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By Vivek Narayanan

(The compulsive hand copies the tale again and again, hoping this time to get it right.)

Vivek Narayanan’s After is, as he notes in his preface, a “reinvention or rewiring” of the ancient Sanskrit epic Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, that follows prince Rama on his fourteen-year exile accompanied by his wife, Sita, and brother Lakshmana. But this book is also about Narayanan’s evolving relationship with the classic work: “Once I learned to scratch I found unfailingly those layers that in their wild sympathies ran exactly counter to everything I thought I knew.” 

The book’s back matter includes extensive notes and sources, but there are also many digressions within the main text itself. In “Alpasamkhyi,” the speaker recalls “The first time I ever had to face my fit-as-a-fiddle yoga-breathing father in the hospital,” wondering: 

Did he, like Lakshmana, stop his thoughts and then his breath? The evenness of the pace at which he eventually left, the slow diminution into something that felt like silence.

Meditations on the nature of love, loyalty, and betrayal (“I am in the darkness of / my desire good itself / an evil”) give way to more explicit eroticism, as in “Shiva,” which portrays a world made of “Shiva’s cum / white and sticky,” where 

pure unadulterated
cum foam the snowy
little cum caps on the cum
peaks and the rivers pure hard
coursing cum

While Narayanan anticipates readers familiar with the Rāmāyaṇa might take issue with his reimagining (“But how can you ask that / as if you haven’t already read it in the Ramayana?”), I was drawn in by rhythms and images that allowed this work to take flight, as when a heartbroken Lakshmana appears “death-dreaming with his head in restless hands.” Elsewhere, we are taken “beyond the light-eating river,” invited into royal gardens “with the beauty / of the forest but drained / of fear,” and shown “drunk birds”: 

Sun-gold fire-flame or kohl-dark
Raucousness at dawn
or on evening’s hem

Reviewed By Layla Benitez-James
Publisher NYRB
Pages 624
Date July 19, 2022
Price $25.00