India’s past turned into Kauai’s future

The idea to write the book came to Joan Roughgarden two years ago.

But the groundwork for “Ram-2050,” the Kapaa author’s debut novel, was set in 500 B.C.

“I think of the ‘Ramayna’ as a cross between the Bible and Shakespeare in our terminology,” said Roughgarden about the ancient Sanskrit epic poem that’s regarded as one of the greatest works of Indian literature, and upon which she based her futuristic tale. “Because it’s a complicated story and all the scenes in it are part of everyday knowledge in South East Asia, the way Romeo and Juliet is for us.”

The Western world may not be as versed in the classic as South East Asia. Blending the tale of good versus evil with scenes in California and Kauai may change that.

“I knew I wanted to invest the plot in today’s context, sort of a futuristic context,” Roughgarden said.

Conflict in the classic poem arises when the the wife of Rama, the hero, is abducted after Rama is banished to the forest for 14 years. His quest to retrieve her is where the conflict flourishes. But in Roughgarden’s story, Ram is name of the hero banished from California, where the company Apple’s headquarters is a king’s palace, to the forests of North Shore Kauai.

In the original, the banishment is but a snapshot of the prose, whereas Roughgarden slows down and spends a third of the book detailing Ram’s exile, where he learns through science and study an ability to communicate with animals around the beaches and scenes locals will recognize.

While communicating with animals is a trait of superhuman ability — rather than divine intervention — the book based in year 2050 isn’t dedicated to fantasy. Humans are human, cars drive on the road and places are distinctly North Shore.

Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Hawaii and Stanford University, has published fieldwork from eastern Caribbean islands and the rocky intertidal zone of California. She has authored or edited eight nonfiction books. Her philosophical, self-published novel envisions a world where humans and animals work to promote the common good. But along the way Ram, always the moral compass, loses some of his core values.

“His moral standing starts to dissolve,” she said. “The question is why? I had to build up for Ram the grounds for his loss of moral clarity.”

Roughgarden will hold a book signing, reading and explanation of how the two stories intersect at St. Michael’s Church, 4364 Hardy Street in Lihue at 7 p.m. Friday.

And after two years of hard work, she’s ready to share her version of the classic.

“I’m sort of half elated and half exhausted,” she said. “I love seeing the book and seeing people’s eyes light up when I describe it.”

Paperback copies will be available at the reading for $23.99.

Info: Ram-2050.com.

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