Alister Taylor has been visiting India over the last quarter of a century, and passionately promoting Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata in the West. Associated with the ISKCON movement, Taylor runs Torchlight Publishing in the United States, promoting Indian classics and Vedic sciences through various books published by it, which, he says, “directly challenge the Western reductionist view of the world”. Taylor has recently come up with a innovative puzzle book based on the story of the Ramayana. Titled Where’s Hanuman, this illustrated book, published by Penguin India’s children’s imprint Puffin, the book tells the story of Ramayana in just two pages but seeks to kindle interest in the minds of its target readership about it through a series of pictorial puzzles that act as introduction to various facets of the epic. Taylor, who has taken some liberties with the original story in his book, shares his idea behind the book in this conversation with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari:
Where Hanuman is really in the book? He is the narrator, but he is not visible in the frames easily.
Some licence have been taken to make it entertaining for the children. Technically, Hanuman appears in the Ramayana when he meets Ram after being sent by Sugriv. However, tradition also states that wherever Ram is Hanuman resides. So he has taken several roles here – the narrator at the beginning and also appearing in the scenes.
You have made several departures from the storyline of the Ramayana, like not saying that Bali was killed by Ram, or that Hanuman had burnt down Lanka. Were not you apprehensive that you might be criticized for making these deviations from the popular narrative?
I only had two pages to write the whole story and obviously had to leave a lot of stuff out. Any condensation has to omit something and this was a huge condensation of the whole story. I just wanted to give the young readers a basic understanding of the story and give a bit more background to the scenes. Yes, there is always potential for criticism but I stated my points in the foreword. Also the book has to be readable for 5 to 13 year olds, so by necessity it had to be pretty simple and short.
The illustrations in the book are quite interesting, with so many characters in each of them. How was the whole thing conceived, and what kind of brief you gave to the illustrators?
There was another series bought out in the West many years ago with a similar concept and when I saw it I always thought of doing something for the kids in India but based on the Ramayana. I also wanted to make it busy, humorous and entertaining so I really gave strong briefings to the illustrators for each scene. We went back and forth many times on each scene and developed at least 10 to 12 major mini scenes in each one where there were a lot of gags. This was fun thinking up all the humorous things monkeys and bears could do. This was another reason for using Hanuman as he and his ‘Vanar’ brothers and cousins always get up to some mischief.
You have been following Indian epics for a long time now. How do you feel about today’s young generation rapidly losing interest in stories from their own land?
Sad. I think it is unfortunate that the Indian youth has for the most part embraced Western Culture – both good and bad – without a clear understanding and appreciation of the strengths of their own culture.
You have also been working to make Indian epics popular abroad. What has been your experience in this?
I have always felt that the Ramayana and Mahabharata have been under promoted in the West where the Greek epics by and large reign. I happy to say that Torchlight’s editions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana by Krishna Dharma are the best selling editions in the West and have been translated into 12 languages, more recently into Korean and Chinese.
What made you decide to go for a kind of puzzle book out of the Ramayana’s story?
I wanted to reach out to the children in India and make them appreciate and understand something of their great classics and characters like Hanuman. This seemed to be an entertaining and effective way of doing it. It has been a wonderful experience. I have come to appreciate the epics more and also see how children react very positively when the material is presented in an entertaining way. We have more books in the pipeline and our children’s illustrated Bhagavad Gita is very popular.
What other books are you planning now?
We have two more books almost ready. A children’s Ramayana in trilogy for older readers but beautifully presented and illustrated. Then we have a contemporary Bhagavad Gita showing the essence of the Gita through very topical and contemporary pictures along with a very readable text.