Sunday, May 08, 2005

William Buck and the Ramayana

"Valmiki the Poet looked down into water held cupped in his hand and saw into the past. Before he looked, he thought the world was sweet poison. Men seemed to be living in lies, not knowing where their ways went. The days seemed made of ignorance and doubt, and cast from deception and illusion. But in the water he saw-a dream, a chance and a great adventure. Valmiki trusted the True and forgot the rest; he found the whole universe like a bright jewel set firm in forgiving and held fast by love.

Widen your heart. Abandon anger. Believe me, your few days are numbered; make one fast choice now and no second!

Come, clear your heart and quickly walk with me into Brahma, while there is time.

-William Buck (from the opening verse of his retelling of Valmiki's "Ramayana")


I have always been fascinated by the Epics, be it Homer and ancient Greece, or the "Legend of Gilgamesh", or Tolkien's tales. But to me none were as wondrous or mesmerizing as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Every translation I could find I have read, and C. Rajagopalachari's popular retelling of the stories have been faithfully re-read every year. But I had not read William Buck's versions of Valmiki and Vyasa's epics. Not read them, that is, until now.

I recently bought both books, and have been devouring the Ramayana first. Never have I read an English version of the epic that remains so true to the lyrical verse of the vernacular versions. This book is meant to be read out (almost sung out) aloud, just like the ancient bards would sing these epics in times long gone by. And every line is as riveting and conjures up images as any classic epic fantasy should. The tale almost takes different hues, though fidelity to the original story, and love for the original, is utmost in Buck's effort. The retelling also remains remarkably succinct, and the epic is reduced to a mere 430 pages, without losing a major section of the story. A masterful effort. It's a true pity Buck died at the young age of 37, before he could translate more Indian classics into English.

Amazon link.

16 comments:

charu said...

this sounds like a must read.... but I have always wondered why the west has been more fascinated by the Mahabharata and choose to ignore the Ramayana - maybe because the former has a mix of elements that makes for a racy story?!

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sunil, I hadn't heard of Buck, but now I will try to get his translations. I must say I found RK Narayan's retelling of the Ramayana very disappointing -- it seemed like a rush job, superficially done.

To answer Charu: I myself think the Mahabharata is far more interesting than the Ramayan, because the characters are so much greyer and therefore human. And that's why I find Irawati Karve's "Yuganta" so compelling, because she captures that spirit of the Mahabharats so well.

charu said...

I agree, Dilip - that is what I meant by a 'racy story'! the characters are very human and not 'pious' in the least :)
I found the entire series by RK Narayan a little disappointing - including the one about myths and gods (can't remember the name now?) - epics for beginners types

Sunil said...

I agree with both of you here. Narayan was extremely disappointing with his retelling. And "Yuganta" was absolutely brilliant. So too was Tharoor's "Great Indian Novel" (brilliantly fusing the epic with the freedom struggle). The Mahabharatha certainly has more complex characters, and only shades of grey (not black and white), reflecting life's characters, which is why (in my opinion) it is a far greater tale. I recently obtained a dvd of Peter Brook's dramatization of the Mahabharata, and its quite brilliant (expecially with the multi-ethnic and national cast).

Anonymous said...

perhaps, I am commenting a bit too late.

I have heard (and sampled a drop of) "the original" Valmiki Ramayan. It is extremely sweet and the moving. I wish I could write poetry like that.
C Rajagopalachari in the Intro (Preface?) writes (with humility, of course) that if the translation to English (from the tamil version) is any good, it has to be attributed to Valmiki.

-B

Sunil said...

True.....very true. But the Tamil version (by Kamban) was no less poetic.....and infused with more bhakti. So too was Tulisidas's more vernacular version...

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multisubj yb said...

Does the English book read by you, include important verses and events: www.ramayanayb.blogspot.com

workinsmarter said...

William Buck's English prose of Ramayana was outstanding! It kept to the story and made for a joyous read while remaining profound and true to the remarkable genius of Valmiki. I am about to consume his rendition Mahabharata. Mr. Buck made these two Indian revelations his life work and legacy. Does anyone know how he died at such a young age of 37 or have any further information about the man?

Gopi said...

Hi man,

Glad to finally find someone who has read that book. If you have read it, can you please tell me what goes in page 369???

That page is missing on the google book edition!

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Bhakti Brophy said...

I am reading Buck's rendering of the RAMAYANA for a third time right now (working on an essay regarding this work).

Buck's rendering is exquisite!