Arshia Sattar’s Ramayana for Children, gorgeously illustrated by Sonali Zohra, is being released by Juggernaut. In her author’s note, Sattar writes, “Valmiki’s Ramayana is the oldest version of Rama’s story that we have. It was composed in Sanskrit about two and a half thousand years ago… [and it] is my favourite and there are many reasons for that… Most importantly, it is here that we see Rama as a human being, just like us. He laughs, he cries, he gets angry, he is sad and even lonely. Sometimes, he acts in ways that confuse us and we ask if he was always right in what he did.”
The Wire reproduces two extracts from it:
Sugriva stumbled into the shadow of Rishyamuka where his followers were waiting for him. They attended to his wounds and bruises and wiped the blood from his face. ‘What a fine friend you are, Rama,’ he panted. ‘Where were you? Why didn’t you do something? I’m half dead because of you!’
‘I couldn’t tell which one was you, Sugriva. You and Vali look exactly alike. I couldn’t take the chance of killing you,’ replied Rama.
‘Well, what are we going to do, then?’ said Sugriva with fear in his eyes.
‘Call Vali out again tomorrow. I will make no mistake. Lakshmana, put that flowering creeper around Sugriva’s neck, like a garland. I will be able to identify him with that,’ said Rama.
The next morning, Sugriva, wearing the garland of flowers, challenged Vali again. Vali swaggered out of the city gates, confident that he would defeat Sugriva easily. Once more, the brothers fought, locked hand to hand, foot to foot, forehead to forehead. They heaved and twisted and threw each other to the ground. Then, an arrow whizzed through the air and hit Vali in the back. He collapsed at once, pulling Sugriva on top of him. Sugriva struggled to his feet and stood there, looking down at his dying brother.
‘Who did this to me?’ said Vali. ‘Who shot me in the back when I was fighting another opponent? This is not just, this is not right!’
Rama emerged from behind the tree and came up to Vali. ‘I am Rama, prince of Ayodhya, son of Dasharatha. I have killed you because of what you have done to your brother. You took his wife and you banished him from the kingdom. He is younger than you, you should have treated him like a son. It is your own actions that brought about your death, Vali.’
‘But, Rama, you always do the right thing. I have heard about you. You stand firm in dharma. How could you shoot me in the back when you were hidden, when I was fighting another? Surely that was wrong,’ said Vali.
‘You are a monkey, Vali,’ snapped Rama. ‘What do you know of what is right and what is wrong, about what is dharma and what is not? How can you question me about what I did? Sugriva and I have a pact of friendship. His enemy is my enemy. It is too late for you to argue or to question what happened.’
‘Ah! One cannot see where one’s actions lead. It was my fate to be killed by you, Rama.’ Vali sighed. ‘But I can try and make up for what I did. Sugriva, take my only son, Angada. Look after him as if he were your own, treat him well, as I never treated you. Let him be king of the monkeys after you. Look after my wife, she has no one. The sun is growing dim, I must go now, to the lands of our fathers.’ Vali clasped Sugriva’s hand as he took his last breath.
With an almighty burst of energy, Hanuman tore through the ropes that bound him and leapt upward, leaving his rakshasa captors in a heap on the ground. The monkey sprang from wall to wall, from tower to tower, using his great tail to set fire to everything around him. His father, the wind god, fanned the flames and soon Lanka was burning.
Their clothes and hair on fire, the rakshasas ran screaming towards the water, carrying their children in their arms as their homes crackled and burned and collapsed. There was smoke everywhere and the bright moon was dimmed as ashes and soot were carried into the air by the wind. Hanuman laughed and thumped his chest as he watched the confusion he had caused. Suddenly, he stopped. ‘What have I done? I’ve set fire to the city, which is a good thing. But what about Sita? Will this fire spread to her grove of trees? Sugriva and Rama will never forgive me if I harm Sita. I will become famous in the three worlds as a fool!’
In his panic, Hanuman ran to the edge of the city and plunged his tail into the waves of the ocean to douse the flames. Then he rushed back to the palace garden, having reduced his size. To his great relief, he saw the grove was as green and peaceful as ever. He jumped into the clearing and appeared before Sita without fear as the rakshasis who guarded her were distracted by the fire in the city. ‘You are safe, my lady,’ he panted. ‘How is it that this grove remains cool and green while the rest of the city burns?’
‘It is the power of my faith and my love for Rama,’ said Sita. ‘Go, Hanuman! Bring Rama here as quickly as you can. I cannot live much longer without him.’ As Sita wiped her tears, Hanuman reached the southern edge of Lanka in leaps and bounds. He expanded himself till he was as tall as the city walls and pushed back against the earth. He leapt into the air, his tail streaming behind him as he flew through the skies like a comet.
Arshia Sattar is a translator and teaches classical Indian literatures at various institutes across the country.