myth (ii)

What makes a story a myth? What makes a hero a god? What makes one version of the story the true one, the first telling of the story the only one? Can black characters not be grey at the same time, and white characters be empty? If one grandmother makes Sita the daughter of Mandodhari, is she wrong? If one village sings Urmila's story instead of Sita's, do they become less legitimate? If I tell of Ravana the conqueror, the benevolent emperor of the Ten Heads, would I be evil? If, for me, the traitor is Vibheeshana and the loyal is Kumbhakarna, the righteous is Angada and the wronged is Vali, is my story not a story about the good and the worse? If Valmiki etched his story in stone, and I only tell mine to my niece in the dead of the night, would my story not be solid, could his not be forgotten?

I was going to ask these questions a week ago, in a context completely different from this one. But in light of what has happened with Ramanujan's essay, I ask these questions again.

If history can carry a story, if communities distort it, and our politics shape its morals, is black black and white white? Can Sita not be Ravana's daughter and the one that he is consumed by, at the same time? Is Ravana the terrible, the enemy of the gods not Ravana the terrific, of a thousand years of penance and Shiva's own boons? If Rama is righteous, and Rama is perfect, and Rama is God, is he still not a man, consumed by the need for vengeance, above all else? Can a hero be a man? Why should the true telling of the story be only the one that is first heard? Can a myth not be just a story?


myth (i)


Sita said...


(1) A lot of people have asked what I'm talking about when I mentioned AK Ramanujan's essay. Delhi University recently removed an essay by AK Ramanujan called 'Three Hundred Ramayanas' from its history syllabus because of some Hindu right pressure. It's basically an essay that explores different tellings of the Ramayana from different cultures.

(2) Nothing is ever 'just a story'. Every telling has its politics. So when I say 'can a myth not be just a story' I mean to ask why something that is taken to be something that's larger than the story itself can't also be just that much.

Anonymous said...

Today I had a perplexing/interesting discussion with two women on the subject of Ramayan - a young woman who is interested in reading different versions/renderings of Urmila's life in Ramayan, personally invested in studying the portrayal of Urmila in different historical periods as a woman, a wife of Laxman and what she may have done with her life in the 14 years that her husband wasn't around.

The other woman is older - and she reveres the text as a religious one, says she has grown up on Ramayan and Mahabharat. She was baffled at why someone would be interested in different versions and why raise questions one may not be able to get answers to.

Personally I am of the belief that stories - the really good ones - allow room for several transformations (and therein lies the power of myths) - of forms and of what different readers can do with them. Some can posit them in a political framework and (ab)use them, others can make them life-lines when sinking in quicksand.

But(on the subject of Ramanujan) no one should take away another's right to access material written by others, and/or to interpret it according to their cultural/historical positions.