While there have been many retellings of Ramayan, they mostly don't question its premises, heroes & villains. This one is unusual in that it tells Ramayan from the point of view of Ravan, & from the point of view of an ordinary Asura citizen of the period. Apart from questioning a lot of premises of Ramayan, it uses the opportunity to make commentary on modern India - high growth rate that is invisible to poorer & less skilled sections of society, skin color prejudices, politicians claiming & appropriating far more resources & rights compared to ordinary citizens, ... It also devotes a lot of space to caste system, though I find its rigidity completely unfamiliar; may be times have changed!
A few noteworthy departures from conventional Ramayan:
- 10 heads of Ravan represent him as a complete man, as against a saint. I don't remember the list of 10 attributes he lists, but they're like one head for lust, another for wisdom, another for greed, ... Ravan is a man, with all the failings it implies, & doesn't aspire to be a God by overcoming what are claimed to be human "shortcomings".
- Sita is Ravan & Mandodari's eldest child! Someone foretells that she will bring destruction to the family & clan, so a lot of people want her killed when she's a baby. To protect her, Ravan takes her with him during a campaign north. But those fearful of future conspire to plan her killed even here; only the man charged with disposing her off doesn't have heart to murder a helpless baby & manages to have her found by Janak. Ravan kidnapped her later to protect her from Ram, whom he thinks is unworthy of his daughter.
- It sets up the stage as a conflict between Devas & Asuras. India is initially owned by native tribes of Asuras, Kinnars, Nagas, etc. Deva invaders have come from Central Asia, & Indra is the first of the successful raiders. Asuras are a casteless society; Devas have brought casteism with them.
- Vanars are half castes - mix of Devas & Asuras, unwanted by both. They inhabit central India, acting mostly as a buffer zone between Asuras & Devas.
- Brahma is not a god but a clan of teachers, one of whom will teach Ravan in his young years.
I found some of the takeaways of the book disturbing:
- Dashahara: (Incidentally, today is Dashahara.) What does it tell us about Indians as human beings? That we are a vengeful unforgiving lot? Even assuming everything in classical Ramayan is true, Ravan got death as his punishment. Why do we still keep taking revenge by burning his effigies?
- Lanka Dehan: Assume that the Prime Minister does something stupid. As a revenge & to put pressure on him, someone comes & bombs your neighborhood. What would you call this avenger? A lot of innocents must have died when Lanka was set on fire! Why do we never discuss it?
- Disfigurement of Soorpnakha at the hands of Lakshman: Why do we simply brush it aside? OK - so she was promiscuous & was trying to entice Lakshman. Does that justify cutting off her nose?
- Agni Pareeksha & the exile of a pregnant Sita: I've heard pious explanations for it but never found them convincing. This book imagines the dirty details to make you squirm.