Transformative Texts

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The First out of the four experts termed the text as “appropriate” for the syllabus, second expert congratulated the History Department for including the essay, third expert opined that the contents of the essay are “unexceptional”. Only the fourth expert proposed to incorporate other texts in lieu of Ramanujan’s text, as “anything that goes against” the “sacred character” of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is “almost blasphemous” for the “Indian psyche”.

I had no idea what I was doing. That first semester of graduate school – on the intimidating premises of University of Chicago – was mostly overflowing with mundane paperwork and the collection of life stories that seemed too fantastic to be real (“I was de-worming orphans in Bombay…”). We were supposed to figure out some classes but also supposed to scatter around the various departments of the University, looking for sympatico professors. I wandered to Foster Hall where the South Asianists lived. A series of embarrassing (for me) encounters later, I found myself holding a syllabus for a class on Kings and Epics.

My admissions essay for Chicago had featured a text. It was written in 1226 CE or so and I had read a small portion of it. I thought that I could work on that text for my PhD. Like most of my thoughts, I didn’t really think through what this would mean.

What would it mean to read something written nearly 800 years before I was even born. Leave aside the issue of language, grammar, or context – tell me does it make sense? How would I access a world which made sense of words in that order, saying that particular thing. How would I know the mentalscapes which erupt in that reader’s mind as he (yeah) read or she (yeah) heard that text. I had no idea. There was just too much I didn’t know. About reading. About texts.

The first time something changed for me was in that class with Ron Inden. We read A. K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Rāmāyanāṇas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.” Ramanujan (1929-1993) had taught at the University from 1961 to his sudden death in 1993. The essay appeared in Many Rāmāyaṇas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (1991), edited by Paula Richman.

The change was Ramanujan. His essay looked at the variations in tellings and re-tellings of the story of Rama, Sita, Hanuman etc. across southern and southeastern Asia. He rejects the notion of an ur-text; instead he posits a family of texts (invoking genetic and structural resemblances) so that “no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling – and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in text.” Ramanujan’s reading of text, of epic of the role of repetition, of textual movements altered my own sense (but as I recall, I had no sense). The greatest shake – and one upon which I remember spending days and weeks – was the last section of his essay. Listen to him:


This essay opened with a folktale about the many Rāmāyanāṇas. Before we close, it may be appropriate to tell another story about Hanumān and Rāma’s ring. But this story is about the power of Rāmāyanāṇa, about what happens when you really listen to this potent story. Even a fool cannot resist it; he is entranced and caught up in the action. The listener can no longer bear to be a bystander but feels compelled to enter the world of the epic: the line between fiction and reality is erased.

A villager who had no sense of culture and no interest in it was married to a woman who was very cultured. She tried various ways to cultivate his taste for the higher things in life but he just wasn’t interested.

One day a great reciter of that grand epic the Rāmāyanāṇa came to the village. Every evening he would sing, recite, and explain the verses of the epic. The whole village went to this one-man performance as if it were a rare feast.

The woman was married to the uncultured dolt tried to interest him in the performance. She nagged him and nagged him, trying to force him to go and listen. This time, he grumbled as usual but decided to humor her. So he went in the evening and sat in the back. It was an all night performance and he just couldn’t keep awake. He slept through the night. Early in the morning, when a canto had ended and the reciter sang the closing verses for the day, sweets were distributed according to custom. Someone put some sweets into the mouth of the sleeping man. He woke up soon after and went home. His wife was delighted that her husband had stayed through the night and asked him eagerly how he enjoyed the Rāmāyanāṇa. He said, ‘It was very sweet.’ The wife was happy to hear it.

The next day too his wife insisted on his listening to the epic. So he went to the enclosure where the reciter was performing, sat against a wall, and before long fell fast asleep. The next day too his wife insisted on his listening to the epic. So he went to the enclosure where the reciter was performing, sat against a wall, and before long fell fast asleep. The place was crowded and a young boy sat on his shoulder, made himself comfortable, and listened open-mouthed to the fascinating story. In the morning, when the night’s portion of the story came to an end, everyone got up and so did the husband. The boy had left earlier, but the man felt aches and pains from the weight he had borne all night. When he went home and his wife asked him eagerly how it was, he said, “It got heavier and heavier by morning.” The wife said, “That’s the way the story is.” She was happy that her husband was at last beginning to feel the emotions and the greatness of the epic.

On the third day, he sat at the edge of the crowd and was so sleepy that he lay down on the floor and even snored. Early in the morning, a dog came that way and pissed into his mouth a little before he woke up and went home. When his wife asked him how it was, he moved his mouth this way and that, made a face and said, “Terrible. It was so salty.” His wife knew something was wrong. She asked him what exactly was happening and didn’t let up till he finally told her how he had been sleeping through the performance every night.
On the fourth day, his wife went with him, sat him down in the very first row, and told him sternly that he should keep awake no matter what might happen. So he sat dutifully in the front row and began to listen. Very soon, he was caught up in the adventures and the characters of the great epic story. On that day, the reciter was enchanting the audience with a description of how Hanuman the monkey had to leap across the ocean to take Rama’s signet ring to Sita. When Hanuman was leaping across the ocean, the signet ring slipped from his hand and fell into the ocean. Hanuman didn’t know what to do. He had to get the ring back quickly and take it to Sita in the demon’s kingdom. While he was wringing his hands, the husband who was listening with rapt attention in the first row said, “Hanuman, don’t worry. I’ll get it for you.” Then he jumped up and dived into the ocean, found the ring in the ocean floor, brought it back, and gave it to Hanuman. Everyone was astonished. They thought this man was someone special, really blessed by Rāma and Hanumān. Ever since, he has been respected in the village as a wise elder, and he has also behaved like one. That’s what happens when you really listen to a story, especially to the Rāmāyaṇa.

Firstly, I had never read an essay like that before. My template for a “well written” article in Middle East/Orientalist reading canon was someone like R. B. Sergeant. Dry as that dustpan in your attic. Ramanujan opened the essay with a story, ended the essay with a story. In the middle, he included a severely nuanced critique of both western philological practices and our idea of text and circulation. The writing was light, his voice was unmistakable. This was a erudite human being talking – not an academic automaton.

Secondly, I got stuck and came unstuck at the notion of a text that transforms – that changes the way reality is organized. Later, much later, I read Gadamer and his efforts to “understand” text and I too began an effort to “understand” my text. But I am still, hopelessly, trying to “listen” to my text.

Ramanujan’s essay is, in my view, one of the best pieces of scholarship the discipline of South Asian Studies has produced – theoretically rich, innovative and amazingly perceptive about the lived ways in which texts continue to exist – the importance of reading, of listening. It ought to be, if it already isn’t, required reading for anyone working on epic or performative texts in any historical or geographical period.

So, when I hear that the Delhi University has removed the essay from History syllabi, I feel the urge to grab my print copy, a chair, walk to the busiest intersection on campus, stand on the chair and start reading out loud his essay. Every word. Make them listen. They will be transformed.

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