“The great thing about dark November days is that you can actually SEE the lights – amber skies, street lights with their haloes, electric signs, and bonfires with their candle flames and smell of cinnamon.
The festival of Diwali is a celebration of a legend that became epic in the hands of its first author – Valmiki. There have been at least nine others and their literary Ramayanas from the 4th to the 19th Century, and other regional variations across the world.
Ramayana is an epic tale, and really the first novel when you think of it – since 4th century AD. But first, it was a novel that was told, spoken, sung and then it was written down. Rama was a prince with four brothers. Lakshmana was his brother, best friend and a sort of spiritual twin and they both set out early in life on an odyssey guided by a sage Vishwamitra. Rakshasa were ogre-like figures, but apart from their looks they were devious, negative fields of energy. So our epic hero’s mission was to destroy them. Rama and Lakshmana did, when they were 16, in Dandaka forest. Then Sage Viswamitra took them to a kingdom – Mithila, where a tournament was held. It was the kingdom of princess Sita – a young woman who had the spirit of fire and would challenge any injustice, and was loved by her family, friends and the kingdom for her intelligence, compassion, and beauty. Of the 500 princes who competed to lift the giant iron bow at the tournament, Rama was the one who not only lifted it, but broke it in two. He was the best suited for Sita – and so they married, but they were also in love. It wasn’t exactly “happily ever after” – and that’s what qualifies an epic as different from fairy tales! They loved each other, but more adventures were to follow, possibly to test their mettle.
When Rama was to be crowned King, his stepmother exiled Rama for 13 years out of the kingdom so her son Bharata could be king. Sita insisted she accompany Rama inspite of him dissuading her – there’s a wonderful village telling where an actor performing Sita says to the Rama actor in that great moment of improvisation as he pleads with her not to come: “Rama, in every Ramayana – Sita comes to the forest, if she doesn’t, there is no plot to the story!” Lakshmana insists on being their bodyguard during exile. Does Rama have a choice with two such strong-willed and loving people? The three of them set out on exile.
In the thirteenth year, Sita sees a ‘golden deer’. A crisis. This is a distraction that takes Rama and soon Lakshmana off the scene. A distraction by Ravana, the Emperor of the Rakshasa clan. He abducts Sita and keeps her captive in his exquisite garden Asokavan, hoping she will come to him of her own will.
Now comes the crux of the ethical dilemma – Rama, after months of grieving at the loss of Sita, meets Hanuman – an exiled Chief Minister of the monkey kingdom Vanara. Hanuman’s special powers enable him to find Sita, and when he asks her to return with him, she says: “Rama must fight this war of Right against Might. Ravana has tyrranised humanity long enough.”
This has become the central inspiration of the epic – and yes, it has championed and inspired many just causes, but we have to take exceptional care in not letting epics and its legendary characters become propagandist for chauvinistic uses – in any culture!
The war is fought, and now 14 years have passed. A village woman on a moonless night remembers it is time for Rama and Sita and Lakshmana to return. But she has only one diya (‘Di’ – in the Diwali) and hopes it will light their way. Soon her neighbours also start lighting their diyas, and all the streets are lit in the kingdom to welcome Rama and Sita, with Lakshmana and now Hanuman following their triumph over a dark time, and a Rakshasa’s dark reign, with light and liberty.
Let’s welcome Obama’s “The best is yet to come”. It’s a time for that kind of optimism that brings Light. A real triumph about getting serious about climate, economic downturn, and malicious politics. I’m remembering too, my father 90 years and still going, after he retired as an Indian Army Gurka General – Aban Naidu, who on this very day warded off an enemy air attack 70 years ago with the Allies in Burma. More stories of age and courage, and love and remembering – please!
Every year the story continues to be performed or retold at Ramlila or the ‘the play of Rama’s life’, in India’s 22 different languages with diverse versions to suit the terrain from northern Punjab to southern Kanyakumari, western Gujarat, to eastern Assam – worldwide and East Africa, and now, for the second year, here at Dishoom in London.
I couldn’t just stop here could I? So as I was thinking of Sita, I thought I’d write a whole new novel titled Sita’s Ascent, about what happened to Sita after their return. Remember, she is nearly 30 now. It’s out in a few weeks from now.
Ever wondered why Indians didn’t write the story down in the first place? It’s about memory. Oral memory. And the sounds of words, the relish for language. At a time when people were not literate, because of their work, or indeed as women, the old stories were told, and performed so everyone heard them and knew them and passed them on by word of mouth. And in each telling and retelling of these stories they are nourished, like beautiful living things.”
– Vayu Naidu
Vayu is bringing to life the story of Diwali at Dishoom in two magical performances on Sunday 27th October 2013.
Dr. Vayu Naidu is a Storyteller and performer. She began her relish for language in ‘70s Bombay, from St. Xavier’s College round the corner from Irani Cafés where it all began. Her Ph.D from Unviersity of Leeds was on performing oral traditons of Ramayan and Mahabharata. As an artist and practitioner, her postdoctoral work combined art forms for storytelling with contemporary dance, world and western music both classical and contemporary, and digital arts. She now writes and trains and is setting up VISTA, a storytelling academy.
Her new novel titled ‘Sita’s Ascent’ is out now.
IT HAS BEEN an annual December habit of mine, these past ten years since we embarked upon this restaurant business, to sit alone, with myself, and reflect on the year gone by. I am grateful to be here in the Permit Room in our restaurant in Shoreditch scribbling and writing, the oddly enjoyable taste of splintering wood from my chewed up pencil smoothed by my decently strong drink.
These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it?
I love to truly understand and appreciate the origins of a dish, and learn how communities have adapted a recipe over time to make that dish unique to them.
We have arrived at a very sad, but inevitable and clear choice. As of now, all Dishooms are now closed to diners.