Happy Diwali: A Review of Rama and the Demon King: An Ancient Tale from India
A Guest Column by Pooja Makhijani
As a child, I didn't have to wait until December for the holidays to begin. Some time around mid-October, my father strung twinkling strings of light around the two evergreen trees that framed our front door. My mother assembled boxes of decadent Indian sweets—barfis, laddoos, gulab jamun—for our family and friends. I mixed-and-matched multicolored bangles to wear with my various salwaar khameezes. All this, in anticipation of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil, although the deities, rituals, and stories that are associated with the holiday are different in different parts of India. My family considers the third day of the five-day festival most auspicious; they believe on this day (which falls on October 21 this year) Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, visits our home. On this night of a new moon—the last night of the Hindu year—total darkness sets in the night sky. We place tiny clay lamps along our walkway and driveway so that Lakshmi can find her way.
Across much of north India, Diwali celebrates the homecoming of Ram, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In brief: At the request of his jealous stepmother, Ram, the prince of Ayodhya, is banished from his kingdom with his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshman. During their 14-year exile, Sita is abducted by Ravan, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka. Ram—aided by Hanuman and his army of monkeys—rescues Sita and slays Ravan. He returns home and is crowned king.
Ram's quest is chronicled in the Ramayana, one Hinduism's central texts. This 24,000-couplet poem was written in Sanskrit by Valmiki around 300 B.C., and has been translated into the vernacular. The best-known of these is Ramacharitamanas, a 1597 translation in Avadhi, a dialect of Hindi, by the poet Tulsidas.
Phew! Enough background information.
The epic poem has inspired countless cinematic and literary works; Rama and the Demon King: An Ancient Tale from India, written and illustrated by Jessica Souhami, is a particularly good picture book version of the story. She has succeeded in making this complex story accessible to a young reader, a near-impossible task. Ravana is deliciously evil and readers will be rooting for Rama and Hanuman. In addition, though suitable for children ages 4-8, the book doesn't shy away from the violence in the legend. I love the illustrations that accompany this retelling; they look like cut-tissue paper collages. Souhami, a shadow-puppeteer herself, has borrowed and employed traditional Indian artistic conventions with immense skill. She also really "gets" the Indian color palette. Check out that shocking pink on the cover of the book; I think I have a sari in that shade.
Outgrown picture books? Looking for something a little more substantial? For middle-school readers, I recommend Rama and Sita: A Tale of Ancient Java, written and illustrated by David L. Weitzman. (Variations of the Ramayana can be found in many countries in southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, and Laos.) For teen readers, I highly recommend Ashok K. Banker's six-part series The Ramayana.
Pooja Makhijani will be giving picture book fans a sneak peek of her forthcoming picture book, Mama's Saris, on November 4 in Washington, D.C., at the 11th Annual Multicultural Children's Book Festival.