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From Panchaali to Sita: An epic 10-year challenge

  • In her new novel, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni revisits the story of the Ramayan from Sita’s perspective
  • Sita is truly a MeToo heroine. She doesn’t face sexual violence, but she is abducted, and later accused of being impure

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni hopes that her new novel will help women find the inspiration to speak up in their own voices. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras/Mint
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni hopes that her new novel will help women find the inspiration to speak up in their own voices. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras/Mint

Ten years after she retold the story of the epic queen Draupadi (also known as Panchaali) from the Mahabharat in The Palace Of Illusions (2008), Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is back with the tale of another regal personage. Her new novel, The Forest Of Enchantments, looks at the Ramayan through the eyes of Sita, princess of Mithila and queen of Ayodhya, whose life story is memorialized in the subcontinent through diverse iterations. From folk tales to pop culture, Sita’s presence is ubiquitous in contemporary life. Yet, as Divakaruni confesses in her Author’s Note, it took her a decade to finish writing her story.

“Panchaali is a fighter, she’s a strong woman, and I understood her intuitively at the time I wrote The Palace Of Illusions," she says, when I meet her at the end of an event in Delhi in January. “These are not qualities that instantly come to mind when we think of Sita, though she does have her quiet strength and resilience." As the evening winds up, Divakaruni keeps getting accosted by the odd fan requesting a selfie or wanting to get a copy signed. She has just spoken at a private book club called Gurgaon Moms in the National Capital Region (NCR) and the effect of her talk, as well as the book, is palpable on the somewhat emotionally charged audience. The next stop of her whirlwind multi-city tour was the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2019, where she commanded packed audiences during her session with Shobhaa De.

For a writer of literary fiction based in the US, Divakaruni has had a loyal following in India for decades now, but more so since her novel, The Mistress Of Spices, was adapted into a movie, featuring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, in 2005. Her latest offering, based on the widely loved epic, is already stoking readers’ interest (her Indian publishers claim to have reprinted the title a week into its release), though there is a cautious disclaimer on the copyright page. The views and opinions expressed in the work, says the fine print, “are solely based on the Author’s own knowledge and her understanding of the Ramayan".

In contemporary India, where books, movies and art increasingly have the potential to flare up into political strife and social unrest, such prudence isn’t misplaced, especially since the subject of The Forest Of Enchantments is a beloved figure in popular memory. Sita, in Divakaruni’s imagining, is a blend of her many avatars, drawn from the many versions of the Ramayan—by Valmiki, Tulsidas, Krittibas, among others. As a princess, she is unique. Her origin story is shrouded in mythical lore. Found abandoned as a baby in a field in Mithila, swaddled in fabric unfamiliar to the region, she is part-human, part-goddess, vulnerable yet fortified with reserves of inner strength.

If Divakaruni focuses on the qualities that make Sita extraordinary—her healing powers and early training in the martial arts—she also captures the queen as a distraught wife who has to allay her husband’s suspicions about her chastity, and a single mother struggling to raise her twin sons at her retreat in Valmiki’s ashram. Sita’s destiny, like Dayamayi’s fate in Satyajit Ray’s film Devi, is to be a victim of the aura of divinity imposed on her by tradition.

“I wanted to reclaim Sita’s humanity and make her more relatable to the present," Divakaruni says. “It was the discovery of her voice that opened up her character for me." In the 10-odd years that Divakaruni worked on the book, Sita has revealed herself to her in myriad roles, though Divakaruni felt Sita’s resonance most keenly in the MeToo movement unfolding across the world. “There are times when things come together and this is one such moment," Divakaruni says. “Sita is truly a MeToo heroine. She doesn’t face sexual violence, but she is abducted, and later accused of being impure. And she stands up for herself and clearly says that whatever happened to her wasn’t her fault."

In Sita’s defiance of patriarchy, Divakaruni hopes, women will find the inspiration to speak up in their own voices—especially those who are shamed for exposing their assaulters. Indeed, given the recent profusion of reinterpretations of the Ramayan, some of which turn Sita into the fulcrum of the narrative (such as Sitayana by Amit Majmudar), there is reason to believe in her potential to be resurrected as a heroine of our time. There was an era, says Divakaruni, when the blessing, “Be like Sita", invoked her undying devotion to her husband and willingness to suffer a trial by fire to appease his doubts. But with Sita reclaiming her story in her own voice, the emphasis should now shift to her other unsung qualities: rectitude, self-respect and the power to stand up for herself.

 The Forest Of Enchantments: By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, HarperCollins India, 372 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
 The Forest Of Enchantments: By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, HarperCollins India, 372 pages, 599.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the success of both The Palace Of Illusions and The Forest Of Enchantments hinges acutely on the skill with which Divakaruni deploys the narratorial voice. If Panchaali’s tone, in the former, is youthful and spiky, Sita, by contrast, sounds stately and serene, a woman schooled in the treacherous ways of the world by her foster mother Sunaina, long before she arrives in King Dashrath’s household, bristling with feminine intrigue. Divakaruni also pays close attention to the voices of the other women who orbit Sita—Dashrath’s queens Kaushalya and Kaikeyi; Ahalya, cursed by her husband Gautam for alleged infidelity; Sarama, Vibheeshan’s wife, who loses her son Taranisen during Ram’s battle with Ravan to rescue Sita; and Mandodari, Ravan’s chief queen (and according to some versions of the epic, like the Adbhuta Ramayana, Sita’s long-lost mother), who remains, as Divakaruni puts it, “at once so powerful and powerless".

In spite of the range of women who cross the pages of The Forest Of Enchantments, each harbouring her secret motive, Divakaruni does not stand in judgement on any of them. Even Manthara, who is to Kaikeyi what Iago was to Shakespeare’s Othello, isn’t entirely devoid of redemption. “Manthara wants to be Kaikeyi’s protector, she acts out of love," Divakaruni says, “as does Kaikeyi, though she misunderstands her son Bharat entirely." The tragedy of Kaikeyi, which is also the tragedy of the entire Ramayan, is that of love—one that only Sita is able to transcend. “For Sita realizes that it’s not enough to love people," Divakaruni says, “she also learns that we have to love people for what they want for themselves."

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