Kahiteri is such a versatile Marathi word - its ambiguity allows it to be used to refer to anything, from the sacred to the profane. And it is also used to introduce a certain neutrality to your noun, such that, even more controversial topics, such as the Ramayana, to not be immediately categorized as a kavya, a "poetry," which, in the popular mind, denotes fiction, or as itihasa, which, among the masses, denotes history with the duty of delivering the hard truth about the world. I wish I could use kahiteri all throughout my writing, especially when it comes to this dilemma:
“Do you think that the Ramayana, is an epic, or is it history?”
Such seemingly innocuous questions kept coming during my two months in Pune, during which Kiski Kahani has introduced me to the tens and hundreds of Ramayanas. Almost all of these retellings are imbued with a talent to straddle themselves comfortably between “history” and “imagination,” and between “religion” and “literature.” I've listened to people who were enormously happy with how the American animation Sita Sings the Blues brings the Ramayana to a whole new audience, and I've heard been warned that I should be cautious when a copy of the Ramcharitmanas does not come from a certain publisher. I've been taught that Rama is the maryada purushottam, the “ideal man,” and I've been told that Ram-bhakti might not be the best option for those who want their lives to be somewhat less tragic. On the surface, all of these contradict each other, yet somehow the Ramayana fits effortlessly in the everyday language that even modern,urban Indians use. In between chai and bun-maska, “a woman can make a man a Rama or a Ravana,” said one young IT professional to me. In the midst of the 2G scandals, the Supreme Court says to the Indian government that it has “to cross the Lakshman rekha” to make some headway in its investigation. So, as an to answer to this riddle, I would say that the Ramayana is part of history; it is a way of experiencing the Indian way of life through a certain set of idioms.
Kiski Kahani demonstrated that to experience the Ramayana is to go beyond critically edited, meticulously proofread, leather-bound volumes in cataloged libraries. People who attended the theater and writing workshops are already familiar with versions of the epic and the never-ending cast of characters even before the first mention of Rama and Sita. Even at a modest Marathi-medium school in the outer fringes of Pune, Manthara, Ravana, Bakasura, and Sakuni appeared in a short, impromptu play without creating a written script. In fact, a new rakshasa by the funny name of Yakku was comfortably sneaked in on the last day. “I have caused so many people to cry... but now I am crying myself. Look at what I have done!,” says Yakku to the group of conventional antagonists, jumbled up from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This is one piece of history that keeps itself alive through an endless flow of new stories.
The “Unraveling the Divine” lectured featured, among others, Philip Lutgendorf, an American scholar who talked about his research on Hanuman's presence in Indian popular culture. Nonetheless, it was the audience members, who knew the Ramayana so well, who came up with fascinating questions: “Isn't the vanara army a group of people who have the monkey as their totem, instead of being monkeys themselves?” and even “Have you ever heard this theory about Rama being related to the Egyptian archer-god Ra?” It's the experience of having heard the Ramayana so many times before, from so many different sources, that keeps each person's memory of Ramayana stories inimitable.
Therefore, nobody ever knows the “entire Ramayana,” and each time I mentioned the Ramayana to a different person, new stories came up. From a Maharashtrian, I heard the story of how Ganesha deceived Ravana by dropping his hard-earned shivalingam to the ground, hence saving the world by preventing the demon king from attaining invincibility. From an animal lover, I heard the story of Rama giving squirrels their characteristic stripes through a tender touch after their heroic attempt in carrying small stones to the bridge. When they talk about the Ramayana, people write their own histories, way beyond the tales of Rama, Sita, and Ravana.
Those who grew up in the middle of these stories connect their own experiences with the rich tropes of metaphors in the Ramayana. The ever-growing collection of Ramayana stories now includes memories of how everybody was so teary-eyed during the 10 AM screening of Ramanand Sagar's episodes in the late 1980s, and stories about how somebody's uncle still chants from an old copy of the Ramcharitmanas every day. What makes this an exciting project is that it never gets the feeling of being “completely done,” since, as a text always in the midst of being retold, the Ramayana is happening right now, and it is never finished.