Daljit Nagra: re-writing Punjabi epics for a modern audience

Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:

Daljit_Nagra_2712552bNext Sunday, Indians all over the world will celebrate the festival of lights, or Diwali. The brightly coloured lamps and fireworks commemorate the climax of the epic poem The Ramayana, when the hero Rama brings home his abducted bride Sita. This much most schoolchildren will know from religious studies classes. But for the poet Daljit Nagra, born in Britain in 1966 to Punjabi parents, Rama’s story was a powerful part of his upbringing. “My family would tell me the story in the small hours around Diwali time,” he tells me over a fish curry at Rasa near Bond Street. “It was a good vs bad moral story – working hard and being dutiful rather than sensual or lazy.” Until his twenties Nagra only knew The Ramayana in the Punjabi oral version. Then he discovered a prose retelling by the masterful Indian novelist RK Narayan, and soon found there were literally thousands of retellings in dozens of languages from Sanskrit to Javanese. After publishing two successful poetry collections with Faber – the first, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, won the Forward Prize for best debut – Nagra has now written his own version of The Ramayana. “It’s aimed at the educated, middle-class British reader,” he says, “who knows the European classics but probably doesn’t know the Eastern.” The story of an army going to war to rescue an abducted woman has some similarities to The Iliad. “That’s really striking,” he says, “but people tend to be very serious in retelling Homer and, to me, The Ramayana feels like a really fun story.” He looks at me with a mischievous eye. “I wanted to capture some of the humour: I imagine it as a family entertainment piece.”

In the late Eighties in India, a 78-part television adaptation of The Ramayana brought the country to a standstill. “Shops would shut, people who didn’t have a telly, they’d find a telly in the village and gather around.” For some it was a religious experience: “People would do prayers and execute rituals, watch it with incense on.” Channel 4 also broadcast the series, and Nagra tells me that as a British Asian teenager he found the bright costumes and over-the-top acting a bit embarrassing. But there was also pride that this remarkable story was being presented to a wider public. Nagra’s version is fizzy and up-to-date. Rather than solely relying on Indian speech patterns, he uses global English to make the story universal. A king is compared to a CEO with “tough-guy leadership skills”; Raavana, the lord of the underworld, is like a Bollywood villain supplied with “assassins, ghazis, nabobs/riff-raff doolallys”; and there is even a hint of Yoda-speak – “Raavana was now a supreme being becoming!”

More here.