The emphasis is on the ‘My’. A follow up to the earlier My Gita, My Hanuman Chalisa is an intensely personal encounter with grace, and that is Devdutt Pattanaik’s whole point in this commentary. People go through it before exams — like Swapan Seth, who confessed that he never studied throughout the year but that a combination of last minute mugging and Hanuman Chalisa got him through. This is Pattanaik’s personal take on the text, a demystification of sorts. Even the red and gold on the cover gives it a kind of familiarity. They are also the colours of leather bound classics. There is a grace to the work that those familiar with it swear by — it has the power, they say, to grant wishes.
The text is attributed to Tulsidas, who also wrote the Ramcharitamanas, another beloved book of wisdom. Tulsidas was a devotee of Hanuman and also of Ram and in this work that came after the Ramcharitamanas, he portrays Hanuman as the ideal follower of the divine. His verses were written in simple Awadhi, in a metre that lent itself to recitation. This is why his work is remembered and passed on reverently from mouth to mouth. His poetry makes the divine approachable, almost human.
As the name suggests, the Hanuman Chalisa consists of forty verses — in actuality three more than that in the shape of dohas or couplets that frame the rest with two at the beginning and one at the end. They are verses written in Avadhi, a form of Hindi, in praise of the different qualities of Hanuman. If read with devotion regularly, it promises the granting of wishes and a close bonding with Ram, as should be the desire of the earnest devotee.
Pattanaik follows the text closely, scattering his delightful illustrations through the verses. He meticulously translates the verses twice, once literally and then as a ‘transcreation’, as the late Professor P. Lal used to call it. Pattanaik cross references the text with snippets from other Hindu texts and gives it his own modern context. This is what makes the text more approachable for a modern generation striving to find meaning in the everyday.
In a cynical time, he restores faith in traditional wisdom without any fanaticism, which is important, given the backdrop of Hindutva in which we live. Whether or not Hanuman represents the wisdom of the Vedic age is debatable because there appears to be a yawning gap between the Vedas and what is considered to be true Hindu practice. However, it is to Pattanaik’s credit that he manages to appeal to a wide range of readers. Even those not interested in Hinduism will go through his work to see the spin he puts on a well-loved tradition and perhaps understand why so many generations have thumbed through the original at crucial moments in their lives.
Anjana Basu is the author of Rhythms of Darkness