Prince of Ayodhya
by Ashok K. Banker
Published by Orbit
532 pages, 2003
An Epic Rendering
Reviewed by Mrinal Bose
Yet another version of Ramayana, the great Indian epic, is well underway. The epic is now 3000 years old and has inspired different versions at different times in its long life. In Ashok K. Banker's rendering, the novelty is that the ancient tale gets a modernized version by someone who has passionately studied, researched and lived with the material for the past 20 years.
Banker's Prince Of Ayodhya is just the length of as it should be -- not abridged as some have been. Neatly divided into seven volumes, each comprising more than 500 pages, the epic is being published serially in UK, USA, Germany and many Commonwealth countries as well as in several languages.
What is it that has attracted publishers around the world? For one thing, the epic has a simple, long and intriguing storyline, which still resonates. It is permeated with fantasy material that is appealing and irresistible in its own way. It is perhaps this fantasy quotient which publishers readily reckon to be a perfect fit for the mass market. Then, of course, perhaps it's more simple than any of that: a great story is a great story in any language, at any time.
Prince of Ayodhya , the first volume in Ashok K. Banker's Ramayana -based series, opens with Rama, the prince, awakening after a bad dream on a moonlit night in his bedroom chamber. In just a few deft strokes, the author gives us a vivid idea of the prince -- his looks, education and attitude -- the state of Ayodhya, the soft-flowing Sarayu river, the peaceful ambiance in and around the state, and the unseen dangers looming over the country and its people.
With the atmosphere and tone perfectly set, the reader is led straight into the great tale. Preparations are underway for coronation of the young prince on his 16th birthday. Two sages at the gate of the palace, one following the other, each one claiming that he is Viswamitra, the seer-mage, a sage among sages, a seer that other seers look up to reverentially. The old king Dasaratha is puzzled, failing to recognize the real one.
The real Vishwamitra has to prove his bona fides and utters a mantra to change the impostor back into his true shape. The other one was a demon, a shape-shifting Asura, sent by Ravana, the king of demons, who wants to destroy Ayodhya. The grateful king offers to pay anything the great sage asks of him. Vishwamitra asks for the services of Ram to accompany him on a mission. The sage says that the mission is important, as it would save Ayodhya as well. After much dithering, the king agrees to send Rama along with the sage, but another of the king's four sons, being very much attached to his elder brother, follows them as well.
It's a difficult terrain with impassable roads. They have a harrowing time trudging their way first on foot and then on a kind of boat to reach the sages' place at Vayanak-van. The sage empowers the two princes and prepares them for the fight. The demons, being aware of Rama's presence, launch an all out attack to kill the two brothers. True to the sages' prescience, Ram fights valiantly and kills anybody and everybody that dares attack them.
Banker's Ramayana is an elegant, robust and highly textured account of Rama's heroic but checkered life, told with great taste, delicacy and imagination. The author's style has a sharp audio-visual character and that makes for a delectable read as well. The narrative never sags or comes across as hackneyed or trite.
Non-Indian readers shouldn't be dismayed at the free and rampant use of Indian words in the text. Though they might seem a bit indigestible at first, they ultimately contribute hugely to the ambiance of Banker's book.
I look forward to reading the next volumes of this modern Ramayana. If Prince Of Ayodhya is a good sampling, it seems likely that Banker's creation will become a classic. | June 2003
Mrinal Bose is a Kolkata-based author and web-columnist, formerly an editor with suite101.com. He's currently busy shopping around his first novel.