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Adam and Ulysses are people that many of us grew up with as are the fairies and elves from British folklore thanks to Western writers and film-makers dabbling in Greek and Roman mythology, Biblical stories and myths and folklore to capture the imagination of modern readers and audiences. And in India, too, vernacular writers have turned to our very own epics, history and mythology to recreate them as popular writing. Now, it's the turn of Indian writers writing in English, who have already made their presence felt in world literature, to take our epics global to readers of fiction.
Ashok K Banker's Prince of Ayodhya, Book One of the Ramayana, which was recently released in India by Penguin is a journey in that direction. "The original Ramayana was written three thousand years ago by a reformed thief-turned-sage named Valmiki. Now, with breathtaking imagination and brilliant storytelling, Banker has recreated this epic tale for modern readers everywhere," says the book's cover. And the author himself is upbeat about this mammoth exercise that he has embarked on. "After I finish the seven books of the Ramayana, I intend to write the Mahabharata, the Book of Krishna and finally the book of Kalki and Ganesha, which in a sense will be coming back to the beginning of creation,'' he says. In fact, he has fin-ished writing the first four books of the Ramayana over the last four years and has sold the rights for all the seven books to Orbit publishers in UK.
Banker, however, stresses that it was not really a motivation to create popular fiction and take Indian epics global that has driven him. "For me there was no external motivation of money, social context or political circumstances. I was writing from personal obsession and a childhood love of epic story-telling. I wanted to take all the great leg-ends of Indian history and retell them. In the West history and my-thology has been told and retold millions of times. Even today popular fiction and films and even science fiction, TV are recreating them,'' he says.
Efforts to recreate history and mythology are obviously well re-ceived by historians and teachers of history in India. Feels Dr Samita Sen, Reader, Department of History, Calcutta University, a recipient of the prize fellowship at Trinity College (Cambridge University) in 1990-94: "Both mythology and history are cultural resources available to us for creative re-engagement. It is not only possible but even desirable that we draw on these resources and involve ourselves in a 'modern' engagement. The absence of such engagements have resulted in a near-monopoly of obscurantist and crassly commercial approaches. There is, of course, a long tradition of literary engagements with my-thology, rather more than history. Expectedly, however, these have been more in regional languages than in English. It is to be remem-bered that 'Indian writing in English' may have a long history but it is only very recently that it has leapt to prominence. This means that there is now a market and a relevance for such enterprises.''
But apart from the urge to retell the stories, it has also been a personal journey of discovery for Banker and a search for his roots. "My parents came from different religious backgrounds and split up when I was very young. My search for an identity has been very intense and I have often wondered whether I was really Scots, Goan, Gujarati, Dutch or Sri Lankan,'' he says.
And again from a historian's point of view, such a journey though personal, is viewed as a step in the right direction. "The issue here is not about knowing more mythology/epics as much as establishing an emotional relationship with our cultural past/present. In the latter sense, fictionalized accounts of myths/epics are a step in the right di-rection,'' says Dr Sen. And while Banker has borrowed heavily from all the available ver-sions of the Ramayana including Valmiki and Kamban to retell the story in today's idiom, he has also tried to explore more intensely and thoroughly than ever before the nuances of character.
Though the story so far has action as a central theme the author is not really looking at selling rights for a film script. "There's a story at the heart of it all. I'm not interested in film rights at all. And neither am I interested in creating a brand. I love writing and the book is cen-tral for me,'' says Banker. The book is already being distributed in 55 countries and 7 languages. "It is very exciting for me that 1000s of readers around the world are getting familiarised with the Ramayana for the first time through my book. I've got letters from readers in places like Cambria, UK, and Irvington, USA. saying they've never read an Indian tale before. Interestingly, apart from non-Indians there are many readers of Indian origin too who are buying the book,'' he says.
The book which was published first in UK earlier this year has already has two reprints and 30,000-40,000 copies have been sold.