Sunday, 10 March 2013

Kim's Review : Breaking the Bow

"Breaking the Bow" is a brilliant series of 24 short stories - each one, a work of speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana and curated by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh for Zubaan.

Anil Menon in his introduction to the book has written a wonderful note on "What is speculative fiction (spec-fic) ?" Speculative Fiction includes science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, slipstream, surrealism, neo-modernist, post modern literature and many other sub-genres. What makes a story speculative? A simple answer, not entirely accurate, is that a speculative story is a non-realist story. In a realist story, the story's context is this actual, common sense world. In a non-realist story, there are no guarantees. Navi Mumbai could be a video game, the belly of a whale or the renamed capital of Sweden.

"The tradition of the Ramayana is to depart from the tradition" and this forms the background for each of these spec-fic stories.

Some of the stories are written by well established names like Abha Dawesar, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Manjula Padmanabhan and Tabish Khair, but there are many authors who have been published for the first time and the authors are from across the globe.

Quite a few of the stories in this book, center around the story of Surpanakha or that of the Golden deer leading to Sita's abduction.  To me personally, the Surpanakha episode, Rama renouncing Sita and Rama defeating Vali by deception have been the 3 main incidents that I find difficult to reconcile with the rest of the Rama's behaviour in the Ramayan. So I wasn't surprised with the number of stories concerning Surpanakha

Kuzhali Manickavel's - The Ramayana as an American Reality Television Show (Internet activity following the Mutilation of Surpanakha) is hilarious in its insight. Capturing the absurdity of reality shows, the language used in online chat rooms, the trolls, the commenters on youtube videos. This story is as much a social commentary on modern online behaviour, as it is about this episode in the Ramayana.

Neelanjana Banerjee's - Exile is a piece of science fiction. Sapna who plays the role of Surpanakha in a neo-modern game world is a single woman trying to put her game face on and deal with life the best way she can with what she is given.

Aishwata Subramanian's - Making is based on the premise that Raavan (Vishravan) asked for 10 years for a city of his own and using his skills and knowledge and that of Surpanakha's he fabricated a beautiful city. Everything is created with their skills, the city, the deer, and the automaton built to look like Surpanakha.

Abha Dawesar's - The Good King is a brilliant read, focussing on Ravanas technical expertise and knowledge gained through boons which allows him to travel across time and exist in simultaneous universes. I really loved the ending of this story.

Julie Rosenthal's - Mango Grove was the most offbeat story in this book for me. This is a new story as opposed to most of the others in the book, that are re-interpreted / re-imagined stories.

K Srilata's - Game of Asylum Seekers is a Sita story, being played in a game world akin to the "Hunger Games" with the last line being the most poignant and telling.

Lavanya Karthik's - Day of the Deer is a very different twist on a very familiar tale.

Tabish Khair's - Weak Heart is about the burden Rama faced of being a God on Earth. And the final question that he asks, sums up Rama's dilemma in its entirety.

Indrapramit Das's - Sita's Descent is science fiction of a completely different kind than the others in this book. His Sita is a man-made artificial nebula.

Abirami Velliangiri's - Great Disobedience is one of my favourites in this book. Based on Rama & Lakshmana's foray into the forest to help Sage Vishwamitra its a tale of manipulators and puppet masters and how legends are born.

Pervin Saket's - Test of Fire is a short sci-fi piece with Sita as the Hero.

Manjula Padmanabhan's -  Other Woman is a brilliant tale and another of my favourites. Centered on Mandodari who comes to earth to talk to a TV journalist - Ms Basra Dott - and give her side of the story.

Lavie Tidhar's - This, Other World is a sci-fi retelling of Rama & Lakshmana's hunt for Ravana.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria's - Fragments from the Book of Beauty is a beautiful collection of conversations between Pushpaka & Ravana, Hanuman & Vayu, and Mandodari & Sita.

Molshree Ambastha's - Kalyug Amended is a a familiar tale set in modern times. The Ramayan if it were to happen today, so to speak.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane's - Sita to Vaidehi - Another Journey is the tale of Vaidehi - a modern day idealist/activist inspired by Sita.

In Sharanya Manivannan's - Petrichor - Sita tells Hanuman a tale of how she comes to be where she is .

Mary Anne Mohanraj's - The Princess in the Forest is another modern day retelling of the dilemma faced by Samiksha/Sita and an insight into why Sita went to Valmiki's ashram after being rejected by Rama.

Deepak Unnikrishnan's - Sarama is a retelling of the Ramayan through the eyes of one of Sita's demon protectors in Lanka.

Swapna Kishore's - Regressions is another of my favourites. A sci-fi tale tale of how different factions are trying to adjust the tale of the Ramayan to suit their own purposes. Was Rama truly God or the boorish son of a local chieftain

Tori Truslow's - Machanu visits the Underworld is a tale of Hanuman's son Machanu. This was the least engrossing tale for me, in the book. It could be because I am not familiar with most of the characters she has used in her story.

Vandana Singh's - Oblivion is a sci-fi tale with Hirasor being the Ravan-like oppressor.

Pratap Reddy's - Vaidehi and Her Earth Mother wanders around leaving you unprepared for the crux of the ending.

Shweta Narayan's - Falling into the Earth is also a modern day retelling of a modern Sita's dilemma.

I quite loved the collection overall, even though I am not a huge science fiction fan, I do love speculative fiction. Its a beautiful collection to carry when traveling, because the beauty of short stories is that you can stop at the end of each one.

Pick it up if alternate Ramayans appeal to you. Do not pick it up if you are easily offended :)

Rating: 4 / 5

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