Transformative Texts

Posted by sepoy on October 11, 2011 · 12 mins read

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.


gaddeswarup | October 11, 2011

Earlier, I had to borrow the book from our university library. The Outlook article has a link to the paper. Now the paper will be available to many more.

Jonathan Dresner | October 11, 2011

I was just talking about the mutability of Ramayana in World History (citing "Sita Sings The Blues" among other texts). I'll have to remember that it's not just lineal change, but a cluster of narratives.... interesting model.

lapata | October 11, 2011

Weirdly, I have been writing about Ramanujan lately too. I think we are only just beginning to understand his legacy.

Tapsi | October 11, 2011

I was discussing the Ramayana in section the other day, and one of the points emphasized was the many Ramayanas, but I really wish I'd had this Ramanujan article to work with. Now I'm wondering how to work it in when discussing Vijayanagara. Having lived through the DU History syllabus, it occurred to me that reading at the busiest intersection might not be the best idea (scooters equipped with trucks' horns are not infrequent). Maybe barging into classes like the candidates standing for the Students Union do, and reading this aloud rather than their long-winded manifestoes? Just a thought.

sepoy | October 12, 2011

the rickshaws, the clamor, let it come. so will the listeners.

Jugnu | October 12, 2011

As part of a Living Epics course I took as a sophomore in college at UT Austin, I was fortunate to have been assigned this essay and the entirety of the two part series edited by Paula Richman. Realizing that the Valmiki Ramayana was not authoritative and that there are many tellings, all worthy of recognition, was initially a problem for me, and those extended family members I shared this with are still just as dismissive of such an idea. In this same class we did some reading on the dietary practices during the era in which Rama is said to have lived. I feel silly saying this now, many years and many more rude awakenings later, but then at age 19 the possibility (and certainty) that Rama was not a vegetarian was disconcerting for me. For a god to be a non-vegetarian (gasp!, I know, please empathize) was incompatible with my then over-simplistic spiritual beliefs as cultivated through years of weekly baal sanskar classes. Kind of felt like the time I found out Swami Vivekanda ate fish times 99. I did not know then that the telling I was told and led to believe of Hinduism was just one particular telling amongst 300 others. This class provoked a larger dilemma for me, how could I ever be an academic and a believer if the two seem to contradict?! I guess before reflecting on Ramanujan's essay, I mistakenly saw the example above as an irreconcilable, upsetting contradiction, now I comfortably see it as pointing to the productive complexity of religious belief, practice, canon, and so on. Now I feel that my intellectual ability and spirituality is all the richer because of questioning and the room for multiple interpretations. For me, the beginnings of this realization were in Ramanujan's essay. I've just commented on the content of the essay and why it warrants inclusion. Like your post explains, Ramanujan's approach to texts, writing style, and theoretical insights are further justification that students at DU should be encouraged/assigned this essay. I already have strong aversions to the Hindu right, but this victory of theirs has affected me very personally. The power of fear is terrifying.

Jugnu | October 12, 2011

BTW, In response to my wall post lamenting this excision from the syllabus, a professor of language/literature from DU wrote that I don't know the real story and must not have read the Ahalya episode. For starters, since the Ahalya Episode in the essay includes translations from Valmiki and Kampan's tellings, should their work be scrapped too? Still trying to formulate a respectful response…

Nikolai | October 13, 2011

The craziness never ends, does it? Scholarship is targeted for offending the sensibilities of the conservative masses, and such targeting is encouraged by the entrenched elites so that the masses will have something easy to occupy themselves with - effectively allowing the elites to stay in power and remain unquestioned. We can only speak truth to power. A side note: has anyone ever read Ramanujan's poetry? I've only read bits and pieces, but what I have, I loved (especially the ones about his wife):

Qalandar | October 13, 2011

Loved this write-up sepoy -- sad that it needed to be written against this backdrop, but still...

Sunday Reading « zunguzungu | October 16, 2011

[...] Transformative Texts [...]

A | October 16, 2011

Thanks for writing this piece, and I can very much sympathize with your urge to read Ramanuajan's essay on street corners. I remember hearing that when they removed Darwin from Kansas schools for the first time, there was a 24 hr reading relay of The Origin Of Species at University of Kansas in protest of that decision. I wish we could do something like that for Ramanujan too. By the way, I just finished teaching Ramanujan's poem, "Elements of Composition” which makes a parallel point about human identities, how one should really see them as composed and decomposed by elements beyond us, told and retold by so many others, if one examines closely the physical, social and personal contexts for each one of us. I am definitely planning on teaching this essay on Ramayana, one way or another, in my class next semester now.

Abir Bazaz | October 17, 2011 many of us have learned to read from Ramanujan...even there have been few serious engagements with his thinking. Thanks everyone for this discussion...and to Jugnu: I would really love to learn more about your own work.

Sunil Kumar | October 18, 2011

The history department faculty at Delhi University is shocked by the decisions of its Academic Council and we are protesting at the exclusion of Ramunajan's amazing essay from the readings of this course. Not least of all, and the world should know this, we are still teaching the great scholar's work and guiding our students to his writings in our reading lists. The fear is that this event might mark the beginning of processes of policing our class rooms and our curricula by the administration who are unable to withstand majoritarian pressures...or, are they responding pragmatically to possible political changes in the air? Elections are, after all, not far away and these are [again] the days of the Rath yatra! Fighting for the restoration of Ramanajun's brilliant essay is a wonderful place to draw the line and to fight for the academic right to read, think, write, and learn without fear. Some of us who were his students learnt this from our gentle, passionate teacher; our students deserve at least as much and more.

Indrani Chatterjee | October 19, 2011

Wonderful powerful post urging us to HEAR Ramanujan's voice for ourselves. I wish we could all organize a continuous chain of reading from Ramanujan in front of the DU Vice-Chancellor's Office, and organize the press to cover it. In solidarity with the History Deptt at DU, JNU, South Asian Languages and Literatures departments in the North American academy and every one with an open mind.

Venkatesh | October 19, 2011

Jugnu wrote: "I feel silly saying this now, many years and many more rude awakenings later, but then at age 19 the possibility (and certainty) that Rama was not a vegetarian was disconcerting for me. " I can understand this. But Rama was a Kshatriya and Kshatriyas are allowed and encouraged to eat meat. When Rajas hunted chital, it was more for their meat than for hide.

sepoy | October 19, 2011

Indrani ji, Sunil Sahib: in Solidarity, indeed! I would urge a Read Out of Ramanujan and get students and faculty to recite the essay. We can do our own part from Berlin and elsewhere.

Jugnu | October 19, 2011

some of us are planning a diwali celebration at liberty square/ows this wednesday and we hope to incorporate a reading of an excerpt from AK Ramanujan's essay. thanks Venkatesh, unfortunately an acknowledgement of these kinds of exceptions and ambivalent spaces within the socio-religious structure were not part of my baal sanskar education.

sepoy | October 20, 2011

@Jugnu: I want to come!!

Whose Ramayana do you know? « | October 20, 2011

[...] Having been born to storytellers, I have never approached Ramayana as history. I was in second year college when I first read A K Ramanujan’s essay. I am a great fan of his collection of folktales, but it wasn’t this text exactly that transformed me like it did so for Manan Ahmed as he says in blog, Chapati Mystery: [...]

Gyan | October 23, 2011

You are quick to come to defense of a text that questions the authenticity of Balmiki's Ramayana. I am just curious to know what would be your reaction on including a text in the Syllabus that questions the authenticity of Koran?

sujitjp | October 23, 2011

How does a Muslim's reaction to the "questioning of the Koran" determine whether intolerance of those opposed to reinterpretation of Ramayana is right or wrong? Muslims with inflexible attitude towards the Koran are as wrong as those opposed to reinterpretation of the Ramayana. These are not really religious issue but political.

Qalandar | October 24, 2011

Gyan: the issue here isn't anyone's belief in the "authenticity of Koran" (or the Ramayana) -- the issue here is the exclusion by a leading university of a text, under political pressure, that focuses on the rich diversity of Ramayana traditions. One is free to believe in the authenticity of anything -- one ought not to be free to bully others who might have different interests and concerns.

gaddeswarup | October 24, 2011

There is now a petetion online which I signed.

Gyan | October 25, 2011

@Sujit, @Qalandar, A Hindu is by definition tolerant. Even tolerant is a light word. Hindu is respectful to all other Religious views and also different views within Hinduism itself. But it doesn't mean he doesn't have any religious sensitivities. Such situations are occurring because for too long now Hindus' sentiments are being hurt by all and sundry. It has become a pain in the neck. In the changed circumstances a Hindu needs to raise is voice. This is a reaction to the situation wherein a Hindu is always asked to tolerate every insult to its identity. Interestingly, the writer of this blog has not answered to my query, to whom my query was addressed. Anyway, thanks for publishing my comment.

Gyanp | October 27, 2011

More food for thought here-

Ranger | October 27, 2011

I am not an arts or history student like many of you here seem to be. But I am aware of this. India's liberal arts universities are a cesspool of leftist thought. Our history is interpreted through marxist eyes and any alternative viewpoint , say nationalist, is dismissed outright as being unworthy or even fascist. The idea is to forment a contempt and even hatred for India's hindu culture, traditions and heritage. And going by some of the comments here, success has been fully achieved. Read this article by Swapan Dasgupta published in last Sunday's Times of India for more on this issue. Gyan has already given the link to another article which should be read by you.

Qalandar | October 28, 2011

Whatever else one may say about Dasgupta's piece, he seems to be (hard to say for sure, so buried is it) standing up for Ramanujan's piece, going so far as to dub the right-wingers who objected "philistines." [In a classic Swapan Dasgupta maneuver, he makes this move -- technically preserving his status and self-image as someone on the side of "free inquiry" -- even as he devotes most of his piece to blaming the left for the spat, and launching a tirade against it. One may call this the "Of course I'm against hooliganism and bullying; but don't we have more important things to talk about -- such as the controversy over the hooliganism and bullying?" approach. Irrespective of leftie dominance of this or that history department, if Dasgupta is truly concerned that we have become a nation of slogan-shouters, why doesn't he talk about those shouting slogans in this instance?]