Thursday, February 22, 2024

Reimagining the Ramayana in Troubled Times

[Review of Lindsay Pereira’s “The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao”]

Valmiki Rao is a 70 something retired postmaster who lives in a Ganga Niwas chawl in Mumbai, the same house he grew up in. Never married and with no dependents, he is the quintessential observer. He sees all that happens in his chawl, he empathises with the struggles of people, and he offers no judgement. During his life, he witnessed multi-generational family dynamics among the residents of the chawl. A chawl which had only Hindus families- no Muslims, no Christians, no Parsis- most of them lower caste families from the same area in Ratnagiri. Most of the original inhabitants of the chawl were mill workers who had migrated to Bombay, and without going into the history, the author tells the story of how the influence of the largely communist trade unions on the political landscape of the city was gradually replaced by that of the more militant Shiva Sena.

The major part of the book is set in 1992–93, the period where India in general witnessed religious frenzy of the kind not seen since Partition. Most people in Bombay would have struggled to place Ayodhya on the map, they knew that it was unlikely they would ever visit Ayodhya and pray at the Ram Mandir, yet so many of them was invested in ensuring that the Babri Masjid came down and the temple came up. You see how the Shiv Sena was able to capture the loyalty of the youth, not by offering them anything tangible, but merely by letting them know that they and their frustrations were visible to the party. The book offers a sociological background to the growing radicalisation of youth, and of how they were manipulated into considering people with whom they have no personal interaction as the ‘enemy’.

The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao, is not as much a retelling of India’s favourite epic, as much as it is a re-imagining of the same. The characters can be easily identified. Ramu is a promising young lad born to parents who doted on him. He remains the ‘golden boy’ even after his mother passes away, and his father brings home a younger second wife who is determined to ensure that her step children are cut off. He falls in love with Janaki, the daughter of a (relatively) wealthy shopkeeper, who reciprocates his advances. Ravi Anna, from the ‘enemy’ chawl also falls in love with Janaki and with the help of his sister plots to kidnap her. Sundar is the quintessential boy who lives and works in a roadside chai stall- he has little idea about his family, but he is fiercely loyal to Ramu. The story plays out against the backdrop of the riots that erupt in the city. The story of Ramu and Janaki could be the story of countless others- pawns in a larger political game over which they have no control.

Without it being the central theme, the book speaks of how women are often silenced in society. A woman might do no wrong, yet she is blamed. And she is the one expected to suffer in silence because of decisions made by ‘her’ men. In one of the most poignant scenes of the book, Janaki confronts Ramu who has gone visibly cold, and when he turns around accuses her, in sheer distress, she rushes out into a rioting city. Her’s is the story of many women, caught between the whims of fathers, brothers, and lovers each of whom act as if their honour rests in her vagina.

Like Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”, the book is an ode to the city of Bombay. It is full of small details which bring the city to life. He talks of how life would come to a standstill on Sundays when entire families would gather around the TV to watch Ramayana. He describes how Govindas would make a human pyramid to break the matka on Gokulashtami, and how families would throw water on them from windows. He talks of carrom tournaments conducted under naked blubs, and chai tapris with unnamed and unseen young boys rushing around. He describes how chawls gradually give way to co-operative housing societies, but how nothing else really changes. The book is set in the past, but it remains a cautionary tale for the present. It clearly articulates how no matter who wins or loses the political battles, it is the common man who pays the price.

This is definitely one of the best books I read this year.

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