A Read Aloud session is one of the foundational programmes of our community library project. Read Alouds focus not just on reading a story out loud to the children present but also to engage everyone in creatively engaging with, and discussing the various dimensions of the story. Read Alouds enhance one’s ability to read and listen better. It is no surprise then that attending Read Alouds on a regular basis (in addition to reading books issued from the library) has made many of our older library members graduate to an all-new level of reading and thinking. With their increased grasp of literature, a number of older children eventually lose interest in attending library-run Read Alouds—sometimes choosing to conduct their own sessions for younger members instead.
It was while trying to create a programme that appealed to our older, more advanced readers, that we thought about starting a book club. In any case, a book club has a rightful place in a library and it seemed like a good solution to lure back members who had moved on from attending the regular programmes in our reading project. We spoke to a few members and student council and everyone seemed excited at the prospect. In a matter of days, the club had acquired eight members.
The next step was choosing a book. The suggestion came from Shivani—a Student Council and a book club member. She suggested reading Ramayana. She wanted to gain more insight into the epic, which was also part of her school curriculum. I was thrilled not only because this was such an unusual choice for a book club for teenagers, but also because Ramayana had been on my reading list for a long time. After confirming with the other members, we decided to go ahead with this project.
It turned out to be a little difficult to select an appropriate and good version of the epic. My go-to choice was Arshia Sattar's translation of Valmiki's Ramayana, but I could not find it in Hindi. Other translations were either too bulky or were abridged versions for children. Then I chanced upon Sita—Devdatt Patnaik's retelling of Ramayana. Originally written in English, it had been translated in Hindi and was readily available. I settled on it, even though I knew it could pose a challenge for these young readers due to its length and the shudh hindi it favoured.
To ease ourselves into the book and get the most out of it, we decided to read the book over a period of four to five weeks, agreeing to meet every week for two hours to discuss it. For our first meeting, we all took turns reading the first chapter of the book, which tells the story of the birth of Sita and Rama. This exercise of reading passages and discussing became hugely successful as we all tackled the prose (often using the dictionary to figure out meanings of words) and tried to understand certain complex passages. We would usually read and come to the meetings and everyone would have passages that they liked or could not understand or simply wanted to read aloud to others. Needless to say, the sessions were great fun!
Reading an epic like Ramayana with young minds can prove to be challenging, and I was only somewhat prepared to answer their numerous queries. We all came with some knowledge, stories, and notions about Ramayana—mostly by watching television serials based on it and reading popular stories written about it. Sometimes, we would also remember oral renditions of the epic from childhood and observe practices and rituals that had their basis in Ramayana and other Hindu mythology. Thus, not surprisingly, one of the first questions raised by readers concerned the divinity of Rama and the “real”ness of the epic. These questions lead to fervent discussions about the nature and role of mythology as well as the differences between mythology and religious texts. I am very proud of the members for contributing freely to this discussion, even though it took us one whole meeting to make sense of mythology, beliefs, culture, and religion in our own way.
During the course of our month-long reading and meeting sessions, we traversed through many known and unknown stories and characters as we explored the grand epic from start to finish. While we were fascinated with the supernatural powers and the antics (however outlandish) of some characters, we were also troubled by the contradictory stances taken by some of the main characters, especially Rama. Priya, a book-club member concluded thus: " I used to love Ramji, but after reading the book, I am disappointed in him". We all had our favourite characters in Jabali, Supnakha, and Urmila, and we all agreed that Ravana was perhaps offered a rough deal. At times the book felt like a soap opera with the characters dealing with their ego, anger, revenge, betrayal, and sacrifices. At other times, there were passages full of wisdom and philosophical thought that made us ponder over and contemplate the complexities of life and human morality.
I would mostly let members lead the discussions, and restrict myself from airing my own opinions. I often assumed the role of a moderator, which worked very well as members passionately discussed their own interpretations of stories. I got to learn a lot from them as well. One thing that pleasantly surprised me was how quick the members were to identify the important themes of female subjugation, patriarchy, and one-sidedness of the tale. I think we all came out with a little more nuanced understanding of the epic and its impact on the current society.
It was a month full of earnest reading, adventure, laughter, debate, and even a writing workshop!
And since our members were a little disappointed with the treatment meted out to Sita in Valmiki's Ramayana, they decided to write and perform their own modern version. Aafat ki Pudia, Sita was completely written, directed, and produced by the club members. Who knew a book club could store such a treasure of experience and joy?