Note: I usually don’t review books or movies. But this book really got me thinking. I had to put my thoughts (at least some of them that I could pluck out of a rather stormy sea of muddled questions, ideas, thoughts and hopefully, learning) down on paper, so that I could move on to my next book.
- Title: The Liberation of Sita
- Author: Volga
- Translated by T.Vijay Kumar and C.Vijayasree
- Published by Harper Perennial
- Winner of Sahitya Akademi Winner, 2015
- Available on Amazon and Flipkart
I first read about Sita in Amar Chitra Katha. She was alright. I didn’t really think much about her. I was crushing on Lakshmana. They drew him real handsome in ACK. Then I got introduced to the Mahabharata in ACK and like millions of others, I fell in love. With the intricate story, the drama, the flawed characters, and, above all, Draupadi. When she swears that she will not tie her hair up again until she has washed it with the blood of the Kuru princes, I cheered.
Ramanand Sagar’s sterilised Ramayan did not help. My grandma got it. I did not. Sita still sucked. I did not get her. I found her to be a bit of a doormat and martyr. Ugh! Give me my Draupadi. Chopra’s Mahabharat did a better job. And Peter Brook’s awesome version of the same sealed my love for it. Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni was the icing on the cake. Draupadi was my kind of woman. Flawed yet feisty. Until now.
Volga (real name – Popuri Lalitha Kumari) who writes under her late sister’s name, has changed forever the way I think about Sita.
In The Liberation of Sita, she re-envisions the popular myth. A slim volume of 5 chapters, the book charts the journey of a Sita you and I may not be familiar with. Volga’s Sita is frighteningly like you and me. Young, naïve, unquestioning, and full of hope and dreams. Not-so-young, disillusioned, angry yet desperately hanging on to some of those hopes and dreams. Older, wiser, at peace, and finally finding her own self.
Sita is an unlikely feminist heroine, but in The Liberation of Sita, she doesn’t just exist to be the cause for the hero’s bravery and to highlight his love. She is constantly questioning the events that unfold, the diktats that are handed down and the way her life plays out.
This journey is captured through her meetings and interaction with Shurpanaka, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila. You may need to brush up on your mythology to recall some of these characters. Shurpanaka is the most well-known – Ravana’s sister, whose nose and ears are mutilated because she lusted after Lakshmana and Rama. Why is that even a crime? Volga submits that the women, then as now, were just pawns. Rama’s ultimate goal always had been to engage Ravana in a war to establish Arya Dharma across the length and breadth of the country. We meet Shurpanaka who may be disfigured but has found peace and contentment in the creation of a garden of unsurpassed beauty.
Ahalya, Maharishi Gautam’s wife, who is cursed for the crime of sleeping with Lord Indra, who had disguised himself as Maharishi Gautam, is another woman whose words first repel and then guide Sita. Ahalya questions her husband and society’s right to question her. She tells Sita that the very act of inquiry by anyone or being asked to prove one’s innocence or chastity ‘for the sake of the society’, reflects distrust. If you trust someone you don’t need proof. These words would later haunt Sita as she endures society’s petty suspicions, which are upheld by her Dharma-loving husband.
Seeds of independent thinking is also planted in Sita’s mind by Renuka. Sage Parasuram’s mother, she suffers terrible betrayal, when her son nearly kills her at his father’s Saptarishi Jamadagni’s behest (in the original epic she is killed and then brought back to life). It makes Renuka question the need for familiar familial bonds, which she ultimately sheds. A journey that is mirrored in Sita’s life too. While these three women meet Sita during her stay in the forest, be it during her exile with her husband or her exile with her sons, the meeting that prepares Sita to learn the lessons of her life is the one she has with her younger sister Urmila. Lakshman’s wife, who is left behind for 14 long years, battles anger, rage, loneliness and pain to arrive at a deep peace and understanding.
We also get to see the chains binding Rama, as the duty and responsibility foisted on him, means that he can never act as a man in love, but only as an emperor. For a change, the reader feels bad for him and rejoices for Sita, as she frees herself of society’s expectations.
Volga revisits the popular myth and recasts popular characters in a mold that today’s women can identify with. Still struggling to shed various chains, most of us have asked ourselves the questions that these women ask themselves. The situations are different (No Rama fighting Ravana for me!) but the loving chains, the subtle controls, the enraged questions – they still exist. The Sitas of today still need to be liberated.