This past Tuesday, The Book House hosted renowned Indian author Dr. Arshia Sattar on her book tour for Ramayana. It is a classic story told in practically every Indian household about love, revenge, and choice that has once again been retold by the authority on the texts. The book signing was an amazing experience. Especially as an Indian woman, I found it fascinating to hear how others debated and viewed the story. Dr. Sattar spoke incredibly, and I was granted the opportunity to speak with her after her reading. 

  1. I know you have studied the Ramayana for many years. What do you find so fascinating about the story? 

It is adaptable to it’s time. The raises important questions about feminism and morals that can be viewed from a multitude of angles. A part of what makes it so great is how it can be viewed through the lens that society needs to view it through based on current events, because of its inherent ambiguity.

2. How do you think the illustrations change a reader’s experience versus reading a direct translation? 

My Indian publisher doesn’t like the illustrations, but I’m obsessed with them. I love my illustrator, and even though we didn’t talk before the illustrations were made, they are fantastic. In India this is received as a story of ideals, however she understood the loss, betrayal, and darkness of the story. I never really thought about the impact of illustrations, but you are right. They open the reader to more than just to story. On the other hand, a lack of illustrations allows a reader to imagine the story, which might actually be better. 

3. Why do you choose to write this story for children? Many of the themes it contains would actually be considered more mature.

It is great story, but at its core it is a fairytale. Children will respond to it. Children have to great gift of believing anything is possible and this story shows them a new world. The imagination of a child is not fettered. This is truly a book of the imagination. 

4. Did you approach this retelling of Ramayana differently at all than your original translation for Penguin Classics? 

I kept what I believed is the basic story. There is a very good man who should be king, but couldn’t be king. He loves his wife desperately, yet circumstances took her away twice. There is enough ambiguity to make this exciting for the kids. I took out most of the preaching, however, because I do not believe that is necessarily what the story needs to be appreciated.

5. How do you see your book being perceived differently between India and the United States?

So many people have written to me and said they were delighted to have this book, because they never know how to tell the story to their children due to its complicated problems. These parents are finally able to share the classic story with their children without it being overly religious. In India, this has become a story about God, and in America religion would not be a problem when approaching the book.

6. If you had to pick out one thing from Ramayana: An Illustrated Retelling for your readers to remember, what would that be? 

This book is not about morals. I want my audience to be able to just read this book to enjoy it. If they find a message, fine. If they do not, that is fine as well. Children are especially bombarded with morals and values everyday. Reading should be for fun, and I honestly do not care about preaching morals when readers are perfectly capable of finding their own meaning.

7. What is the most difficult thing about translating original Indian stories from Sanskrit? 

I learned Sanskrit in order to read the original story, which was difficult What makes the language so hard is that differs according to genre. I know how to read the Ramayana in Sanskrit, and that’s it. My biggest problem was what to leave out, since I was writing an abridged version of the story.

8. What are you currently reading?

I’m the type of person who is always reading 6 things at the same time. Right now I am reading Fireflies, Commonwealth, Missing, and more. Thank God for kindles. 

Much of the time, it is difficult to build a connection with an author through their book. Having Dr. Sattar answer these questions not only shone some light on contentious topics, but it also helped me get to know her from the perspective of a reader. I highly recommend that everyone pick up the book, it is definitely worth it. And before I wrap up, I want to share with you some of the gorgeous illustrations from Ramayana.

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