Author Arshia Sattar recently released her new book Ramayana For Children. Sattar has had a life-long fascination with the Ramayana and her English translations of Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara are now classics. She speaks to ShethePeople.TV about her book, why the Ramayana is such a compelling story, and how Indian goddesses are portrayed in mythology.
Why do you think that the Ramayana story can still keep readers interested and hooked, even after so many translations and variations come and go?
It’s a great story, so we’re always interested in how it’s told and by whom. Also, there are problems in the story — why does Rama behave the way he does with Sita, with Vali? We’re still trying to figure that out, so we’re not done with the story yet. There are also questions in the story — why does Ravana not touch Sita when he has her captive in Lanka, for example.
Each variation is an attempt to answer the questions or to address the problem. We’ve been re-telling the Ramayana for centuries and each version enriches our understanding not only of the story, but our understanding of ourselves — who we are, how we locate ourselves in the world, what we want from life. The more versions and the more translations there are, the better it is for us all.
What’s been the most gratifying response from children who have read your books?
Unlike with adults, it seems to me that people who write for children don’t get to meet their audience, even at a reading. The usual interface is with the parents who’ll say, ‘tell aunty you liked her book.’
For a certain age group, parents do the buying, anyway. Though a little girl apparently picked this Ramayana up at the book store, saying that all the books around her, this was the one she wanted. Of course, it was her father who told me the story.
Has there been a shift in the way the younger generation perceives stories of Indian goddesses? Is there room for goddesses and their stories to be recast into feminist icons? And why do you think re-interpretation is important?
I proudly call myself a feminist, but I find the the idea of ‘feminist icons’ reductive and ultimately constraining. Stories of powerful women are good for everyone.
All great stories are multi-valent and so yes, for every patriarch that is thrilled with the idea of a submissive Sita who follows Rama to the forest, a woman can find inspiration and empowerment in the fact that she leaves Rama at the end of the story. There’s no recasting involved here, it’s exactly the same story. It just depends which end of it you look at.
I also need to point out that women finding power and truth in the stories of the goddesses has been going on for centuries, it’s hardly the special privilege of a new generation. Women have always read the Ramayana, for example, differently — there are hundreds of folk songs and stories in many Indian languages that attest to this. It’s just these have not been canonised in the way that male readings have and so we have to reinvent the wheel every decade or so.
The book has been illustrated by Sonali Zohra, and has been published by Juggernaut Books. Take a look at some absolutely stunning illustrations below: