Writer, teacher, translator — Arshia Sattar is known in many avatars. But it is her English translations of Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara that have perhaps brought her most renown. Arshia has also written several other books, including Lost Loves: Exploring Rama's Anguish. Her latest work, however, is a retelling of the Ramayana for children.
In an interview with Firstpost, Arshia explained why the Ramayana has continued to fascinate her over three decades, and what she kept in mind when narrating its story for younger readers.
Your previous books for children include Kishkindha Tails, Pampa Sutra and Adventures with Hanuman. How do you find writing for children different from writing for adults, apart from say, the language you may use? And in retelling the Ramayana for a young audience, what were some the factors you considered, or which influenced you?
Well, the most important thing really is the language — you have to limit your words but not your ideas. So, in a sense, you have to be pretty sure of what you want to say before you start writing. Especially with a story that so many children may know already. Mostly, though, you have to be entirely honest — if you love something, it has to show. If something bothers you, that has to show, too. Children have a real radar for falsehood and they’ll respond to that, so rather than pussy-foot around issues or incidents, it’s better to present them as plainly as you can and let children make up their own minds about what to think. That’s what I kept as a guideline when I was writing — no lies.
Your translation of Valmiki's Ramayana is considered among the most enduring and authoritative. Did you feel any pressure or apprehension when retelling the Ramayana for children, to make this one too similarly definitive?
That’s very kind of you, to think that my Valmiki translation is authoritative. I’m sure there are many who will disagree. And that’s the point — the more translations we have of a text that we cannot read in the original language, the better it is for us all. We’ll get closer to the original through interpretation, through nuance, through a translator’s politics. It’s the same with retelling the classics for children — the more versions there are, the richer will be our children’s understanding of a complex story. I hope the children that read my version will read other versions as well, perhaps when they are older, perhaps even now. It would be great if these versions differed as that would introduce younger readers to the fact that even the Ramayana has pluralistic and diverse traditions, that there are, in fact, many Ramayanas.
You once wrote: "I am not instinctively a writer for younger readers. I very much want to be. I envy the light grace of Seuss and Sendak and Lindgren but I take heart from the complexity and weight of some one like Hans Christian Andersen." And yet, writing for children is something you have done repeatedly, and wonderfully. Tell us a little about your process.
I think it’s the length and complexity of my relationship with Ramayana that let me write fluently and with clarity. This story I found easy to write — it sort of welled up inside me and then came spilling out. Some one asked me how long it took me to write the book and if I were to answer truthfully, it actually took me thirty years. The hardest thing was finding a voice — to pitch it such that children would understand it and yet a voice that was my own. I did a lot of reading aloud when I was writing, I changed a lot of words, some became simpler, some became longer and heavier. I also had to make sure that the characters sounded different from each other, so I had to think about who they were, as themselves and in relation to each other. I guess that’s no different from any other writer, really.
You've previously worked with artists like Shilo Shiv Suleman on your books. What was the experience of working with Sonali Zohra on this book like? The images look gorgeous, they're works of art!
Sonali’s illustrations are simply gorgeous — they’ve made the book and the story so much richer, they’ve given it another level. I’m so very glad that she saw the darkness in the tale. Juggernaut and I were very sure that we did not want to perpetuate the traditional images from children’s Ramayanas or from television Ramayanas. Sonali hit just the right note with her illustrations — they’re familiar enough but there’s a dimension to them that challenges our previously held notions of how the story should look and feel. I have to say that Sonali and I never communicated — so all the credit for putting the text and the images together so seamlessly goes to the people at Juggernaut, Gavin and Sivapriya (the editors).
Someone who had attended one of your lectures had written a blog post about a kind of dichotomy you see in India — one the one hand, everyone claims to "know" the Ramayana. But very few have actually read the text. Do you agree with this?
People in our generation tend not to read Ramayana because we think we know the story. We heard it from our grandparents, we watched it on TV, we know the comics. And for many of us, the story is disturbing and so we reject it out of hand. We say that we don’t need to read a story about a man who banishes his wife because of gossip, or a story about fixed caste hierarchies. But if we took the trouble to read Valmiki, I think we would be less troubled, not because these problems aren’t there, but because we have a chance to think about why things happened the way they did, why people did what they did. We may still reject Rama but there’s a good chance that we’ll learn to respect Sita.
Also, there have been many popular adaptations of the Ramayana — be it the many TV series (including the widely watched original one with Arun Govil) and then there are Amar Chitra Katha comics. What are your thoughts on these? Do they make the Ramayana accessible, do they make it mainstream, do they sacrifice its complexities?
All popular versions make the story accessible, they make it accessible to different kinds of people with different ideologies and different agendas. The Ramayana is already mainstream, it’s as mainstream as any story could possibly be — it’s sung and danced and painted and sculpted. It’s been that for centuries. I think that each new telling, whether as a text or a poem or a painting or a dance, adds some complexity to the story. It may be a complexity that some of us will not like, but whether we like it or not, the new telling forces us to recognise how multi-valent the story actually is. There’s something there for everyone — even for the people that we disagree with.
You mentioned in a recent interview how much you enjoyed the Ramayana as a child. But what drew you to it as an adult? What about it fascinated you to such a great extent that you made it your life's work?
I certainly didn’t intend it to be my life’s work. It’s just that 30 years later, I realise that I haven’t done much else. There’s always something that needs to be rethought, that catches my fancy, that makes me stop and wonder. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lakshmana, maybe because I just wrote a short essay about his death, which is very moving in the Valmiki version.
Over the end of 2014 to even April 2016, off and on, there have been controversies over Sanskrit and its seeming politicisation. And we also had two books during that time, Vikram Chandra's and Aatish Taseer's, that were about Sanskrit. You have previously said that you studied Sanskrit in order to be able to access the texts that you were fascinated by, but could you give us your opinion on the whole 'saffronisation' of Sanskrit issue, and these books, and the state of the language itself in India?
Sanskrit should be available to anyone who wants it — what’s so difficult about that? It’s a hard language to learn, so if you want to reach for it, be prepared. It’ll enrich your life as learning any new language enriches your life, by opening another world of ideas and images and perspectives. But knowing Sanskrit does not make you a better Indian or a better human being. Just like knowing English does not make you a better human being or less of an Indian. You’ll just be a person who knows some languages and doesn’t know others.
You had also written a few months ago, on the issue of calls for Sheldon Pollock to be 'sacked' from the Murty Classical Library project. Could you share your thoughts on the initiative itself, what it is making possible? Are you associated with it in any capacity?
I’m not associated with the Murty Library. It’s a fine and very ambitious initiative and from the way it’s been going so far, it’s fulfilled its many promises — texts from all the Indian traditions, great translations, reasonable prices. I can’t imagine why anyone would object to more Indian texts being available to more people. If the quality or the ideology of the translations is the problem, go ahead and make alternative translations. We’ll all be the wiser. Great texts are never exhausted by many translations, they are enriched. I would love to read translations that complemented or even ‘competed’ with those in the Murty Library.
Wendy Doniger was your PhD guide... Was it an upsetting time when [her book] The Hindus found itself at the centre of a huge row in India? What were your thoughts at the time?
Yes, it was. But it was equally upsetting when Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was in trouble.
Coming back to the Ramayana, what are aspects of the epic that even people who have a somewhat meaningful understanding (going beyond the TV series, popular narrations) of it, would be surprised by? What is an aspect of the Ramayana that you would really love to draw their attention to?
I’d love to draw people’s attention to how sad the story is. For me, it’s not merely a triumphalist story about a man who gets his kingdom back, about a god who sets the world right. Within that framework, it’s about a husband and wife losing each other, about the separation between fathers and sons, about misunderstanding and betrayal among brothers, about power and petty jealousy, about how troubled family relationships can be. The Ramayana teaches us how hard it is to be good to the people that we love best.
And what project will you be working on next?
I’m guessing that Ramayana will call me back, somewhere, somehow, before too long. I can’t wait.
Arshia Sattar's Ramayana for children, illustrated by Sonali Zohra is available exclusively on Juggernaut