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Ramayana: A Retelling Summary
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Ramayana: A Retelling is a book of poetry by Indian-British poet Daljit Nagra. Tying his poems to the Hindu epic literary tradition and its surrounding mythos, Nagra’s poems are nonetheless distinctly contemporary in form and content, employing numerous verbal neologisms and anachronisms as they build a narrative of Indian identity. The book’s main strictly literary referent is the titular epic, the Ramayana, which is often considered the greatest work of literature in the Hindu canon.
Nagra introduces Ramayana: A Retelling by stating that he intends to represent the epic in the way he perceived it as a child. The epic was first told to him by his parents, but he recalls at this impressionable age engaging in an unconscious synthesis of this aural experience and the other elements of his childhood in London. Despite knowing that his act of retelling an epic, considered sacred by some, risks opposition for seeming sacrilegious, he validates his conception of the work through the eyes of a child. Moreover, he hopes that the work will move readers in the contemporary world through its philosophical resonances with ordinary experience and immigrant narratives.
Nagra’s poems are turbulent, often fashioned crudely out of verbal fragments and neologisms that seem extemporaneous, based on the sights and sounds of urban life. In this way, it renews the style of the original Ramayana, which is essentially a story about war and violence. Nagra’s language consists of a collision of street lingo, grammatical mixtures of Punjabi and English, and even different fonts. He also experiments with visual space; for example, in one poem that features the throwing of spears, Nagra utilizes line breaks and ellipses to render the page in an image of spears flying through the sky. He also adds themes that are, often tragically, less talked about concerning the Ramayana, including sexuality and social deviance. He includes many Punjabi swears, compares characters with high sexual drives to sex workers and bosses, and recapitulates sexist language in more modern terms. He also humorizes the Ramayana’s villains, painting its demons as gang-like and prowling.
Nagra’s wild, multisensory, supernatural depiction of violence is distinctly different from its solemn and traditional deployment in the original epic. For example, in one poem he casts the advance of a great army as a sea of bodies that appear to be self-replicating, program-like, at a terrifying speed as it closes in on its opponents. The epic’s warriors are given supernatural powers to maim and kill. Even animals are endowed with strange abilities, especially monkeys – in one poem, a monkey is able to scale up or down its size at will, and in another, it leeches on the vitality of enemies. Some of Nagra’s poems are cosmological, using imagery of galaxies and fiery bodies to describe the universe’s chaos, and extend it philosophically into the modern world.
Ramayana: A Retelling indirectly references the Homeric tradition, particularly, the Iliad, an epic that shares the centrality of a woman figure, over whom an entire war is fought. However, it departs philosophically from Homer in the way it elevates moral lessons and spiritual meaning above war and sex. For example, the journey of Rama from political exile through war in search of freedom represents also an inner journey to find order in a hostile and disorganized internal world. He ultimately succeeds, signaling the ability of reason and the will for peace to overpower even the most fraught conflicts. Rama frequently chants Hindu mantras to maintain his focus on his internal mission. He also refuses to fight his brother, Bharat, even though he has betrayed him, forcing him out of the kingdom he loves. His moralistic sentiment and the poetic character of Nagra by extension is, therefore, a virtuous one in which the individual constantly strives to live the best life possible.
The end of Ramayana: A Retelling is a reprisal of the final scene in the original epic in which Rama vanquishes a demon in the underworld, astonishing the gods, and signaling a return to order. His brother, Bharat, ultimately merges with his own form, signaling also the recovery of an essential familial and spiritual unity. Nagra’s book, recasting the happy ending in the context of modernity, therefore suggests that the modern subject also seeks, and may be able to attain, a spiritual Dharmic oneness.