, the anthology will probably be best appreciated by young adults and above.
You list A. K. Ramanujan’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” as a resource. Are you concerned that this project may invite a similar reaction from the Hindu right?
Anil: This anthology is not about Hinduism or any other religion. It’s a collection of stories, inspired by the Ramayana, by some of the best speculative fiction writers in India and around the world. If anything, we should be delighted that our epics continue to inspire so many writers around the world. We are. We hope others will be too.
Vandana: One of the great things about Hinduism is its embrace of a diversity of viewpoints, a sort of creative extravagance, a kind of generosity of spirit. While this anthology is not a work of religion, it is a work inspired by this spirit, which is evident in the multifarious Ramayana traditions. In a sense one can understand this spirit as being consistent with the notion of Leela, of divine play, where the divine transcends categories of good and evil, in order to truly know itself. So again, while our anthology has no religious agenda or affiliation, it is in a sense continuing the glorious tradition of telling stories around the central story. Of inventing new patterns from the warp and weft of the old. Of asking questions about what a Ramayana of the future might be. Of taking the rich metaphors of the epic and finding meaning from it that might be relevant to modern life, real or imagined. One might imagine the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view, as the poetess Molla did, or from Ravana’s perspective, or marry the old tropes to science –fictional futures, technologies, adventures. Narrow minded people are everywhere and will probably find something to complain about no matter what we do. So why worry about them?
Should we read the Ramayana as a work of literature or a religious text? Can it be both simultaneously?
Anil: For me, the Ramayana is a great work of literature. Valmiki is known as Adi-kavi (first poet) after all.
Vandana: In my opinion the Ramayana can exist simultaneously as great literature and as a religious work. Because Hinduism is so fluid, so creative in its expression of the divine, this allows for a wide interpretative range. It allows also for a great stream of stories centered around the basic storyline, hence the proliferation of multiple Ramayanas. So instead of Hindu works being divine words of god handed down by some authority, instead I see them as a conversation between the divine and the mundane, including the part of the divine that is considered to be within all of us. Because in a sense the Ramayana is beyond categories, it is possible to see it as literature and/or to see it as a religious text, depending on who you are and how you are reading it.
Entries must be written and they must be in English. I can imagine the logistical challenges of accepting oral submissions and/or entries in other languages but given the rich oral and non-English tradition of Ramayana stories does this do full justice to the epic?
Anil: No, of course it doesn’t. But it’s because we realized our limitations, we decided to stick with English. Hopefully, this anthology will inspire efforts in other languages. The best response to a book is another book, isn’t it?
See the Zubaan page on the Speculative Ramayana for more details on submitting a manuscript and further background on the project: http://www.zubaanbooks.com/RamayanaAnthology.asp