In 2021, "Ram rajya" and "Ayodhya" are burdened with ideology and sectarian politics. But such wasn't the case always. It was possible, not too long ago, for such words to exist as historical and geographical references, evoke wonder in modern Indians, inheritors of a rich and variegated tradition of epic narratives.
Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay set out to trace the path Ram took from Ayodhya as he went into exile with his brother Lakshman and wife Sita. That journey, memorialised as a travelogue, appears in a new English version, Exiled From Ayodhya, eloquently and elegantly translated by Pratiti.
For those unfamiliar with Bengali literature, Mukhopadhyay is one of its most iconic writers, still active in his mid-80s, and possessor of perhaps the finest modern prose style, since Buddhadeva Bose. He made his debut in the 1960s with the iconic novel Ghunpoka (literally a woodlouse), a tale of existentialist angst that's reminiscent of the great French masters, Sartre and Camus. In his long and distinguished career, Mukhopadhyay has written prolifically—dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction, humour, sports, spirituality, autobiography, you name it.
Exiled From Ayodhya is, purportedly a travelogue, narrated by an unnamed journalist from Calcutta (now Kolkata) who is travelling through north India, following the footsteps of Ram and his companions, as they went into exile in the forests. The time, presumably, is the late-1970s, early-1980s (unfortunately, the translation, though impeccably done, lacks an introduction that would have been an invaluable resource to put both the book and its writer in context). The narrator, a young male, journeys through the inclement summer heat of Uttar Pradesh, witnessing the "grey dusty past" from the ancient times come alive before his dazed and tired 20th-century eyes.
In spite of the unbearable weather, he has enough good cheer to see the lighter side of things. There is humour, bleak or boisterous, every few pages—from an encounter with a near-deaf elderly Bengali gentleman recently taken vows to become a devotee of Ram to run-ins with an American ISKCON hermit called Bill. The food is mostly unpalatable, but the people are unfailingly kind, even pitiful as they serve tea that tastes like "cow piss".
It's the time of the Ram Navami celebrations and there is frenetic activity in Ayodhya. Without prior hotel reservations, the narrator is left at the mercy of temples and dharamshalas for refuge. There is an imminent threat of cholera all around (a health inspector installed at the gates of the railway station checks if all the passengers are inoculated, though waves in the narrator when he learns he is a journalist) and frequent stampede-like situations, with the police going berserk with their lathis and batons.
If this is too typically the picture of India heaving with heat and dust, there are moments of visionary beauty as the narrator recalls passages from Ramayan—not only Valmiki's but also the retellings by his legendary inheritors, Krittibas and Tulsidas. But the lush environs of the past have shrivelled up, even vanished without a trace, in modern India. Among the rivers, Saraswati doesn't exist any more (if it did at all), the Jahnabi is dirtied beyond belief, and the Sarayu, believed to have emerged from Lord Brahma's tears, is a shadow of its former divine self.
As the narrator takes stalk of these environmental changes, he is struck by bitter social truths, too. With every step, he keeps stumbling upon the scorn with which ordinary rural folks are treated by the police and bureaucracy. A particularly poignant moment comes in Chitrakoot, where a meal at a shack reveals to him the innate dignity of the poor, in spite of their desperate want. While such conditions may be far from the idealised version of Ram rajya that we are forever promised, they are also not entirely devoid of the epic's mystery and magnitude.
Even amidst the degradation and poverty, the narrator meets people in the city of Sringaverapura who are firm in their faith that Lord Ram did live among their midst generations ago. A guest house manager alerts the narrator the a possible political manoeuvre by Bharat, when he came to Chitrakoot to persuade Ram to return to Ayodhya. When his elder brother refused, Bharat asked for his pair of slippers to take back with him. “Clever man," the manager says. "He knew taking away the slippers would cause Ramchandra the greatest trouble in this natural environment." Scorched by the summer, with every inch of the soil around him blazing hot, the narrator doesn't find this an entirely unlikely possibility.
Mukhopadhyay's narrative, though endearingly idiosyncratic, is not without its polemics. Contemporary readers will find much to chew on in his views of Hindi being a suitable linguistic bridge between the north and south of India. There is also sincere questioning of sources and versions of the Ramayan story, based on deep knowledge, not any desire to stir trouble. Exiled From Ayodhya returns us to complexities and sensibilities that have lost their edge due to the blunt political rhetoric of the 21st century.