The test that Shubha Vilas' Ramayana – The Game of Life : Shattered Dreams faces, is the sort of test faced by any author who attempts a retelling of any epic — How to make the story and the characters appear fresh and new again? We readers, may not have read the Ramayana or the different versions of it, but we are familiar with the story and the protagonists. In such retellings, there's often little the author can do about the story itself (unless he is attempting a postmodern subversion), and has to find something that's "different" ... something that will give the readers a reason to pick up a yet another telling of an oft-told tale. Shubha Vilas' hook and bait for the readers is to attempt a "spiritual and motivational" series out of the Ramayana demonstrating "how the ancient epic holds immediate relevance to modern life."
Ramayana – The Game of Life : Shattered Dreams is the second book in this series and narrates the story of how and why Rama (with Sita and Laxman in tow) is exiled from Ayodhya. Vilas annotates his story-telling with numerous footnotes that distil the wisdom from the epic. Imagine for a moment, if you will, a bhajan or a kirtan singer. The kirtankar's (devotional singer's) performance includes not only singing but also story-telling that elaborates the themes, and oratory, that explicates the lessons from the song. Vilas, is attempting something on the lines of a kirtankar in his Ramayana – The Game of Life series. A kirtankar is successful and holds attention only if he can seamlessly weave together all the threads in his performance — singing, which is primary, and story-telling and oratory, that are secondary, but which enhance and add to the performance. If even one strand is off, the weave will not hold.
Vilas unfortunately is neither a good story-teller nor a good teacher. Vilas falls into the same trap as many of the Indian mythological television soaps. Everybody declaims in the grandiose and the characters (like the props) are uniformly cardboard. Sample what Vasistha, the spiritual guru of Rama's dynasty says when Dasaratha announces his decision to hand over the reins of Ayodhya to Rama: "...We are waiting to see Rama seated under the white umbrella, ride on the royal elephant across the streets of Ayodhya. In fact, we wish to see this lion of Ayodhya astride an elephant! Historic!"
A few pages earlier, Vilas awkwardly describes Dasaratha entering the courtroom thus: "A regular day would have Dasaratha saunter in, with a nod here and a nod there, savoring the adulation of his citizens as he trundled to his throne.... He walked briskly toward his throne like a horse with blinders."
Vilas' explanatory footnotes and interpolations too are heavy-handed. In an interpolation attempting to elucidate Rama's embodiment of the three virtues of magnificent talent, right attitude, and spotless character, the bit on Attitude goes like this: "Talent without the right attitude is like sweet rice without sugar. Talent brings one to the brink of the bridge to success and right attitude helps one cross it.
The symptom of the disease of vanity is the desire to be approached by others rather than to approach others; the sweet-smiling Rama vaccinated Himself from this disease and initiated discussions using the elixir of humility."
And Vilas keeps going on like that. This was only page 22 of the book and already I was finding Vilas' story-telling as well as his teaching heavy going. With no compulsions of having to take an exam at the end of it, I was tempted to skip Vilas' classroom and chuck this heavy-handed text book without proceeding further.
Vilas' characterizations too don't help. It would be too much to expect anything "novel" in the story-telling and to expect even an attempt at a postmodern play on the characters would be far-fetched, but the lack of any sort of nuance to any of the protagonists just makes the entire telling of the story fall flat. Rama and the others are placed on a pedestal. We only get a divine and perfect perspective on their character and their actions. Never is there any attempt to lend them any depth or problematize them.
Take Vilas' lack of anything interesting or novel in the story or the narration. Then add to that his heavy handed teaching and prose bordering on the purple. The resultant book, Ramayana – The Game of Life : Shattered Dreams, is something that is neither worth reading as a story nor as a textbook on wisdom. Vilas, idea of making a modern spiritual and motivational series out of the Ramayana is good, unfortunately he doesn't have the story-telling ability or the teaching nous to pull it off.