An Indian Odyssey – Interview

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Martin Buckley has re-traced, in a meandering fashion over 25 odd years, Rama’s journey south from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka on a Bullet, trains and buses.  He didn’t manage to fly back north in the Pushpaka Vimaana, but he did fly a Hanuman plane in Bangalore.  A British journalist and latterly travel writer, Martin recently published An Indian Odyssey, an exploration of the Ramayana based on his own extensive wanderings in India.  He talks to Venetia Ansell about Valmiki’s style – like Hemingway’s – and the echoes of Apocalypse Now in the Ramayana.

28th March 2009

Martin Buckley first came to the subcontinent in 1982.  “Like everyone else I came here to find myself” he quips, but adds more seriously that in fact he thinks he did.  His journey started in Sri Lanka, where he gradually became aware of the existence of the Ramayana through the latest Hindu-Buddhist conflict, the aftermath of which he had landed in, and the constant mention of a woman called Sita in the old British tea estates.  Arming himself with a battered copy of the Ramayana he travelled north and was surprised to see just how much conversation, and controversy, it provoked – like the Tamilian on a train who explained to him that the whole story was a Brahmin conspiracy, white invading Aryans against darker native Dravidians.  He followed the poem through its incarnation as the legendarily popular TV serial to its appropriation by the BJP and the notorious events of Ayodhya in 1992, an event Martin calls “the 9/11 of India”. 

Aware of the turmoil this epic has caused and of the reverence with which both the poem and many of its protagonists are held, he set out to capture something of the Ramayana in today’s India as well as to offer his own re-telling of the story.  “I tried to unpick the extraordinarily complicated web that is the Ramayana“.  The book delves into Ramayana traditions all across the sub-continent and South East Asia, and delivers some fascinating tidbits such as the belief (fed by a strain of Sinhalese nationalism which traces its roots to the Aryans) in Sri Lanka that Ravana, the dark and evil ‘Dravidian’ emperor whom the Aryan Rama battles, is not only a hero but an Aryan hero.

Martin wanted to go back to the Valmiki Ramayana, “I suppose because of my Western desire to get to the Ur Ramayana, as if there was such a thing”, despite acknowledging the one major problem with Valmiki’s version for modern India: it doesn’t really depict Rama as a god.  “Rama is not the perfect man”, he asserts, “he has doubts.”  The jungle tests Rama in ways he has never been tested before.   Martin’s Rama is uncompromising when he kills Vali and icy cold as he submits Sita to the fire test. Addressing a Bangalorean audience at a book reading recently, he tried to explain that it is possible for him for Rama to be a god and yet also be the very human character of the Sanskrit poem.  “I’m not a reductionist from the West who wants to come and lecture you on your own god; if he’s a god for you then he’s a god for me.  Simple.”  Not everyone seemed convinced, but the description in An Indian Odyssey of one or two of the author’s intimate religious experiences with Rama the god suggests that their scepticism is misplaced.

Martin’s version of the Ramayana is punchy and modern. “The history of the Ramayana is the history of trying to whitewash the text,” declares Martin, whereas he gives us Valmiki with all the “blatant sexuality” of episodes such as Shurpanakha meeting Rama, and the brutal reality of jungle warfare.   One woman at the book reading comments that the scene in which Rama and Lakshmana dispatch Khara’s 14,000-strong army reminded her of a well known video game, but in fact the grisly imagery is largely Valmiki’s.  The re-telling is though far too brief, delivered in sparse one page interludes in the main text of the travelogue.  Martin says that his publishers edited it incredibly heavily, perhaps concerned about the average attention span of the target audience. The unfortunate result of this is a narrative which although wonderfully fast-paced and vivid gives the reader no opportunity to really engage.  It’s rather like watching a film trailer – a series of dramatic flashes that give you a tantalising glimpse of the full story.

The travelogue itself is a wonderful romp through all sorts of Indias replete with a commentary whose barb is directed particularly at the ‘Kingfisher India’ as Martin calls it, epitomised in places like the air conditioned highway fast food joint, where a frog-faced family of seven silently stuff themselves – evidence of the developing world rich’s belief that “only systematic gluttony will keep poverty at bay”.   Often though, the keen-sighted Englishman makes way for a credulous traveller genuinely seeking to access India’s rich tradition of spirituality.  Martin’s journey is as much about using the Ramayana to discover Hinduism, which he wholly embraces, as to discover India.  All of which makes it odd that his Ramayana is almost totally rationalised.  Hanuman’s crossing to Lanka is exciting (and dramatic: you can’t help but picture a muscular Hrithik Roshan when Hanuman delivers lines like “I don’t believe in luck.”), but it involves a fishing boat and a low tide rather than a flying monkey, a talking mountain and a hungry sea monster.   Possibly this will endear it to Western readers, but the re-telling loses something in the process. 

 It is the human element of the “tortured central characters” that for Martin makes the Ramayana great literature.  And he is quite sure the West will think so too, when they realise the Ramayana exists.  He is perplexed at the complete ignorance in the West about the poem.  “Ask an educated, well read person in the UK about Indian literature, and they will most probably talk vaguely about the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita but nothing else.”  He wrote this book in part to create more awareness about the Ramayana, but although designed for the West – to be sold as India’s answer to Homer’s Odyssey – he was keen that it be published in India too.

Martin hopes to publish a much fuller version of his re-telling soon.  In the meantime, he recommends a slim volume by Purushottama Lal, who has ‘transcreated’ the text, published by Writers Workshop.  Martin’s full length version though will be eagerly awaited.  With any luck this energetic journalist turned storyteller who celebrates the “rawness (and) raunch” of Valmiki’s text will help win the Ramayana a new audience not just in the West but also in metropolitan India.  Hanuman: Boy Warrior has just been launched as India’s first ever desi-developed video game; the time is ripe.

An Indian Odyssey – Martin Buckley, Random House 2008 is available on the publisher’s UK and India websites, as well as Amazon.

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