Whether it is Jagdish Gupta’s Shambuk, Vivek Narayanan’s After or A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas, the great epic of the Ramayana has invited multiple interpretations over the decades. One can’t forget Ramanand Sagar’s larger-than-life Ramayana which hit the television screens in the late 1980s. The epic text that preaches the victory of good over evil, and light over dark has become a political document, a means to assert religious identity, or even resist it.
Lindsay Pereira’s new novel, The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao, reimagines the Ramayana in a violence-struck, post-Babri Masjid demolition Bombay (now Mumbai). Exploiting the aggrieved, volatile, nationalist sentiments after the cataclysmic event, political parties such as the Shiv Sena tried to fracture the already tenuous relationship between Hindus and Muslims.
“I simply began with a question about how modern India would treat the gods and goddesses it perennially claims to respect,” said Pereira in a recent interview with Money Control, explaining the motivation behind using the Ramayana as a template for a fast-paced drama about two lovers, Ramu and Janaki, trying to evade the clutches of a local goon, Ravi Anna. Valmiki Ratnakar Rao, the eponymous narrator whose journals give us a sneak-peek into these lives has a candid presence. When he speaks, one finds him wryly humorous and deceptively original.
Drawing on the animosity between Hindus and Muslims that boiled over after the demolition, the novel narrates the story of Ramu, son of Vishnu and Kashi, who, like any other lower-middle-class parents, want their son to study hard, earn hari-pattis, and move away from the dust and grime of the chawl. But life can’t be fair for the heroes of a novel. More so, in a literary thriller.
The mother dies. The stepmother wants to sabotage the father’s resources (even his share of love) for Ramu. The powerlessness of working on a meagre salary is compounded by a pervading sense of helplessness at home, which becomes fodder for a shakha to capitalise on. Ramu signs up and gets a false sense of hope and community, and regains his sense of self through it. “That was another thing that joining the Shiv Sena gave our young men: power,” the narrator remarks.
This investigation of the Bombay riots makes the novel a compelling and original read. But with its allegorical hints of communal riots and positioning of characters in socially distressing situations, the plot rarely lives up to the expectations it sets.
Take, for example, Janaki, Ramu’s love interest, better educated than him and with better job prospects. She is the apple of her shopkeeper-father’s eye. While Pereira gives his characters interesting details, he fails to offer them, especially the women, any interiority. While we see Ramu and Janaki deeply in love, Janaki is never a thinking being.
By the time we reach the middle of the book, two parallel storylines emerge—both of which need Ramu, the saviour. While the neighbouring Hindu chawls (Ganga Niwas and Sri Niwas) fight an external enemy (Muslims), an internal rivalry racks them: Janaki is also the heartthrob of Ravi Anna, the local goon and resident of Sri Niwas. Jealous of Ramu’s rising popularity in the shakha (Ravi, a Tamilian, isn’t favoured in the shakha), he plans to abduct Janaki.
The Hindu-Muslim riots towards which the story builds—with the constant mentions of communal fault-lines and slogans such as “Chalo Ayodhya”—never develops in its contradictory shades. The plot does not lift from the banal mentions of “men with skull caps…in trucks that bring bottles” coming in herds to attack the people of the chawl.
Too much focus remains on saving Janaki from the stranglehold of Ravi that even the dynamics of internecine rivalry between the two Hindu groups remain too thin to feel credible. The complex undertones of the relationship between Ramu and Janaki registers somewhat in the latter parts of the book. The epilogue, which addresses the bystander guilt of extracting momentary pleasure from deriding others, has some complex insights about how people living together are responsible for their own circumstances rather than ‘outsiders’.
The question, however, is whether Rao’s initial 50-page presence was used for anything other than merely turning him into an omniscient third-person narrator. This also plagues the plot with a structural flaw—the details are crystal-clear and seamlessly woven for somebody who wasn’t present to witness them. The complex narrative of the riots could have been better retold by making him a reporter who reconstructs the narrative through information from interviews. Through the simplistic denouement that the novel takes, it begins to feel jaded.
Those who, like me, enjoyed Gods and Ends—Pereira’s first novel, which was shortlisted for the 2021 JCB Prize for Literature and won the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for Fiction—were waiting for another startling literary work. The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao, while putting its finger on the right problems, only satisfies itself with a surface-level glance and does not delve into them with the required nuance.
Kinshuk Gupta is a resident doctor and writer of Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chor Darwaja, a book on LGBT short fiction.