Sunday, March 29, 2009


CHENNAI: Martin Buckley embarked on many a train journey while travelling across India more than 25 years ago.

Like many of us, he would pass the time reading a book. "As soon as I would take out my book, the other passengers' eyes would immediately light up. That's when I knew that this was no ordinary book, but something much deeper," he recalls. The book Buckley was reading was the country's very own epic Valmiki's Ramayana. Eventually, he fell in love with India and decided to work as a sub-editor at Business India magazine in Mumbai. During his time in the country, he travelled to many places from Allahabad and Rishikesh to Bodhgaya. But the tale of Rama never left him. So when he returned in 2005, he travelled from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka like Rama a journey documented in his book, An Indian Odyssey.

At the launch of the book at Madras Terrace House on Friday, Buckley spoke about the people's relationship with the epic. "I think it's fascinating that this book that was prehistorically written is still worshipped," he says. He adds that Valmiki's version of the story is very real, with the characters going through various emotions.

Although the book talks about his life in India and his journey in Rama's footsteps, Buckley also intersperses it with the story of the Ramayana and his version appears more contemporary. For instance, Hanuman doesn't build a bridge using boulders to cross over to Lanka, but wades and swims across during a low tide. "There are no monkeys in my book. I describe them as forest dwellers, comfortable living amongst trees," he explains.

So does he believe the Ramayana took place in real time or is it a figment of people's imagination? "I think Rama is a character that is an assortment of people that really lived. The epic tells the story of guerilla warfare, fought by indigenous people," he says. However, he thinks the academic's view is nonsense. "Some even say that the notion of Lanka being in the South is false!" he exclaims.

Buckley feels the spirituality in India and has had a spiritual experience himself. "One of the wonders of this country is that you can meet an intellectual who is also deeply spiritual," he says. He is impatient with the smug secularism of certain people in the country. "India's culture is what it is. It's wonderful to live in a place where every minority has a voice, but let's not forget the totality of Indian culture," he states.

Through his book, he wants to give the Western audience a message that it is ok to talk about spirituality, without turning to strange music or drugs.' But is he not worried about how the book might be received in India? "The book has its own identity and is a universal story now. I'm sure some people might find it offensive, but it should be read with an open mind," says Buckley, who plans on writing his version of the Ramayana in the future.