A Sita For Today’s Women – A Book Review

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.

indexIn 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.

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Why Being the Champion of our Dreams Doesn’t Make us Bitches!

“I want to live in the Himalayan foothills.” When I declared my long-cherished dream and plan for the future (after our daughter’s schooling), my city and plains-loving husband, to his credit, did not dissuade me. Maybe he thinks it is a phase. However, it has been a while and my dream has become stronger and I am taking small steps towards accomplishing it. It may happen or it may not. But definitely not for lack of trying.

However, I was taken aback by the joke it became among our friends. With a few exceptions, no one took me seriously! How can I want to, and plan to live in the mountains, when my husband is from Bangalore and wants to retire there? I should be settling down there. When I respond that it can be done in the same way that I uprooted myself and moved to a desert nation 14 years ago despite hating sand, I am met with uncomprehending looks. I have become the hard-to-understand, mad woman with plans of my own that don’t fit in with anyone else’s.

Growing up, the plan is simple. “I’ll become big and do what I want to do.”

Some years down the line and you end up standing in front of the mirror looking at a stranger’s reflection. In the intervening years we have done every single one of those things we promised ourselves we will not. We have compromised, adjusted, settled down, downsized our goals, and given up. Given up on our dreams and ourselves. We have transferred our energies from chasing our dreams to being champions of our spouse’s and our children’s dreams.

We live in a time when most girls have access to education and the dreams they engender. We also live in a time when most of us are still taught to be ‘sweet and nice’ girls. From a very young age girls are taught to adjust, be nice, sit properly, talk softly, don’t back-answer (parent code for ‘don’t disagree with us’), sacrifice and be the nurturer, and worst of all to settle for things. If our dreams match the dreams and plans of our parents and society at large then we are set for a smooth ride.

However, if our dreams (be it to go on hikes alone or fly a plane or become an entrepreneur or archaeologist or return to university) put us on a crash course with the rest of the world, chances are, as a girl / woman, we will ‘adjust’. Worse, no one will even have to tell us to do so! We will hang our dreams silently and dutifully.

Girls were never taught and are still not taught to be the champion of their dreams.

I have friends who have not been ‘allowed’ to get a degree of their choosing because it was not considered ideal for a woman. I know women who second guess every single decision they make, despite being highly qualified, because a lifetime of not being taken seriously has resulted in them not valuing their own intelligence. We all know women who give up a lucrative transfer or promotion for the sake of the family, while happily sacrificing their own jobs to follow the husband on his transfers.

Yet I would not place the responsibility for this current situation at the doorstep of men. What we make of our lives is at the end of the day solely our responsibility. Most times no one ‘asks’ us to make these sacrifices.

The reasons – real, and sometimes, imagined – are aplenty. We don’t want to upset the status quo and inconvenience anyone. We fear not living up to the expectations of being the ideal wife and mother. We fear the hurt we will cause our loved ones with our choices. We feel guilt for taking time and energy away to do our own thing. Many of us suffer from a misplaced sense of duty. A lifetime’s or even centuries of conditioning makes it easy for us to slip into and stay in the martyr’s mode. We refuse to spend time analysing ourselves and our life goals. We are crippled by fear, which manifests in our lives as procrastination, diffidence, distractions and laziness. We are afraid that our dreams will be laughed at. Sometimes, we suffer from a genuine lack of family support and have responsibilities like small kids, a terminally ill family member or financial commitments that force us to shelve our dreams (for the time being).

In our rush to keep everyone happy, we end up disappointing ourselves, developing a lifelong acquaintanceship with regret and frustration. Haunted by the feeling that there has to be more, we live diminished lives underpinned by a great silent sorrow caused by the knowledge that we have let ourselves down.

But it really doesn’t need to be this way. No life can exist on a sustained high, but every life deserves its share of deep joy and sense of accomplishment. What can one do?

To begin with, we have to own our dreams and become comfortable with the fact that not everyone in our lives is going to be supportive. We may be labelled mean, selfish and a bitch. But it doesn’t make us one. As long as we are not harming another (kindly note that I am not talking about inconveniencing someone else or making them uncomfortable) with our actions, we need to be fierce. Fiercely protective of our dreams. Nourishing them and taking care of them like they are our babies. And you know what? Our dreams are our babies.

We need to stop apologising for wanting things that make sense only to us. We need to stop using our family and our circumstances as our excuse. We have to teach ourselves to be brave despite a lifetime of learning to be afraid.

The day we decide that we are no longer going to place ourselves last on our list of priorities, there will be a seismic shift in our relationships. It will inconvenience our families. It may make some of the people in our lives uncomfortable. However, things will eventually settle down. We will have to be willing to ride the emotional roller coaster at home. And, we will have to take tough decisions – continue to chase our dreams, keep it alive with one tiny action at a time, or give up on it. Quite often, we will find that most of our imagined fears were just that – imaginings. We may even be taken aback by the support we receive from our family and friends.

The path will not be a smooth linear path – family commitments, responsibilities and sometimes wrong paths taken, and explored, will delay us. Yet, it is vital that we hang in there, because, amidst the upheaval – we are teaching our girls to be strong women. We are teaching our sons that women too have the right to dreams and plans. We are teaching our children that keeping that dream alive over the years, championing it, and working towards achieving it doesn’t make a woman an aggressive bitch but a worthy owner of that dream.

Every Woman

This was something I had written in 2001. Still relevant I guess.

Please do feel free to give feedback. Thanks 🙂

EVERY WOMAN

The mother of all souls

The seed of all thoughts

I chose to be a woman.

To live through the pain

To grow through the shame

To crawl through the cage

Of love and ecstasy

Of acceptance and bliss

Of sunshine and rain

Of rejection and hate…

I am every woman.

I am the mother

You never could see

I am the sister

I am the friend

I am the lover.

I am the one

Who chose to be…

A woman in this lifetime

To live through karmas

You can barely imagine.

To live through

One more life

Of giving

Until all that’s left

Is the shell

That was me.

But this

Is the end of the road.

No more pain

No more shame.

I give up the cage

I give up the hate.

I shall no longer

Bewail my fate.

I free myself

From the chains

That I chose to

Bind myself with

Before life began.

I choose to be

All the woman

That I am meant to be.

I am every woman

The world sees.

HAPPY WOMEN’S DAY!

Binu Sivan

5th Feb, 2001