Reviews

When Sita speaks for herself

While in our current intellectual domain there are debates around India’s identity — geo-political versus civilisational — in the area of creative writing there is a feverish search to locate contemporary meanings in the two defining Indian epics — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Marginalised characters from both these texts are being brought to the centre and subterranean readings are being foregrounded either to attack a hegemonic reading of the text or to explore the multiple possibilities of a tale. In the bargain, the reader has been fortunate to get two versions of Sita’s life in the last two years: Chitra Banerjee’s The Forest of Enchantment and now, Bhanumathi Narasimhan’s Sita: A Tale of Ancient Love. Both versions match each other equally in craft, depth and purpose. In a sense, the latter is in a dialogic space with the political retellings of ‘Sitayana’.

Bhanumathi’s story begins with Sita already in the Ashoka Vatika captured by Ravana. From here on, it is a journey of memories where the title of the first chapter ‘A Garden in the Mind’ sets the tone. The novel is a rhythmic interplay between the mind and the world of the senses. Rama and Sita are this young couple in love — there are tender moments of Rama combing Sita’s hair and pulling her to his chest — and soon they easily dissolve into metaphors of wisdom and love. In one instant, Ravana is this powerful man whose very footsteps shake the earth and in the next, he melts into the abstraction of arrogance. None of this happens directly or didactically. This interplay of human form and abstract ideas happens subtly, suggestively.

Rama’s journey into Lanka

When Rama marches with his army into Lanka, the writer modestly describes Sugriva leading from one entrance, Angada from another, and Hanuman from the third. She ever so gently leaves it to the discerning reader to notice the metaphorical fire, wind and water circling around Lanka. You wonder about Earth and Space. And you realise that Sita is Earth and all these elements play their parts against the Space called Rama.

This method of storytelling offers the writer ample scope to explain the problematic politics of Sita’s life. Why the agni pariksha? What kind of an uttama purusha would kill Vaali on the sly? Less significant, why does the dutiful wife walk a few steps behind her husband? The noteworthy part is that it is Sita who answers these questions in this rendering. She offers, through her reminiscences, a metaphorical justification of a subtlety called ‘Rama’.

When Sita speaks for herself

And the story ends with Sita sharing with the reader that the problem was with the people of Ayodhya — who in their ignorance could not see Rama and Sita as one. Rama belongs to all equally, Sita has to give up the ‘I’ to become one with the ‘you’.

Speaking about the book, Bhanumathi says, “There’s a popular Gujarati song which says, ‘My dear Rama, Ravana was defeated by Ma Sita even before you came with your army to fight him.’ Even though Sita was alone amidst the asuras, surrounded by negativity, she never allowed it to enter her mind. There was no place for anger, anguish or hatred or any bitterness to lodge itself in her mind because it was only filled with Rama. When your love is so strong, then these emotions may come and go but they don’t leave any impression. Ravana was already defeated because he could not make even a tiny impression on her mind.” Sita’s story is the power of the mind in which the world appears and dissolves. Such a mind does not seek external empowerment.

Sita’s agni pariksha

The strength of this version lies in the manner in which the writer captures philosophical essences by focussing steadfastly on the materiality of Sita’s life. Sita’s going into the earth is the movement into the deepest states of consciousness. Her agni pariksha that cleanses the fire of doubt is a backhand critique of a rationalist world that is conditioned into thinking that ‘seeing is believing’.

When Sita speaks for herself

Perhaps it is in the nature of these timeless stories that we can invest our own meanings in them. And perhaps it is the power of our storytellers who are able to tell us the same story with a new meaning each time. In Chitra Banerjee’s tale, Sita reclaims her agency through a powerfully dramatic monologue as she refuses to submit to an unfair trial by Rama; in Bhanumathi’s tale, Sita locks her eyes with Rama’s in loving silence, in complete understanding. Banerjee seeks to interpret Sita; Bhanumathi’s Sita seeks to be understood. One gives her a voice; the other seems to say ‘if you listen to me, you don’t have to speak for me.’ One unleashes her anger; the other surrenders her love. One seeks justice; the other, union. In Bhanumathi’s version, Rama and Sita are one — if you see them as separate, then you are reading another story. To quote from the poetic epilogue: ‘To merge is not possible, For there are no two.’

The writer, a Sahitya Akademi translation award winner,

teaches English at Christ University, Bengaluru.


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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 2:57:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/when-sita-speaks-for-herself/article37228144.ece

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