Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: Epics (1)

Those already familiar with the major Western and Indian epics will enjoy "Meghanada-vadha-kavya" ("The Slaying of Meghanada"), an odd but beautiful blend of many cultural traditions. It's author, Michael Madhusudan Datta, a colonial-era Bengali author, mingled aspects of Kalidasa, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton and Tasso.

The story itself is taken from the Ramayana, though many references to the Mahabharata also appear. The story starts, not surprisingly, "in the midst of affairs" (in medias res). Like Milton, Datta focuses on the traditional "bad guy" of the epic (Ravana) and presents him in a sympathetic light. Particularly fascinating is Rama's descent into hell. Like Aeneas, Rama is conducted through hell and meets his father. The underworld he visits is the city of Yama, the Hindu god of hell, but there are clear references to Milton's "Paradise Lost" and Dante's "Inferno", as well as, according to the translator's introduction, the Bangla translation of the Bible. Other influences such as the Ramlila and characteristics of Tasso's "Jerusalem Liberata" are harder to detect, but the final canto of Meghanada is clearly based on the final canto of Homer's "Iliad", with Ravana/Priam saying farewell to his slain son Meghanada/Hector and asking for a promise of peace from Rama/Achilles.

One warning: there are many characters in "Meghanada", but not nearly as many characters as names. There is a glossary in the back of the book, but constant reference interferes with enjoyment of the epic. In canto two, for example, there is a conversation between Ambika, the hurler of thunderbolts, Katyani, Vasava, the queen consort of the skies, Uma, son of Aditi, the ideal wife of Bhavesa, and Sati, queen of queens. I found the scene confusing, and after refering to the glossary I was shocked to find that what I had envisioned as a mass meeting was in fact a conversation between Indra and Durga, a god and a goddess, neither of whom had actually been refered to by name. To make matters worse, "Indra" is occasionally used as a superlative suffix. Perhaps it is a convention of Indian poetry not to refer to characters by name, or perhaps Datta wanted to portray the two pulsating between manifestations as their moods changed. Fortunately Clinton B. Seely's translation is gorgeous. "The Slaying of Meghanada" may need a second read, but it also deserves one.

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