Vayu Naidu relooks at the Ramayana through the story of Sita and her exile in her latest novel Sita’s Ascent

Bringing out the dilemmas of an exiled queen is Vayu Naidu’s latest novel, Sita’s Ascent, which retells the much-loved epic Ramayana. But instead of merely filling in the gaps, Vayu begins at the very end, moving forward and backward, piecing together the character that is Sita.

“When I am fascinated by a novel, for a long time after the last page closes on it, the characters come to life and I start seeing where they might have gone in their lives beyond the story in the novel,” explains the storyteller, “Sita from many Ramayanas has that impact on me. While I was transposing Ramayana for performance storytelling, it was always Sita who seemed to be in unlit wings of the stage, shaping the interiors of the narrative. It seemed perfect to start with Sita’s exile and see where her character would lead the author Valmiki.”

The novel tries to cull out Sita’s story through other important characters such as Rama, Surpanaka, Lakshmana and Urmila, who shape the epic. “That’s the whole point of retellings,” Vayu exclaims, “They work on each other as a metaphor — we as listeners and readers seek the familiar and wait for the surprise twist in the more recent one.” And so, Vayu adds that a storyteller borrows from every source. “I heighten two moments — one familiar, dealing with external influences, and one imagined moment between Rama and Sita, that only Hanuman senses and acts upon which leads to Sita’s exile. Exile is a motif for reflection, and it enables the character to enter the forest of their being. That’s what I have attempted in Sita’s Ascent,” she says.

Vayu found Sita’s character most difficult to write because of the responsibility of shaping an icon. “There are so many associations, archives, images, impressions of her. The idea of Sita is fascinating, challenging, and to develop a known character in a refreshing way enabled the complexity. She is at once a queen, carrying the heir to the kingdom. And when in exile, all status, all titles are removed and there is a feeling of abandon. This dilemma of being the same person across realms of state and exile enabled a Sita who is folk and courtly, contemporary in her conflict and the process of her choices.” However, Valmiki provides the lighter side in the epic. “I enjoyed writing the character of Valmiki and his thoughts on creation and the humour and stark truth that Surpanaka brings,” says Vayu.

It was Valmiki’s dramatic transformation from a highwayman to a poet that prompted Vayu to take on his version of the epic. “For me it is the beginning. Valmiki’s life was dramatic and his transformation and creation of Ramayana is mesmerising as it is profound. He was someone who knew the rough and smooth textures of the human condition. It was a great starting point,” she explains.

With retellings, balancing emotions is always a challenge and Vayu brings in her storytelling experience to the fore. “From a theatre or storytelling as oral tradition perspective, I had learnt the difference between what overwhelms and what creates shifts in thinking. Writing is a private act. I had to work against the grain of sentimentality. That created a balance. Shifting the tone in the novel with Surpanaka enabled humour, but also a stark realisation of why Sita is who she is.”

Sita’s Ascent is available at bookstores for Rs.299.