Issue 111, Summer 1989
By the sheer size of its audience, the Asian epic Ramayana arguably ranks as the world’s most popular story. Its oldest version is a Sanskrit poem attributed to the poet Valmiki and composed some two millennia ago, though the legend it tells may be considerably older and is set, according to Hindu belief in the Second Age of the present cosmic cycle — hundreds of thousands of years in the past. Whatever its origin, the saga of Rama, an ideal prince unjustly exiled from his kingdom, whose wife is kidnapped by a powerful demon-king and who embarks on a hazardous quest to recover her assisted by talking monkeys and birds, has proven to have a timeless and far-reaching appeal. On the Indian subcontinent it has inspired more than 300 versions in dozens of languages, and it has also spread throughout Southeast Asia, Japan, China, and been carried by emigrant communities to Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. Most importantly, the Ramayana has survived primarily as an oral tradition, performed by countless story-tellers, singers, folk players, puppeteers — a meta-story never exhaustively encompassed by any one text but always inspiring new and variant tellings.
Traditional Ramayana authors know this, and their works are often highly reflexive, full of allusions to other versions and set within elaborate frames that give as much importance to the act and context of the telling as to the tale itself. The result is a story full of tellers, from the sage Valmiki who teaches his poem to the twin sons of the hero (they later sing it before Rama, who thus becomes part of the audience for his own story), to the monkey Hanuman —Rama’s ally and one of the epic’s most beloved characters — who delights in repeating the tale within the tale and becomes in time (through the boon of physical immortality) the special patron of all its tellers. Hanuman is also, by the way, a liminal figure who combines awesome power with a gift for slapstick: half god and half monkey, he leaps the sea to find Rama’s wife in the demon’s island citadel. After frolicking for centuries through the monkey lore of Southeast Asia, Hanuman easily bounded to the Americas (where he inspired Octavio Paz’s novel El Mono Grammático) and established another beachhead among the East Indians of the Caribbean. Odillo Antoni, inspired in part by the Hindo-Afro-Hispano-American legends of his childhood, gives us another Ramayana retelling — by a teller with a tail.