(This piece was published by TheWomanInc on Apr 11, 2017 – titled as Book Review – The Liberation of Sita)
For some of us women, who have spent our childhood reading or hearing mythological stories and folk tales, the rhetoric of Sita being epitomized as an ideal daughter, an ideal wife and an ideal mother, thus an ideal woman has always irked. The frequent thought that has crossed many a mind, many a times, is how can a woman who faced so many challenges and tests in her life be ideal. While her circumstances were demanding, why did she make those choices? And of course, the ultimate question, is she ideal because she had all the virtues and qualities that the society of those times upheld?
I am glad I read The Liberation of Sita – a fictional interpretation by a feminist writer Volga. While it did not answer all the questions, it did give some perspective. The book was originally written by the writer in Telegu language titled as Vimukta.
The Liberation of Sita is a book that shows a different perspective (a tad distorted though), questions our strong patriarchal system and resonates of some strong women who were only further strengthened by their circumstances.
Sita was extremely beautiful, highly intelligent, skilled in archery, trained in administration and the first daughter of King Janaka – a strong spiritual man himself; and was married to Sri Rama who loved her, yet put her through a test of chastity and worse, abandoned her to uphold his Arya Dharma.
Why? Why did Rama do it? And more importantly, why did Sita take it?
This book is basically a path of self-realization of Sita, where she finally breaks the shackles and connects with herself and stands up to the injustice meted out to her in the name of society and dharma. The women who helped Sita attain this realization are Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister, Ahalya Sage Gautama’s wife outcasted for suspected infidelity, Renuka, Sage Jamadagni’s wife who was almost killed by her own son Sage Parasurama and Urmila, Sita’s sister and Lakshmana’s wife. These four different women appear in Sita’s lives at different times and help her assert her individuality and break free from the expectations of her role as a queen, a wife and even a mother.
The book is a group of stories set across different time zones and does not follow the chronological order of the mythological tale. Hence, the reader is expected to be aware of the lore.
Each of the stories have nuggets of knowledge embedded in them and take Sita through a journey of self-realisation.
The book begins with the story of Sita meeting Surpanakha. Surpanakha while narrating her own experience of how she redefined beauty in her mind, sows a thought in Sita’s mind that anchoring oneself against their inner core is any day more advisable than anchoring against external aspects like children, kingdom etc. She narrates her own experience thus ‘…I struggled a lot to grasp that there is no difference between beauty and ugliness in nature. I observed many living creatures and realized that oneness and stillness are one and the searched every particle in nature, and in the course of that search, my own vision has changed. Everything began to look beautiful to my eyes. I, who hated everything including myself, began to love everything including myself…’
Another story, Music of Earth, is where Sita runs into Ahalya during her 14-year exile period. She informs Sita that truth is highly subjective. She says, ‘…I do not know why my story was told to you and how it was narrated. Indra lusted after me. Like everyone else, he too looked at women as if they are meant for men’s enjoyment. Knowing that I wouldn’t surrender to his desire, he came in the hours of darkness in the guise of my husband. Did I see through his disguise? That is the question that bothers many people in this world. But to my husband, the question was irrelevant. It was the same to him either way. His property, even if temporarily, had fallen into the hands of another. It was polluted. Pollution, cleanliness, purity, impurity, honour, dishonour – Brahmin men have invested these words with such power that there is no scope in them for truth and untruth. No distinction…’
When Sita states that her husband is different and he would always enquire between truth and untruth, Ahalya points out to her that conducting an enquiry itself is a matter of distrust. She also adds that society likes women who do not question and accept things as-is. If a woman accepts a mistake, society provides ways to atone the sin or if a woman argues that she has not made a mistake, society takes pity and sees her as a victim. However, if a woman says – right or wrong, it is my business, how can anyone question it, how can anyone judge it, the society will never tolerate it.
It is only a few years later when she takes up the fire trial and comes back to Ayodhya, and is greeted by some proud people heralding her chastity does Sita realize what Ahalya had been trying to tell her.
It is the last story The Shackled that surprised me the most. In my own mind and immersed in these women and their experiences in this book, I had mentally painted Rama as not being an ideal man. Why? Why did Rama abandon the love of his life? Where is love in abandonment? Why could he not step up and take charge and keep Sita with him?
And this story answered some of those questions. A ruler of a kingdom must distinguish between his duty as a king and his role as a family man. Rama – the King conflicted with Rama – the loving husband. And when cornered by circumstances, he chose to stand up for his kingdom. Something that, in another epic The Mahabharata, Kuru King Dhristrashtra did not do when Draupadi was getting physically humiliated in his presence.
The writer ended up making me wonder that probably Rama was the most entrapped and not Sita! Rama’s predicament is best articulated in these lines, ‘…He caused her heart to bleed incessantly for her humiliation. A wound that would never heal. A wound that would hurt every day. A wound caused by the throne to the love of Sita and Rama. He could forsake Sita; Sita belonged to him. He could not relinquish the throne; it belonged to RaghuVamsa. The dynasty. The tradition in which political power passes on to the firstborn. The dharma of preserving that tradition was on his head. The burden of protecting the Arya Dharma finally robbed him of all the happiness in his life. There was no liberation for him. Rama wailed disconsolately…’
The writer, Volga (Popuri Lalita Kumari), through this piece of fiction using lesser known characters of the mythical lore, inspires women to take charge and view their own lives in an independent form, not connected to men around them. For her, all women must step up, assert and take charge of their own lives. However, while translating, somewhere the intended intensity is lost. The language is a tad patchy.
Nevertheless, I think this book does touch a chord and prompts women to take charge of their own lives within the framework of their circumstances and situations. While there is enough literature around that intrigues, motivates, redefines, reinforces our beliefs or at times connects us to our own selves, there are only a few that give us solace and prompts us to take charge of our own lives. This book is one of those.