I recently read the book ‘The Forest of Enchantments‘ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and I was truly enchanted and loved it.
It is another version of the Ramayana, Sita’s version… also known as Sitayana. As soon as I read about the book I was fascinated, as till now I had really never thought that a different version of the Ramayana could exist. It gives us an insight into the life of Sita, right from her birth to when she gives up on her life as a final act of rebellion against patriarchy. I loved reading the book, found it truly enchanting and I couldn’t tear myself away from it.
The part of the story where it is postulated that Sita is the daughter of Ravan had me most intrigued and glued. It suggests that Sita was actually the firstborn of Ravan and Mandodari, but his astrologers had predicted that his firstborn would cause the destruction of his entire lineage. Hence, Ravan ordered that the child be killed immediately. However, Mandodari could not see that happen and bribed the Asura to leave her in some distant land. Thousands of kilometers away in Mithila, Raja Janak found baby Sita and accepted her as a boon from the gods. Mandodari recognized Sita as her long lost daughter when she saw her in Lanka after Ravan had kidnapped her. But she was too scared to share her secret, though she tried to make Sita’s life comfortable and save her from Ravan to the best of her abilities. Mandodari’s character is complex, wise, maternal and never shown before.
We have all heard the Ramayana many, many times but here, the Voice of Sita, clear and strong, reaches deep in your heart and stays there. Sita is every woman in one woman. She has all the human emotions and failings, she falls prey to jealousy, despair, anger, lust, and compassion. She is not just revered as an incarnation of Devi, as the perfect wife, daughter in law and mother but rather as a strong character who has her opinions, thoughts, and wishes.
Sita is not just a dutiful, submissive wife as mythology makes us believe, she is a thinker and questions society and its rules. She argues with her mother why Mithila cannot be ruled by a woman and only a man. She objects to the horrific mutilation of Suparnarakha, and considers it as unnecessary and a show of superiority by the brothers Ram and Lakshman.
Sita’s agnipariksha has been held in history as the highest ideal in the virtue of her being pativrata. But in Sita’s version, it is more of a fiery protest against a very public humiliation. The second time when she is asked to publicly prove her chastity, her refusal and asking the earth to subsume her is the biggest act of rebellion against patriarchy. She questions Ram publicly in court, that why does she not deserve the justice that other men and women in Ayodhya get, and then gives up her life and her role as wife and mother.
The novel is not just about Sita but also explains the other female characters who are otherwise ignored. Urmila, whose great sacrifices go unnoticed, Mandodari, written off like a demon, Suparnarakha, wronged by two men, and the ambiguity unseen earlier in Kaikeyi’s evil ministrations. The women characters say ” Write our story too, for always we’ve been pushed into corners, trivialized, misunderstood, blamed, forgotten or maligned and used as cautionary tales .”I just loved this statement. I read it several times and couldn’t get over how beautifully it conveyed what all women have felt at some point or the other, be it the in the Ramayana in the Treta Yug or in the twenty-first century. Sita comes across as a dutiful but bold daughter, protective sister, skilled healer, loving yet strong-willed wife, sensual lover, strong mother, nurturing, helpful, a thinker. She is a feminist and yet knows when to concede, mindful and empathetic. There is a little bit of Sita and for that matter of Urmila, Mandodari and Kaikeyi in all of us.