A modern story that doesn’t match up to traditional notions of heroics.
Almost every Indian knows the story of the Ramayana, in entirety or in its potted form, abridged and adapted for various ages and different cultural circumstances. It was, in fact, given different interpretations by its various authors, be it the purportedly original Valmiki version or Kamban’s take or those by Madhava Kandali in Assamese, Krittibas Ojha in Bengali, Eknath’s Marathi story, the saga as told by Tulsidas or the Malayalam tale by Thunjethu Ezhuthachan. And thereafter, in its essence, the mythological saga has been reworked for television and film, seen on stage, been danced, sung and translated. And the time it was originally set in has been tweaked frequently, with varying degrees of success. Along the way, the original myth has been given a more modern twist, the well-known characters sometimes recognisable only by their names or their relationships to the main hero, Lord Ram.
Samhita Arni, who managed to create a best-selling version of the Mahabharata when she was just eight years old (The Mahabharata: A Child’s View), has now come up with her interpretation of the classic myth as The Missing Queen. The story is, in its basic form, simple: After the death of Ravan and the triumph of Ram being crowned kind on his return to Ayodhya, everything seems to be fairly calm and normal. The malls are flourishing, the economy is blooming, people are going about their business. But a young journalist has a straightforward but forbidden question to ask of Ram during a television interview. Where is Sita? And the way the novel begins, the reader forgets the myth and wants to know too.
This is a ‘now-age’ retelling of the classic. The war between Ayodhya and Lanka has been over for almost 10 years. Ravan is dead. Sita has been rescued. Ram rules Ayodhya. His brother Lakshman, once a svelte, fit, in-condition warrior, is now a worried, overweight, secretive man, bustling through the corridors of official power and hiding more than he can easily manage. Valmiki, the senior journalist, has told the whole story many times over…but there is a small problem: Ram fought the war to recover his bride, Sita, from Lanka, where Ravan had abducted her to. But where is she?
Ayodhya is now a totalitarian state run despotically by the Washerman. Ram may be the titular head, but there is a power behind the seal that actually controls things. And when the young journalist asks Ram, ‘What happened to Sita?’ she is quickly ushered out and left with more questions, main among them being, ‘Who runs this goddamned show?’ She is suspended. She gets mixed up with rebels and fighting, and finds more questions with every dark corner she hides in. Along the way she meets Kaikeyi, the queen who caused the whole mess in the first place. She finds out that Surpanakha is not dead, just bitter and angry and all set to wreak revenge. She meets Valmiki and Urmila, Angad, Hanuman…everyone that all of us who know the original story will recognise. And finally, she finds Sita, safe in Valmiki’s home, with her twin sons, the princes, Lava and Kusha.
The classic takes its prescribed course. Ram is stunned to see Sita alive and overjoyed to meet his sons. But they are mummy’s boys and reject him. Sita is furious. The earth splits. There is death. And she vanishes again. At Valmiki’s funeral, the young journalist sees “a woman, in an ochre cotton sari, standing apart from the crowd. Watching… I see her smile. It is a smile I remember well. Sita — here, alive? Could it be?’
As a reader, you want to know more. The book is interesting, to say the least. It is youthful in tone, contemporary in context. Television shows and shopping malls, jeeps and telephones, Spiderman posters and t-shirts pepper its pages. Does it all work as a story? Surprisingly, yes. But for a young reader, an accepting mind, a sensibility that looks at possibilities in a plot rather than the logical telling of one. This tale is simplistic, but fun. Yes, there are allegories and metaphors and possible assertions of feminism and political parallels, but don’t bother with those; just read.