A couple of weeks before Diwali this year, I panicked. The panic was not due to planning the celebrations. It was about how to explain the story of Diwali (or as we call it in the South – Deepavali) to a five year old without the abundance of elements such as love, sex and dhokha!
First of all, there are many versions of Diwali. The one we grew up learning by-heart (and taking pride in knowing the nitty-gritty like names of birds, ministers, yada yada), is the most popular version of Rama and Sita returning to Ayodhya, signifying the triumph of Good over Evil. Then of course there are other versions such as Goddess Durga/Kali slaying the evil Mahishasura.
At the risk of sounding ancient, I really have to say ‘in my time’, we were just told the story of Ramayan and we simply believed it. No questions asked. It certainly is not the same situation today! Five year olds today want to know WHY Rama’s father had three wives, what Soorpanaka was after, why Ravana abducted Sita (and before that, ‘Mummy, what does ‘abduct’ mean?), blah blah blah.
While we try to protect our children from knowing too much about the big bad world, our epics already have their fair share of Bollywood masala. So any Indian parent trying to teach their children the significance of festivals, and the meaning behind the great Epics, is in for a shock.
Take the Ramayana for example. The objective is to make us imbibe characteristics of the IDEAL father, son, husband, wife, brother, etc. Are our great characters – Gods and Goddesses – truly Ideal?
King Dasaratha had three wives, of which Kausalya was his favourite – characterised by polygamy, favouritism and irrational behaviour (banishing his child to the forest) – are we really trying to say he was an ideal father?
Rama and Lakshmana slayed Rakshasis in the forest. Seriously! What are we trying to teach our children? Violence is an acceptable manifestation of bravery?
Ravana abducted Sita. Revenge for Rama/Lakshmana mutilating his sister? Sex? Dhokha? I don’t even want to get into this. It is too difficult to explain this to a child!
Sita. I really feel miserable when I think of her character. We Indians worship her. And why? Because she was the Ideal wife. Sita followed her husband into exile, she pined for him when she was abducted and she proved her chastity by jumping into fire. No wonder we think she is the ideal woman. Hello!! I strictly am not passing on this message (that reeks of male chauvinism) to Generation Next.
Lakshmana – the ideal brother – is always by the side of Rama. Duty-bound, ever subservient, and blissfully unaware of his responsibility towards even his own wife. If only we had more brothers like him.
Rama – Not enough can be said about the Uttam Purush – the perfect man. I grew up with a very romantically ideal image of Rama. Cultured, handsome, brave, noble – in a word, perfect. Only when I had to tell my child the story of Ramayan, did I realise how perfect the character is. As a son, he blindly obeyed his father’s orders. Do I want my son to do that? I don’t think so. I think I want my child to think for himself and choose what he thinks is right. As a husband, he made Sita take an agni-pariksha. The great Epic says it was only to pacify the subjects of the kingdom. Is Rama redeemed? I don’t think so. As a friend, Rama slayed Vali by resorting to unethical means. Is that what an ideal friend does?
So you see, I simply cannot tell this tale to my child in its present form. I do understand that the Ramayana itself has been handed down generations and has obviously and naturally undergone countless alterations. However, even the basic storyline has far too much violence and negativity for me to believe that these are our ideal characters. Characters that we, ordinary mortal, must aim to become.
So after much deliberation and discussion with a group of online friends, this is what I told my child...
Once upon a time, there lived King Dasaratha. He had three wives and four sons and loved them all equally.
Moral 1: Love your family equally. One day an evil maid poisoned the mind of Queen Kaikeyi, and said her son Bharatha should be King, not Rama. Moral 2: Don’t create fights between brothers.
Rama, Lakshmana and Sita went away to the forest. An evil Rakshasi Soorpanaka tried to attack them and they shooed her away (obviously cannot say they chopped her nose off, can we!). She complained to her brother, King Ravana, who carried Sita away and imprisoned her. Period. No reference to re-marriage here!
Rama and Lakshmana took the help of Hanuman and located Sita in the Kingdom of Lanka, destroyed the army of Baddies and returned home to Ayodhya, where the people welcomed them home, by lighting up the kingdom with lights, thereby celebrating the Festival of Diwali!!
Moral of the story: Goodies win, Baddies lose. Aka: The triumph of Good over Evil.
This is what my five year old believes Diwali is about. A festival that simply celebrates Good over Bad. A storyline without much Bollywoodisation. Certainly, this version might sound less attractive because it lacks a good dose of violence and testosterone.
Perhaps I am not giving a complete picture to the next generation. Perhaps I am not dinning into my child’s head, what the typical characteristics of an IDEAL husband, wife, brother or father are.
But you know what? I am happy with this plain vanilla script. A quiet, simple story of Goodies winning and Baddies losing, with much focus on Love, and without any reference to Sex and Dhokha.