The allegorical and engaging story-line of the Ramayana has inspired many versions and now a black-and-white graphic novel attempts a retelling of the epic from Hanuman's point of view.
"Simian" by Vikram Balagopal is a gritty reimagining of the Ramayana that brings to life the scars -physical, moral and spiritual - borne by Hanuman, as he replays history, exploring the decisions one has to make in life and war.
The story is contained within the often glossed-over episode in the Mahabharata where Hanuman and Bhima meet. When Bhima chances upon an ailing monkey blocking his path in the forest, little does he realise that he is meeting his brother Hanuman. As the brothers settle in for a night of exchanging stories and notes, Hanuman tells a surprising tale: of the great war between Ram and Ravan.
"When I made the decision to create Simian, I dived into researching as many versions of these epics as possible and discovered a side to the Ramayana I hadn't known – that it evolved with every version to reflect the sensibilities of the period and the people who produced it," says Balagopal about the book.
The illustrator-cartoonist's source and guide for the Ramayana was a translation of the epic by Ralph T H Griffith, and for any references to the Mahabharata, he used the translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli.
The book, published by HarperCollins Publishers, is only the first two parts, in a trilogy, of the entire story and confines itself to the events surrounding the search for Sita. The author says the characters' motivations, relationships or even substantial portions of the "main" plot changed from telling to telling.
"In a Jain version, all the characters are depicted as Jains and in the end it is not Ram but Laxman who kills Ravan. A Buddhist versions called the Dasarata Jataka depicts Ram and Sita as siblings who marry, and though Ram, Laxman and Sita are exiled, the abduction of Sita did not finds a place in this version," he says.
Balagopal, who has trained at the New York Film Academy, made some changes of his own for his version ranging from tweaking minor characters and plot details to the addition of new scenes. He chose to depict Jambavan as part of the vanar clan and not as the king of bears, a not- very-uncommon practice; and having Hanuman leap up to grab the moon instead of the sun.
"I have tried to stay true to the story in Griffith's verse translation, occasionally going so far as to retain a turn of phrase or a line that did not seem capable of improvement," he says.
Balagopal also made the choice to represent the different ages, centuries apart, of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the character names and have split the usage between the two tales to the shorter Ram, Laxman, Ravan in the Ramayana and the longer Arjuna, Duryodana, Bhima in the Mahabharata for the sake of the storytelling, and not as a whim.
"It isn't my place to offer definitive answers about the Ramayana, a text sacred to hundreds of millions of people. What you have here is a young man, of this time and place, trying to understand these characters the best he can, and tell the story pumping through his heart and veins, nothing more," he says of his effort.