Ra­mayana through Sita’s eyes

CHI­TRA BAN­ER­JEE DIVAKARUNI’S NEW BOOK FEA­TURES SITA AS THE PRO­TAG­O­NIST OF THE EPIC, AND EVEN GIVES OTHER FE­MALE CHAR­AC­TERS A STRONG VOICE

Deccan Chronicle - - Shelf Life - NAM­RATA SRI­VAS­TAVA

The Ra­mayana has ac­counted for some of the most fa­mous works of lit­er­a­ture over the cen­turies. Orig­i­nally writ­ten by Ma­har­ishi Valmiki, sev­eral writ­ers since have nar­rated dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the grip­ping epic. How­ever, while much is writ­ten about Rama, Lak­sh­man, Bharat and the other male char­ac­ters in it, not much work has been done around the fe­male char­ac­ters of the Ra­mayana.

Filling this gap, award-win­ning au­thor Chi­tra Ban­er­jee Divakaruni’s next book, The For­est of En­chant­ments, is Sita’s ver­sion of Ra­mayana. A pow­er­ful com­ment on duty, be­trayal, in­fi­delity and hon­our, the book is also about women’s strug­gle to re­tain au­ton­omy in a world that priv­i­leges men, and Chi­tra trans­forms an an­cient story into a grip­ping, con­tem­po­rary bat­tle of wills.

“I have been think­ing of writ­ing a novel with Sita as my pro­tag­o­nist for many years, even be­fore I wrote Palace of Il­lu­sions (re-telling of the Ma­hab­harata from Drau­padi’s point of view),” ex­plains Chi­tra about the ger­mi­na­tion of the idea of the book, adding, “Per­haps my fas­ci­na­tion with Sita started as a child, when I was first told her story by my grand­fa­ther. I wanted her as my pro­tag­o­nist in For­est of En­chant­ments be­cause Sita is an icon of per­fect wom­an­hood for so many In­di­ans, and I strongly felt that the pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of Sita’s char­ac­ter was largely pa­tri­ar­chal in its ap­proach.”

In fact, the au­thor feels that Sita has been mis­un­der­stood as hers is pos­si­bly the most tragic love story one would ever come across. “From her life, I have learned to be strong in ad­ver­sity and to be dig­ni­fied and ma­ture. Sita is al­ways el­e­gant and noble, even when her heart is break­ing. At other times she is play­ful and fun, as a daugh­ter, sis­ter or young wife, and even when she is bring­ing up her boys, and I hope I’ve been able to cap­ture that, too,” Chi­tra says.

In­ter­est­ingly, The For­est of En­chant­ments also gives a voice to other fe­male char­ac­ters in the Ra­mayana, such as Kaikeyi, Ahalya, Sur­panakha, Man­do­dari and Ur­mila. Talk­ing about how dif­fi­cult it was to in­cor­po­rate sto­ries which haven’t been in the lime­light for cen­turies, Chi­tra says, “It was a real chal­lenge. Even more than Sita, the sto­ries of these women have been rel­e­gated to the mar­gins and over­sim­pli­fied. They are ei­ther vil­lains or vic­tims. I wanted to show the com­plex­ity in each of their sto­ries and their re­la­tion­ships with Sita, and that re­quired a lot of re­search and think­ing.”

I read many ver­sions of Ra­mayana — by Valmiki, Krit­tibas, Tulsi, Kam­ban and Chan­dra­vati. I was de­lighted to see how each one was dif­fer­ent, de­pend­ing on the writer’s un­der­stand­ing or val­ues. This gave me a great deal of en­cour­age­ment to write my own imag­in­ing of Sita’s char­ac­ter

The book also tells the story of other fe­male char­ac­ters of Ra­mayana, such as Kaikeyi, Ahalya and Sur­panakha

To make sure that she did jus­tice to the mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters, Chi­tra had to read many ver­sions of the Ra­mayana — by Valmiki, Krit­tibas, Tulsi, Kam­ban, Chan­dra­vati and also Adb­huta Ra­mayana. “I was de­lighted to see how each one was dif­fer­ent, de­pend­ing on the writer’s un­der­stand­ing or val­ues. This gave me a great deal of en­cour­age­ment to write my own imag­in­ing of Sita’s char­ac­ter,” she ex­plains.

The re­search and read­ing wasn’t easy work. While pen­ning the sto­ries of these com­plex char­ac­ters, Chi­tra also had to deal with writer’s block. She re­calls, “I faced the dread sit­u­a­tion of writer’s block many times, usu­ally when a ma­jor scene was com­ing up, such as Sita’s ab­duc­tion or the agni pa­reek­sha scene. I was afraid I would mess it up. I usu­ally write straight on the com­puter, but in these cases I had to make many hand­writ­ten notes to work through the process. I also prayed a lot, ask­ing for the right words and the right vi­sion.”

With nov­els like The For­est of En­chant­ments and Palace of Il­lu­sion be­ing loved by read­ers, many other au­thors, too, have started ex­plor­ing the genre and retelling the epics from the point of view of the fe­male char­ac­ters in them. In a world which has been dom­i­nated largely by men, it seems like women, even from mythol­ogy, are fi­nally find­ing their voice.

“I am de­lighted that so many tales are be­ing told from the point of view of women, be­cause this tech­nique brings to light how a woman feels in cer­tain cir­cum­stances and this is im­por­tant for a healthy so­ci­ety,” says Chi­tra.

On the per­sonal front, the au­thor, who is the Betty and Gene McDavid Pro­fes­sor of Writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton Cre­ative Writ­ing Pro­gram, says that she loves watch­ing movies. “I am par­tic­u­larly fond of sus­pense­ful thrillers. On Net­flix, I binge-watched Stranger Things and The Haunt­ing of Hill House. My hus­band and I both en­joyed And­hadun and (some years back) Ka­haani,” she con­cludes.

IM­PRINT: HarperCollins Pp. 358, `599 THE FOR­EST OF EN­CHANT­MENTS byCHI­TRA BAN­ER­JEE DIVAKARUNI

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