In “The Missing Queen”, Samhita Arni creates a believable Ayodhya of malls and Cadillacs
Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen (Penguin Viking-Zubaan) begins where several other versions of Ramayana conclude. Ram is the King of Ayodhya, a “shining” Ayodhya, which has all the indicators of progress — industries, cars, malls, a robust media and much more. It is on its way of becoming a democracy.
Everything is fine till the time somebody raises the question that is on everybody’s mind but not on their lips, “Where is Sita?”
A journalist herself, Samhita poses this forbidden question to Ram during an interview and thereafter begins her search for the woman for whom Ram fought and eventually won the war with Lanka. A thrilling, pacey narrative that then takes the journalist through Ayodhya, Lanka (yet to recover from the brutalities inflicted in the war), Mithila (a city in transformation) — enduring prison and wandering in forests along the way. In this quest, she is chased by the Washerman, the man who heads the intelligence agency in Ayodhya. Ultimately, the journalist succeeds in locating Sita, who is living with her twins Lava and Kusha. In front of Ram, her twins, the Washerman and the journalist, she enters into the earth.
The story is not as much about Sita as it is about Ayodhya as a society. It seems Samhita is casting a critical gaze through not just Sita, but other woman characters of Ramayana like Trijata, Soorpankha, Urmila and even Kaikeyi. “Development comes at a great price. You get immune to inequalities in the world. You don’t see the stories of those who have paid the price. In Ramayana, there is ‘Ram Rajya’ but there are people like Sita and Sam Bhoo Kha who are excluded from this ‘Ram Rajya’,” says the Bangalore-based author. Sam Bhoo Kha is an imaginary character, a wronged person, who takes to violence to achieve ‘justice’.
This book included, Samhita has written three books to date — Sita’s Ramayana, a graphic novel in collaboration with Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar and The Mahabharata – A Child’s View — all dealing with mythology with strong women characters. “Between Ramayana and Mahabharata, one of the contrasts people talk about is that women in Mahabharata are very strong unlike the women of Ramayana. They are vilified and weak. But if you look at them closely, for instance Kaikeyi, they have shades of grey but are very strong persons. Unlike the classical literary versions of Ramayana, the oral retellings of Ramayana, which we don’t really talk about, present women in a very different manner.”
Her research led to a lot of such treasures. For example, in the book she uses a wedding song sung in parts of Andhra Pradesh, which goes “Mother, beware of men from Ayodhya; They’ll come bearing glittering gifts; And lay siege to your daughter’s heart; They’ll promise a palace, a swimming pool, a fancy car; They’ll promise me everything my heart desires.”
Living in intolerant times and dealing with such a delicate subject, did she exercise caution? “Yes, it did weigh on my mind and I was very careful. I absolutely didn’t want to cross the line.” She wanted to explore the character of Lakshman but doesn’t because it would amount to “crossing the line”. She only subtly hints at it by mentioning an uneasy relationship between Urmila and Lakshman and the decline in his appearance — as if both have been brought on by the burden of leaving Sita in a forest.
Samhita’s next book won’t be a mythological retelling. “If I do another mythological book, I will be pigeonholed for the rest of my life. I want to explore newer ideas. I am writing a police drama for Tolo TV, a TV network in Afghanistan and it is a completely different kind of work.”