Thursday, February 05, 2015

Book review: Ramayana - The Game of Life (Part I & II) by Shubha Vilas

Name of book: Ramayana - The Game of Life (6-part series)
Part I: Rise of the Sun Prince
Part II: Shattered Dreams
ISBN-13: (Part I) 978-81-8495-530-9
                (Part II) 978-81-8495-531-6
Author: Shubha Vilas
Genre: Mythology
Publisher: Jaico Books
Format: Paperback
Rating: 2/5

Because I am a bibliophile, book-review blogger, and mythologist, I had to agree when debutante author, Shubha Vilas, asked me to read and review her Ramayana retellings. Also, I admit I don’t know my Ramayana as well as my Mahabharata. The first time I tried reading the epic, I chose Ashok Banker’s 8-part series. Not quite agreeing with his style of writing, I gave up mid-way. I got my second chance on the Ramayana with this book-review request, but looks like Lord Rama doesn't quite want me to know the whole story of his life. That’s because Ramayana - The Game of Life hasn't been able to make me stick around either.

Shubha Vilas’ all-too-simplistic rendition of the grand epic is a downer. I think I’m going to name it the Amish Syndrome - this dumbing down of mythology in juvenile literary style - that this current crop of mythology writers seem to be suffering from. Agreed, this pop mythology genre has regenerated a huge wave of interest in the subject among the youth, but the purist in me cannot help but smirk. Where’s the sweeping eloquence of epic literature? What about the larger-than-life characterisation of kings and heroes? Why must my Rama or my Shiva talk like ordinary mortals?  What’s wrong in expecting a little grandiosity from the grandest Indian epics, even if they are re-tellings in the 21st century? What I find missing sorely from works such as these is the poetic essence. Everything but the basic plot seems to be lost in translation.

What Shubha Vilas tries to do differently is offering, what I like to call, ‘moral footnotes’. In a format I’ve never seen before, the author goes on commenting upon situations in the plot - sometimes taking up almost half the page! Here are a couple of smaller examples:

BOOK 1, page 72, line 9: Such effusive praise words from Dasaratha placated and appeased Vishwamitra.
Footnote: Sweet, genuine words of gratitude are the best welcome drinks!

BOOK 2, page 142, last line: The citizens wept, looking at each other, trying to solve the puzzle - the sight of a sobbing Sumantra, a despondent Lakshmana and a composed Rama was confusing them.
Footnote: Puzzles are fun to solve on paper but when life itself becomes a puzzle, then fun fizzles out.

Not exactly pearls of wisdom, don’t you think? He tries to fuse the formats of retelling and commentary, but doesn't quite measure up. Both the language and content of these footnotes come across as unnecessary, silly even. To be fair, he does offer some sensible insights in places and the background to certain situations in others. But I stopped reading the footnotes by page 5, and I hope the author will stop writing them by book three. The intent may be good, but the format doesn’t work. Scholastic references are what footnotes are for and that’s perhaps how the author should use them.

Another unique feature of these books are these text boxes where Vilas deems to offer more moral ‘discourse’ or sometimes even management mantras! So whether you want it or not, you have an author, commentator, moral compass, annotation enthusiast, spiritual adviser and a management guru all rolled into one.

The saving grace of this book is the author’s fairly crisp narrative style (barring the footnote business, of course!). If the reader is looking for a simple retelling for the sake of the story and the myths, this is an option to consider. But for a reader with finer literary tastes, may I suggest a wide berth?