Ashok Banker’s Ramayana Series

Indian Authors are finally having their moment in the sun where they are big news and attracting the attention of the publishing houses, production houses and the readers in general.

Chetan Bhagat’s novel “3 mistakes of my life” was beautifully adapted into a poignant and moving motion picture Kai Po Che by Abhishek Kapoor. Bhagat’s previous novel was adapted into one of the highest grossing Indian movies of all times 3 idiots. I am neither a fan of Bhagat nor of 3 Idiots but Kai Po Che was a wonderful movie.

Couple of days ago, Amish Tripathi was paid a whopping 5Cr. an amount unheard of as an advance for his future books (which Amish says he hasn’t decided on the subject matter). This is due to the hugely popular Shiva Trilogy which reimagines the myth of Shiva and concocts a thriller-like story. Amish is being heralded as Indian Literary scene’s newest pop star.  Something akin to a Lady Gaga if I may draw that comparison – because while entertaining the Shiva Trilogy’s first two books are a disappointment when it comes to the prose. The story is gripping but big reveal of the second book was visible to me from a mile away – was still good but pop-star ish.

Now let me come to the reason why I set out to write this piece. When I read about the pop-star comment being made I immediately made the Lady Gaga vs. Adele comparison. And in this case Ashok Banker is analogous to Adele. A person so talented that their work will live on for decades to come.

I recently finished the 8-part Ramayana Series and am presently a few pages into Krishna Coriolis Series. What follows is a summary of the 8 books of the Ramayana Series with my overall review of the books.

Prince of Ayodhya: This is the kick off to the big adventure and Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana being my only exposure to the great epic of India I was a relative novice to the various nuances and supporting characters outside of Ram, Sita and Laxman. The story begins with the arrival of Vishwamitra to Ayodhya to ask Dashratha to send Ram with the Rishi to provide protection to his ashram from the demoness Tataka in the feared Bhayanak Van. Banker takes liberties with many elements from the “accepted” version of Valmiki/Tulsidas versions of Ramayana but the end result is a 70 mm rendering of the story that deserves the histrionics on display. Ram is not the god we have come to know him of. But he is on his way of reaching mythical status.  The story ends on a cliffhanger with Vishwamitra announcing their departure for mithila to attend a wedding – when Ram asks whose wedding The Rishi answers matter-of-factly “Yours”

Siege of Mithila: The second novel starts off shattering the damsel-in-distress image of Sita. Sita is as formidable an ally for Ram as Lakshman is. The delicate bond that forms between Ram and Sita on their journey back to Mithila while Sita is incognito is beautifully written. The Introduction of the demonic Ravana, his plans to invade the Aryan nations, his appearance at Sita’s Swayamwar are stuff of magic. There is a lot of Magic also on display. A chapter of great note is the rescuing of Ahilya from her banishment as a stone at the bottom of the river and the vetal attacks. This book is dark and only a precursor of things to come. The story ends with the Ram & Lakshman unleashing the Bramha-astra to annihilate Ravana’s advancing armies.  And the newly married brothers and their consorts proceed to Ayodhya.

Demons of Chitrakut: the story picks up as the wedding party that left from Mithila for Ayodhya is stopped by Parshuram, the legendary Axe-wielding avatar of Vishnu who is incensed that Ram broke the bow of Shiva during the Swayamwar with Sita. The passage about the wedding party’s arrival at Ayodhya the very visual description of the Raag Deepak that was specifically created to welcome Ram home comes alive in front of your eyes as you read each word.  What follows is perhaps the second most famous scene from Ramayana, the banishment of Ram for 14 years by the treacherous Kaikeyi. Here too Banker takes liberties in firmly establishing the good vs. the evil and painting Kaikeyi as the hapless tragic heroine under the sorcerous spell of Manthara.  Once in exile the story slows down with a few brief incidents of high drama, the shaming of Surpankha, the fight with the last surviving group of Rakshaasas who are goaded by Suparnaka to fight Ram. The story jumps a decade of living in exile in a few paragraphs and finishes with Ram making the final stand at Janasthan.

Armies of Hanuman: Hanuman is perhaps more loved than his Idol Ram. Banker spends considerable time lovingly and carefully building up the character of Hanuman. The story sees Ram, Sita and Lakshman retire to Panchvati after their battle with the Rakshaasas, Ratnakaran – the bear killer retires to meditate and will return later in the story as Valmiki himself.  Armies of Hanuman also features the most retold bit of the Ramayana story – the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana in the pushpak vahan. The way it is described is intense and thrilling. There is something almost voyeuristic about being outside and watching the story unfold.  The Story ends with Ram making the journey to Kishkinda to kill Vali and reinstate Sugreeva as the king of the vanar kingdom. This is military strategy at its best – Rama not having finished 14 years in exile does not want to ask Ayodhya for her army to rescue Sita from Lanka and instead tries to bring in the Vanar Army. It is here that Ram is anointed Siyavar Ramachandra – and the scene leading up to it is brilliantly written, wherein you wait on every word that ram utters urging the vanars to help him rescue his beloved.

Bridge of Rama: This story takes place 2 weeks after the events of Armies of Hanuman. Ram having successfully killed Vali and gaining the trust and respect of Sugreeva and his kingdom starts on a journey to the Lanka to rescue Sita. Thanks to Sugreeva and Hanuman vanar armies of other kingdoms also join Ram’s cause and each of the vanar species is described in exquisite detail. Hanuman goes from being a loyal Vanar friend of Ram to becoming the Vanar-Deva hybrid – the son of Vayu the god of wind. With his super-human powers Hanuman is able to accomplish spectacular fetes which form the most thrilling part of the novel. Hanuman through his great meditation in the cave  summons Jambvan to his cause and the bear armies. This rag tag army proceeds to the southern tip of the arya nation to build a bridge. When at the behest of Ravana the sea god Varun wreaks havoc and destroys the bridge Rama unleashes the arrows of celestial power given to him by Ansuya and causes Varun to line up Whales to allow Ram’s army to pass to land ashore Lanka.  This novel also features the devastation of Lanka after Hanuman’s tail is set on fire. The novel’s pace slackens a bit and there is a lot of talking that is going on and not enough action, but the beauty of Banker’s prose lifts the tedious passages several notches and delivers such moving moments as the point where Ram is anointed Maryada Purushottam .

King Of Ayodhya : upon landing in Lanka Ram’s army is surprised to find lanka to be a lush green paradise and not the hell that myths and legends proclaimed it to be.  But soon with the use of Maya Ravana raises a 1000 ft. wall to box in the army of vanars and bears and manages to kill scores of them. This novel makes up for the lack of action in Bridges by setting the stage for the final confrontation between Ram and Ravana. Many characters are introduced to the mix and each is beautifully fleshed out. This is the hallmark of Banker’s writing style where he goes to great detail to describe the physical attributes and the mannerism so that you are not merely reading about a character you are actually watching the army general vajradant charging at Ram’s army. Kumbhkaran, Indrajit, Mandodari are all fleshed out in the greatest of details possible.  The battle scenes, the final killing of Ravana, Sita’s return to Ram, the Agnipariksha and the return to Ayodhya after Vibhishena is appointed as the king of Lanka are magical under the penmanship of Banker.

This is where Banker decided to leave the Ramayana series and goes on to extol the reasons why. His forewords and the afterword to King of Ayodhya are so beautifully worded that it feels like a personal conversation with the author. When he tells you that he cannot bring himself to the idea that the Ram who waged a war to save his beloved Sita would so cruelly banish her based on rumors you tend to nod your head in agreement or want to argue with him that it was Dharma that compelled Ram to do so but it is because all through the 6 books Banker like a wonderful story teller has brought you in to this magical fantastical world that he has taken meticulous details to bring to life.

However like Valmiki added the Uttarakand, Banker goes on to write two more books to explore the circumstances in which Ram could go from the Siyavar to Sita banisher.

The Vengeance of Ravana: This 7th book of the Ramayana series appears to be mostly imagined as none of the events from this book come to mind when I try to remember the TV series from an age gone by. This is more sci-fi than mythology but still a gripping read. There are threats that are coming to fruition as part of some master plan that Ravana set in motion even before Ram was born. Here the notions of Fate and Karma are explored; here Ram is made aware that he is in fact a Vishnu-avatar. Banker in his foreword mentions that this book may leave you frustrated because it will not give you any answers but leave more questions – I tend to agree with him because there are several parallel threads which seem to going on without any connection to each other. While seemingly incomplete the book is not without its thrills. The story of Aatikeya a character I was completely unaware about is interesting; the part where they see parallel universes through the vortal is mind-bending sci-fi.

Sons of Sita: The unavailability of this book had me going from bookstore to bookstore asking to be put on the list to be notified when the book became available, finally after not being able to find the book I bought the book off Amazon for my Kindle app on my iPod and it starts off with a Ram so unrecognizable from Banker’s earlier books that it takes a while to fully comprehend how much time has passed and how changed Samrath Ramachandra is. This book introduces us to Luv and Kush the twin sons of Sita borne in exile at the ashram of Valmiki. Their youthful exuberance and childish innocence is the perfect foil for the events that will soon unfold as Ram embarks on an expansion campaign via the Ashwamegha Yagna. The Ashwamegha Yagna takes perhaps the most distant route from the versions in Valmiki’s version but it also adds a sense of adventure on a grand scale. The subsequent reconciliation of Ram and Sita, the final Agnipariksha that is asked off Sita, her sense of betrayal and the vanishing act by urging her mother earth to swallow her all bear the Banker Trademark that of detailed descriptive writing which paints more pictures than most authors. my favourite line from the book that still runs a chill down my spine is uttered by Sita ” Then be forever a broken god”  just before she is swallowed by the earth … and this is also perhaps the reason why Ram is a flawed god.

While Ashok Banker takes many liberties with the Ramayana Series he does acknowledge them at the very outset. I wasn’t affected in the least because I had no history of having read Ramayana earlier and only patchy memory of watching the Ramayana on Sunday morning as a kid. As someone who loves movies these novels are like reading screenplay, each scene is vividly described and comes alive in front of your eyes, you feel like you’ve known every character intimately and are invested in the outcome of each of their journeys.  This Ramayana series was the reason why I am now obsessed with the Indian mythology as a store of fantastic stories, and the fact that Banker has a personal mission of writing a 65 book library of everything mythology is making me salivate as to when I will be able to get through reading all of it. Mr. Banker Thank you for all the wonderful adventures in Ayodhya and Lanka and everywhere enroute, I’ll see you in Dwarka and then we shall proceed to Hastinapur.