My letter to Bibek Debroy about his translation of the Valmiki Ramayana#


This letter is reproduced almost verbatim, except for some minor additions, to add context for readers. these are marked with footnotes.


I haven’t digitized the entire thing yet, this is still 25%. But I’m doing it piece by piece. This is a long letter, and was 42 pages in length when I wrote it in paper. I don’t have a wordcount yet.

Dated : May 6, 2018 - May 26, 2018

Dear Mr. Debroy,

It has taken me over a month to get myself ready to write this letter. I began writing it before I’d returned from Kishkinda, but I couldn’t find the time to finish it.

I began writing this letter in my Grandfather’s house in a village called Kamalapura, four kilometers from the ruins of Vijayanagara.

I had not yet finished the Ramayana, but I wanted to compose this letter before beginning the Yuddha Kanda. I felt that way because oddly enough, my trip this time coincided with the annual marriage of Pampa and Virupaksha.

Hampi was swamped with locals. It was scorching hot.

Mr. Debroy, Hampi was perfect It was perfectly hot enough to read of the misfortunes of Rama.

So in the abandoned temple to Ranganatha, the sleeping Vishnu, where I read the thousand names of Narayana, I sat alone and read the story of Rama of the Bow.

On the first day, I sat under the neem tree that provided me shade for days whilst I read of the misfortunes of the line of Kuru. 1 There, I read of Vishwamitra’s great arrogance, and of his scorn for Vasishtha.

As I did so, a young tour guide asked me what I was doing. I must have been a curious sight, sitting with my legs crossed, holding a book under a tree, ignoring passers-by. I told him that I was reading the Valmiki Ramayana. He was surprised, but he went on his way. An hour later, he returned and sat with me for an hour or so, telling me that he was curious. I marked out the Rishyamukha Parvata 2 and the Matanga Parvata 2 to him, telling him how Rama, _my Kodhanda Rama,_ 3 Sugreeva and how the Rishu Matanga cursed the vain Vali.

The boy listened and said he has not met anyone else who loved Hampi as much as I do.

I did not say anything – how could I? I love Hampi, but I cannot truly claim that my love is not selfish. I tire of the city and Hampi refreshes me.

I do not pray. I go to the Pampa 4 to read Indian classics because those stories mean the world to me. As they did to my grandfathers. And Hampi is sacrosanct. 5

It is home like no other place is. And I know not why! Was I some failed bard who prayed so hard for inspiration that he was reborn as someone who doesn’t believe in prayer?

Then why do these stories matter so much to me?

In his quest to prove himself greater than Vasishtha, Vishwamitra undertakes a great sacrifice, demanding the King Dasaratha hand over his beloved son Rama as a guardian against the rakshasas that plague the forest.


How could the sage believe Dasaratha would hand over Rama? No greater son had ever been born in the line of Raghu. Dasaratha had yearned so long and his prayers had yielded fruit in the form of Rama.

And this King-turned-Sage sought to snatch him away and use him as a shield against demons?


Why, Mr. Debroy, does Dasaratha’s pain move me to tears when I have never had a son? What does this story mean to me?

Sir, I love every bit of your translation of the Mahabharata, but I do not know why the Ramayana makes me quiver.

I’ve heard this story so many times. My paternal grandfather would take me for walks around the village, buy me a lassi, and tell me of his Rama, his Kodandha Rama. He described how Raghava raised Janaka’s Bow, The Bow That Could Not Be Strung, and how Rama broke it in an attempt to string it.

I have heard, as many times as I have heard the Gajendra Moksham story, 6 how the sons of Dasaratha protect Vishwamitra’s sacrificial pot.

And yet, as if Lomaharshana himself were reciting a version of this tale, the hair on my forearms rose as I read your translation. 7

The story of Rama wells me up. All stories of Rama do.

The last time I read a version of the Ramayana was Rajaji’s translation in 2002.

I suppose Rajaji was drawing from Kamban, not Valmiki. Yet, I enjoyed the book but I was unimpressed by that description of Rama.

“But he doesn’t describe Rama!”

I remember telling anyone who would listen.

People told me that Rajaji could not possibly know what Rama looked like. How could anyone?

I never bought that explanation. My grandfather knew exactly what Rama looked like.

“As dark as the evening clouds,” he would tell me, “and as calm and as cool as this glass of lassi.”

Rama – his Rama* – was taller than most men, and his hair was matted. He wielded a bow that was an extension of his body, and when he attacked, no rakshasa could stay the shower of arrows.

His gaze was endless. One look from those eyes could soothe a baby that bellowed for her mother’s breasts.

One word from his lips and storms would cease.

His Rama was without equal.

His Rama was kind, benevolent to a fault.

His Rama kept his word.

No one knows what Kodhanda Rama looked like? Such rubbish!

In 2021, I was working as a production engineer at one of the Lucas-TVS subsidiaries at Hosur. I didn’t like living by myself so I commuted from Bangalore every day. I don’t drive so I spent most of my time in the bus. One evening, I happened to sit next to an old man. We started talking, and someone, I cannot recall how or why, the conversation steered to Rama. “Do you know Rama?” the old man asked me.

I didn’t know how to answer such a question. “I have read the Ramayana.” I replied. 8

The man patted his chest, full of pride, and clarified. “But have you heard of my Rama?”

I shook my head. The oldman saw this as a sign that I wanted to hear his stories. I must confess, back then I was tired and wanted to sleep. “My name is Purushottama Rama.” The man thumped his chest. “My brother’s name is Raghu Rama. Our father–”

And at this the old man extended his arms as if pulling hte string of an invisible bow – Mr. Debroy, the bus was packed by the way – and he exclaimed: “was named Kodhanda Rama. Rama of the Bow.”

How does one react to this?

The old man asked me whether a mosque or a temple should be constructed at Ayodhya. I didn’t reply and he said “My Rama – my Kodhanda Rama – is here.” He thumped his chest as though he was Anjaneya.

“My Rama does not need a temple. He is everywhere.”

Somehow, I will never forget that man.

Returning to the shade of those Neem trees during some of the hottest months is like returning home. More so when I have your books with me. How many times can I say this without sounding insane? I owe so much to you.

I don’t stay in the nearly 100 year (or more) old house in my village 4km from Hampi these days. I only return to sleep and eat dinner. I don’t even feel hungry when I sit here, surrounded by stories - both of the Pampa and those you tell me.

Are you blessed by Vyaasa? I pray that you continue. I don’t pray these days, but I do pray that you go on writing.

As I read the Bala Kanda, I wanted to know more about the line of Raghu. I wonder if Kalidasa felt the same way! Did he write the Raghuvamsam because he wanted to understand the people who came before Rama?

Dasaratha sounds like someone who both accepts his son’s divinity and rejects anyone who wants to share the pleasure of knowing Rama. He wants Kakutstha all for himself. Somehow… that feels oddly apt. My relationship with my father is… strange to say the least. We have so little in common. At times, it feels like we have nothing to talk about. He goes to God in fear, asking for things. Naturally, he blames God when he gets none of those things. He listens to babas on the television and does not read the stories himself. Blind faith. He lets blind faith define him.

Yet, with such a father-son relationship as an example, I can understand Dasaratha.

I can understand Dasaratha’s love for his sons. I can understand his love for Rama.

After all, despite our differences, I am a recipient of such loe.



I’d earlier read Bibek Debroy’s Mahabharata under the same tree, which is what I’m referring to.


While there are “hillocks” that are claimed to be these “parvatas”, there is a lot of debate about what these really are. They’re not massive enough to be called mountains at any rate, especially if you’ve seen Hampi. They’re piles of boulders of varying lengths and little more than hills or hillocks.


This references another letter I’ve yet to digitize, where in I explain why I call him this way. But Kodhanda Rama just means Rama of the Bow as opposed to Bhargava Rama, or Parashurama, Rama of the Axe.


Pampa is both the name of the river Tungabhadra, as well as that of the Goddess married to Virupaksha, the form of Shiva as he is worshipped in Hampi. Hampi itself is another name for Hampe, which stems from Pampakshetre.


Hampi is widely believed to be Kishkinda of the Ramayana story, the land of the Vanaras.


I’d earlier written to him how my fondest memory involved my grandfather’s telling of the Gajendra Moksham story from the Vishnu Purana (also retold in the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata).


Lomaharshana, was one of the principal disciples of Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, Veda Vyasa. He was givne this title because it is said that his story-telling prowess could give one goosebumps and raise the hair on your body.


I meant the Rajaji Ramayana, and the Ashok Banker version I suppose.