#85: REBIRTH. Ka, by the Italian writer Roberto Calasso, is a breathtaking and revelatory book. Calasso had hit the boards running in 1993 with The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a reimagining of the classic Greek myths; in Ka, subtitled “Stories of the Mind and Gods of India,” he dives into the Indic myths and restores to them not only their brutal and erotic power but their mysterious, fluxive, almost vegetative qualities: the stories grow from each other as naturally as a flower from a stalk from a seed, and as startlingly, bafflingly, as the lotus stalk blooms from Vishnu’s belly. The collection of retold myths is usually a rote, schoolbookish genre: plots and characters but stale prose and no manna, no power, no emanations. Calasso is a full-flower European intellectual, and I’ll match any odds you offer that he is familiar with Heinrich Zimmer and Mircea Eliade and all the great twentieth-century mythographers, but that’s all behind the prose; he is also, here, an artist working solely, with an expressive and sensuous style, to render the tale for the tale’s sake: myth as a way of knowledge. He uses the tropical welter of the Indic myths to envelop us; and when he arrives at the open field of the stories about the Buddha and Ananda he demonstrates how Buddhism grew out of Hinduism with a clarity we feel in our bones. Tim Parks has translated beautifully, not least in the playful cadences that close the book, that lull us back into story and wheel us back around to the book’s beginning. Calasso at the end evokes the hymn to Ka from the Rig Veda, with its teasing, lyric questions: “He who brought forth the great and lucid waters: Who shall we adore with our oblations?” Ka—the Sanskrit word for “Who?”—is the book’s question; these stories, from the great and lucid waters of Indic myth, are its myriads of answer.
One of the epic plot clusters of Indian myth oddly omitted by Calasso is the Ramayana—the Indian Odyssey to their Iliad, the Mahabharata. The story of Rama and Sita and Hanuman is certainly still at the center of the popular Hindu imagination, and it keeps popping up in India in every form imaginable. Posters of its gods are in every market, like hallucinatory versions of the pious Catholic calendars I grew up with; in 1988 a 78-hour television serial version of the story brought India to a standstill every week, a mixture of Dad’s-garage special effects and a floridity of acting and visual style that defies satire (some of it’s on Youtube); new editions and versions continue to be published, mostly pared back to the central plot line, perhaps the easiest way to approach this distant and overwhelming work. The Mahabharata, the oldest of the Indian epics, is in its current complete form eight or ten times as long as Homer’s two poems combined; over the centuries it became a kind of catch-all, its central story silted over with subplots, additions, historical asides, pious exclamations, scenic display, speeches which make the euphuistic excesses of the European tradition seem like telegraphs or headlines, indeed everything short of pancake recipes and Ouija board instructions. The Ramayana in turn expanded its grasp not by textual accretion but by translation, into Prakrit, Tamil, Asamiya, Malayalam, Gujarati, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi—all the major languages of India, each version with its own audience and allegiance, which has served to cement the work’s presence and popularity. One version, by the sixteenth century poet Tulsidas in the Awadhi dialect of Hindi, is itself considered a classic of Indian literature. In English, The Valmiki Ramayana has been published in a colorful three-volume boxed set by Penguin India (2017), a complete text translated by the indefatigable Bibek Debroy. Of the innumerable retellings and abridgements, my current favorite is the version by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the Indian scholar/politician (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1951). “Three Hundred Ramayanas” is a charming and informative essay by A. K. Ramanujan that deals with the story’s linguistic and religious reach, included in a book appropriately titled Many Ramayanas, edited by Paula Richman (California, 1991). In some form or other, you'll have to grapple with the Ramayana if you’re interested in India, because it’s never far out of sight, from temple carvings to market art to everyday politics. Hanuman, the monkey-headed god, is all but ubiquitous; there’s a book of his legends (Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey, by Philip Lutgendorf, Oxford, 1977), full of interesting info but drily academic in the retelling; a chapter of Diana L. Eck’s book India: A Sacred Geography (Harmony Books, 2012) and Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Though India, by Jonah Blank (Houghton Mifflin, 1992) detail the pilgrimage routes associated with the story. Rama is the god Gandhi cried to as he was being assassinated; in Ayodyha the presence of a mosque on the supposed birth site of the god Rama has been a much-chewed bone of contention, settled by court decision, in the Hindus’ favor, only in November of 2019. These things show that so many of the troubles and paradoxes of India have roots longer than the young American imagination can easily encompass—a demonstration of the story’s necessity and tragedy together.