RAM S. VARMA's BOOK ON THE RAMAYANA
By Pranay Gupte
Some professional writers – particularly journalists -- will tell you that writing is a breeze. All you need to do is get your facts straight through relentless reporting, sit in front of your computer, and the words will flow. There’s a story – and it happens to be true – of the late R. W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. of The New York Times dashing out a 7,000-word cover story for The Times’s Sunday magazine in three hours; Johnny was legendary for his deadline-writing abilities, his felicitous style, and for his consumption of vodka and foie gras while at work.
I happen to be one of those journalists who’s been blessed with the gift of writing speedily on deadline. Perhaps that’s because I came of age in journalism at the knees of mentors and great models such as Johnny Apple and A. M. Rosenthal, the late, great executive editor of The New York Times. That said, however hard I tried to emulate their writing style, I could never achieve the distinction of their style. (Maybe the reason was that I am a teetotaler.)
Notwithstanding giants such as Apple and Rosenthal, most professional writers will tell you that writing simply isn’t easy. Reporting isn’t easy. Getting facts right isn’t easy. Getting the correct context isn’t easy. And the words don’t necessarily flow easily. The muse is usually not easy to summon.
Ram S. Varma is not a professional writer, but he seems to have no trouble at all in summoning the muse. Perhaps the muse comes to his side because Ram is something more than a professional writer. He’s a writer’s writer. Whether it’s his columns in newspapers, or his novels, or his verse, the words seem to come to him effortlessly. I’ve always wondered what he has for breakfast. Ram writes exactly as he speaks – precisely, poetically, prolifically.
The prolificacy may be understandable in view of his background. For long years, Ram served in the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He was, among other things, Chief Secretary of Haryana State. To this day, his integrity and efficiency serve as benchmarks in the IAS. His bureaucratic memos are models of analysis and synthesis. His ability to conjure up creative solutions to seemingly intractable economic and other problems made him highly sought after by various leaders in Haryana and elsewhere.
Truth be told, I had never heard of Ram, quite possibly because I have lived outside India much of my adult life. One summer evening in 2008, a mutual friend named Babu Lal Jain invited me to meet him in New Delhi. The man I met was tall, extremely fit, with a warm, even dazzling, smile. His eyes, while penetrating, had a sweet sheen to them.
That didn’t impress me all that much, quite possibly because the hostess whose home I was visiting to meet Ram was hugely attractive and hyperkinetic. I also thought that she was a tad rude, paying more attention to the table setting than to the new arrival. (Alas, middle-aged, plump gentlemen like me all suited and booted – don’t seem to be the fashion du jour.)
But when Ram began talking about his book on Ram, my interest was instantly piqued. Here was a unique way of re-telling The Ramayana, I thought. Here was Indian mythology re-examined provocatively. Here was lyrical prose, at least the way Ram articulated his story. Here was a manuscript that certainly needed to be published. Here was a book that most definitely would gain wonderful notices and great sales.
And so Ram, and his daughter Vandana Sehgal, an architect, artist and professor, proceeded to produce the book. (No, she wasn’t the hostess I referred to earlier, although Vandana is also hugely attractive and has a formidable intellect. It seems that both her sisters share those characteristics.)
What else to say about Ram and this book?
Only one more thing: Read it. I promise you will enjoy it.
And yes, I never did ask Ram if he consumed vodka and foie gras while he wrote. I suspect that he’s too disciplined to imbibe while writing. Which is another way of saying that Ram Varma gives professionalism a whole new and appealing meaning. May more books flow from his computer (pen?). Then he’d certainly be entitled to a chhota peg of malt whiskey. Or, more likely, fresh orange juice from Haryana.