The Ramayana, one of the world’s greatest epics, is also a tragic love story. In this brilliant retelling, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni places Sita at the centre of the novel: this is Sita’s version. The Forest of Enchantments is also a very human story of some of the other women in the epic, often misunderstood and relegated to the margins: Kaikeyi, Surpanakha, Mandodari. A powerful comment on duty, betrayal, infidelity and honour, it is also about women’s struggle to retain autonomy in a world that privileges men, as Chitra transforms an ancient story into a gripping, contemporary battle of wills. While the Ramayana resonates even today, she makes it more relevant than ever, in the underlying questions in the novel: How should women be treated by their loved ones? What are their rights in a relationship? When does a woman need to stand up and say, ‘Enough!’
It is a story retold from generations. A story we know by heart. Our heroine, Sita, who is beautiful and intelligent way beyond her years is wedded to the justice-loving, ‘perfect man’, Ram. She spent most of her life in the forest , first sent by kaikayi, then Ram. She is abducted by Ravan, rescued by Ram and then promptly abandoned. She proves her innocence, becomes the queen of Ayodhya and prepares to welcome her children when she is exiled from the kingdom. She gets depressed but recovers enough to raise her twins as worthy beings. As she tries to immerse herself in her new life, she hears Valmiki’s Ramayan – a paean for the great King Ram.
But Sita is unhappy with this one-sided narrative. She has her side of the story to tell the world – “Sitayan”.
“Everything was about to change again,” says Sita as she begins to write verses only she can do justice to. At this commencement, the reader’s heart exults, for Divakaruni and her women characters are a formidable pair.
This rebranding of Sita is not a unique effort. It has been attempted hundreds of times earlier, in books, movies, and the arts. Devdutt Pattanaik titled his reinterpretation The Girl Who Chose; and Amish Tripathi went further with his Sita: Warrior of Mithila. This repetition and overuse of Sita as a misjudged heroine might disinterest some readers.
The novel doesn’t only retell Sita’s story but also gives space and time to other women characters the tradition has chosen to overlook. We learn of Suanina, a wise and able leader who was Sita’s mother; Urmila, Laxman’s long-suffering wife; Mandodari, Ravan’s wife, brushed off as a demon; Surpanakha, Ravan’s sister, wronged by two men. Even Kaikeyi, Ram’s stepmother, almost always portrayed as a villain, gets her due interpretation as an accomplished charioteer.
“Write our story, too,” the women characters say in the novel. “For always we’ve been pushed into corners, trivialized, misunderstood, blamed, forgotten – or maligned and used as cautionary tales.” In Divakaruni’s retelling of the folk epic, minor women characters come to life, claiming their own lores, redesigning and rephrasing them. The author delves deep into their selves and lays their beauty out.
If this representation of women characters is satisfying, the men are treated with equal thoughtfulness. Over the years, we have been trained to gradually dislike Ram, to question his ethics, blame him for everything that goes wrong with our protagonist. Conversely, there has also been an awakening of fondness for Ravan, his wisdom and respect for Sita.
The author works gently to cleanse and remove such prejudices and biases. No one is entirely right or entirely wrong, she reminds us. For we are all human, with our quirks and fallacies, just like Ram and Sita and their clan. No one is to be blindly revered or reviled. We live as per our ideas, and they are only as correct or misguided as our eyes train us to be.
The book is a journey of different emotions and experiences of Sita’s life and makes us go through all her emotions along with her. Her sufferings became our own and her Joy’s which she has very few became ours too. We laugh with her, we cry with her and at the end when she stands for her right and said that she is doing it for generations to come. We feel grateful for her sacrifice. After reading this book, we can surely feel proud of her instead of pitying her.
- Hardcover: 372 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins India