I recently re-read R.K. Narayan's version of The Ramayana. This is a much condensed, retold prose adaptation, based not on the 4th century Sanskrit original by Valmiki, but a popular 11th century Tamil version by a poet known as Kamban.
The plot, in a nutshell, is this: Vishnu is reborn as a human prince, Rama, in order to destroy a demon (asura) called Ravana, who terrorizes the world with his awesome power. Unaware of Rama’s own power and destiny, the ten-headed Ravana is struck by the beauty of Rama's wife, Sita, and abducts her. Say, that’s a handy excuse to wipe him and his entire clan off the face of Brahma’s clean earth! The pre-emptive attacker is rarely cast as the hero (right, President Bush?).
Narayan, of course, is a skilled novelist, and he makes the epic very readable and entertaining; I certainly kept turning the pages. Still, I found Narayan's habit of intruding on his own narrative and commenting on Kamban’s writing technique (“here the poet describes the landscape...”), rather than following suit, to be a bit jarring. Perhaps this is done to help enhance the illusion of story-telling, a tradition inseperable from the poem, and about which Narayan says a few words at the end. This also, thankfully for the modern reader, cuts down on the purple prose. My chief complaint is the same as it was when I read this book ten years ago: Narayan cuts huge sections out — perforce, obviously, given the vast length of the original, but he does it often where it seems the most drama might be found (the climactic clash of armies runs only a few pages, and the fall of Ravana’s son to Rama’s brother merely one line). This is, however, more than made up for the knock-down, dragged-out fight between Rama and Ravana themselves, a fantastic battle featuring arrows, flying chariots, and asthras (conjured weapons, spells).
On the whole, Narayan does a superb job of condensing the epic into a fairly straightforward single narrative, from Rama’s birth to his coronation. Highly recommended for those with little or no knowledge of this ancient epic.