In the controversial essay Three Hundred Ramayanas by historian AK Ramanujan we learn that the myth of Rama has always evolved and adapted itself to the cultural context and the literary, oral or folk traditions of the place and time that each of its storytellers found themselves in.
The Vigil translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan from Sarah Joseph's Malayalam novel Oorukaaval is thus the latest in a line of interpretations of the epic. And while most older variations have dealt with duty, bhakthi, or other religious and personal philosophic themes, The Vigil is more political and strips away all religious layers from the story.
In an inventive twist, the book follows Angadan, Vali's son and heir to Kishkindham from the moment of Vali's death to the freeing of Sita and challenges us to view characters we love from less flattering perspectives.
The Malayalam version, one gathers, weaves poetry and prose together, playing with images and words simultaneously while telling the story. This innovation in narrative comes out clumsily in translation. Whatever beauty in writing the original might have had has been compromised.
More specifically, the translation seems to aim at being functional rather than reflective of any poetry, rhythm or grace of expression that might have earned Oorukaaval and its author their reputations. In rare moments there is a glimpse of what the Malayalam original holds, but overall the English version stutters more than it sings. Ms Vasanthi's translation does redeem itself in the more straight-forward and prose heavy chapters. The chapter that details the history of Lanka especially seems to be translated with the spirit that is lacking in most of the first half of the book.
If there is one thing that the sales of popular paperbacks teaches us, it is that the lack of aesthetic writing is not a deterrent to enjoying a good story, but The Vigil finds itself in awkward position on this count. It doesn't seem that the Malayalam novel's major plus point was a racy plot or gripping action—qualities that even poorer translations often do justice to. Oorukaaval appears to be a more character-driven narrative and so in many places, especially in the abrupt flashbacks, The Vigil becomes a tad tedious to read.
Thematically, in the process of exploring some complex issues, the book makes mistakes similar to those that it seeks to rectify from older variations of the story. Most prominent is the almost uni-dimensional painting of Ram as a patriarchal, imperial conqueror. This is achieved in a single carelessly devious stroke by ignoring his childhood and the events that lead to his exile. If this alone were rectified the book would been richer in the perspectives it offers. A few redeeming traits come through the poor pacing, uneven editing and stylistically unsuited translation. Sarah Joseph's rich imagination and deep empathy for characters that most versions of the epic marginalize or ignore altogether is the most striking one. Using central characters far removed from privilege and power—the author explores issues of adivasi rights, cultural imperialism, the rhetoric of economic development and national progress, generational identity conflicts and the politics of gender.
The book is definitely worth reading if you are a fan of mythology, fantasy or love subversion of epics and ideas. The Vigil works on multiple levels and can be read casually on a train journey or used to discuss some important points about contemporary politics and society in a college seminar. It is also one of those rare paperbacks that is worth reading just for the sake of the characters it re-defines and the novelty in its presentation of oft discussed ideas. Most of the issues that it has are due to a simple fact of market—the trend of translating regional language literature into English is at a nascent stage. But if The Vigil is any indicator of the richness of regional language literature, the trend is a healthy one and there is a lot of amazing writing awaiting us in the future.