Collected Works: Literature
Ramayana: A Retelling
by Daljit Nagra
Novel in verse
An army rests in the land of Lanka, in a dreamy garden full of fruits. The ‘calm polleny breeze’ is too perfect, so a monkey god is sent to investigate. ‘Shrinking / to a pip size / he dived / through / and about / the warm earth.’ His findings are worrisome. The lawn is set on the back of a tentacled, serpentine beast, ready and willing to crush unwanted visitors into ‘poison soup’. Thinking fast, the microscopic primate zips into the demon’s mouth, ricochets through its brain, slicing it up, and emerges, soaked in slime.
The Ramayana is one of the great epics of Hindu literature. It follows Rama, a prince and avatar of the supreme god Vishnu, during fourteen years of exile. When his wife, Sita, is abducted and imprisoned by the demon king Raavana, he leads a cohort to free her, with Hanuman, the monkey god, alongside him. The tale exists in countless versions, oral and written, that stretch across religious and national boundaries. In his retelling, Daljit Nagra borrows from several interpretations, mixing hues to form his own vibrant technicolour.
Reading, one imagines a storyteller in the flesh, enthusing before an attentive crowd. The language is colloquial, the grammar and use of punctuation malleable to suit the purpose. Changes in font size and style act as emphatic hand gestures, and exclamation marks abound. The words often refuse the limitations of horizontality, sometimes falling, sometimes flying across the page. In one instance, letters curve in concentric semicircles, mirroring the trajectory of the weapons they describe.
These experiments with formatting act to contain and harness the poet’s infectious energy. As the book strains to hold Nagra’s flurry within its margins, the lines must bend and break to cope. The volume that results from this literary tussle is a fresh perspective on an age-old tale, and an exuberant introduction for newcomers. Nagra’s retelling is a multi-faith Ramayana for all, one that reveres its source material not only as an important religious text, but also as a great story.
Words by John Wadsworth
More to discover
You can visit Daljit Nagra's website here, read an excerpt of Ramayana: A Retelling on Google Books, and hear a reading by the author here. Nagra has written about the process of adapting the Ramayana in an article for The Guardian.
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