Sita's Story - "The Forest of Enchantments" by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Updated: Nov 12, 2019
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni named many modern themes: the MeToo movement, single motherhood, and victim shaming as she spoke about Sita, the narrator of her new book “The Forest of Enchantments.”
The Ramayana is the story of the great King Rama. But what of his wife Sita, daughter of King Janak, princess of Mythila, rightfully queen of Ayodhya? Sita, who endured much insult and suffering, who was banished by her husband even though she was blameless because of gossip among his subjects, who raised her sons alone in the forest, and who was then asked to prove her purity for a second time when she returned with her grown sons Kusa and Lava.
Rama is lauded as the ideal husband by some, as he married only one woman and never remarried. But what use is that, one wonders, if he treated his wife as he did? That has always chafed at me over the years. Of the great Indian masterpieces, the Ramayana is not my favorite: it makes my heart ache. The Mahabharata, that makes my heart sing.
Several years ago, I visited a marriage reception hall in Kochi, Kerala to discuss the preparations for my own wedding reception. The staff proudly pointed out the painting of Rama and Sita on the wall behind the stage where the bride and groom typically sit. I was horrified. It must be covered, I said, to the surprise and eventual amusement of the event staff as well as my father. I don’t want to be standing in front of a man who abandoned his wife! I thought it would keep the marriage strong to avoid the shadow of one of Rama’s greatest failings.
Now Shiva and Parvati: there’s my ideal couple.
Stuck through it all, through thick and thin. And there were some pretty major events. I mean, he lopped off the head of her kid, not knowing that Parvati had created the child to assuage her loneliness, had asked him to guard her door, to not let anyone in as she bathed. Returning from his travels, Shiva was enraged at being stopped at the door by a child whom he didn't know and who didn’t know who he was. He lopped off the little boy’s head! (I mean, yikes!) But as only gods can, they overcame that: he brought the child back to life by transplanting the head of an elephant on it. And thus, they remained the inspiring couple they were, and we got the joyous and wonderful Ganapati, scribe of the Mahabharata, generous giver of blessings at the onset of any significant event.
So at my request, the wedding reception hall people covered up the painting of Rama with some nice drapes. But in the end, despite that, dear Reader, the marriage didn’t last. So it goes.
There are numerous renditions and tellings of the Ramayana, oral and written, of which the scholar and poet A.K. Ramanujan writes in his 1987 essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.” Read an analysis of a controversy around his essay some years down the road by journalist Soutik Biswas.
One of Ramanujan’s five examples is the Krittivasi Ramayana, which is steeped in “Bengali customs and Bengali cuisine.” This was the version that Divakaruni cites as her primary source, and the Bengali flavor pleasantly wafts through her text as well.
The different versions over the years, even centuries, have been influenced by the social mores of the time. The first and seventh books, the Bala kanda (on childhood) and the Uttara kanda (book of answers) are widely believed to be later additions to Valmiki’s story. In some versions, Sita is transformed at the point of abduction to a “Maya Sita”, an illusional Sita while the real Sita remains safe and pure.
In the southern state of Kerala, Karkatakam (in July-August) is the month of heavy rains, when tradition has it that illness is a constant threat, food is not widely available, and everyone is just longing for Onam and the harvest. Taking the name of God can help alleviate some of these miseries, it is said. Therefore, this is the month when everyone reads the Ramayana, some shlokas a day. My mother read the Adhyaatma Ramayanam, a free verse translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana into Malayalam by Thunjath Ramanujan Ezhuthachan who lived around the 16th century. Her version was edited by one Chandrasekhara Warrier.
After reading some of the shlokas one morning, my mother commented as she rose to put the book away, “Maya-Sita! Some say that it was not the real Sita, but an imaginary Sita, Maya-Sita, who was really abducted!” She, generally devout, seemed annoyed at this. “Then why did they have to go and fight that war, if she was fine?!”
I nodded sympathetically. My father, sensing a discussion, but too absorbed in some story in the newspaper, muttered absentmindedly, “Yes, yes, after all, everything is Maya!” (referring to the spiritual concept of Maya, illusion.) Comedy team of parents.
Inspired by my mother's reading of Ezhutachan’s Ramayana, some years ago I bought Valmiki’s “The Ramayana”, published by Penguin, translated with an introduction by Sanskrit scholar Arshia Sattar, who received her Ph.D. from the Dept. of South Asian Languages and Civilizations in the University of Chicago, with Wendy Doniger as her advisor. The translator’s note, some eight pages long, as well as the lengthy introduction, are informative, insightful and enjoyable. The source for Sattar’s translation is the Critical Edition of the Valmiki Ramayana prepared by the Oriental Institute at M.S. University, Baroda.
Children growing up in India hear the story of Rama and Sita from various elders, and read the stories in the Amar Chitra Katha comics. Ramanand Sagar’s television series was widely watched, grinding the country to a halt during the hour it was aired.
C. Rajagopalachari’s Ramayana, like his Mahabharata, made the ancient stories accessible to old and young alike.
And there are many other contemporary versions, mainly retellings rather than translations from the original Sanskrit. Some modern versions are by women, and bring Sita to the forefront.
One of my favorites is a film “Sita Sings the Blues”, a film with shadow puppetry, soulful songs by Annette Henshaw, and a delightful narration by three friends who are trying to remember the story. In director Nina Paley’s words, it is "a tale of truth, justice and a woman’s cry for equal treatment.” Not unlike Divakaruni’s book.
Anita Ratnam’s dance drama “A Million Sitas” is also a story of Sita. I watched it on November 10th at the Independence School in San Jose, where it was presented by Enacte Arts. Ratnam's performance, "A Story of Love, Courage and Hope", is an engaging production on a gorgeous and colorful stage where she tells the stories of Sita, Mandodari, Ahalya, Manthara and Surpanakha, with dance and music.
Divakaruni writes in a lyrical, poetic fashion. Some of her most beautiful writing is her poetry. I picked out my volume of “Leaving Yuba City” to read some of her poems again after attending her reading.
I haven't read her in some years, and I also found in her writing, a certain modern Western colloquialism that gave me pause. The writing is informal, and I felt on occasion that I was listening to my teenager speak.
Years ago, while reading books by Bharati Mukherjee and Divakaruni, I found Mukherjee's writing to be somewhat cerebral, whereas Divakaruni's writing, I felt, comes straight from the heart.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was in conversation with Vandana Kumar, publisher of India Currents at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park, California on November 5, 2019. “The Forest of Enchantments” is Divakaruni’s 19th book.
I last attended a reading by Divakaruni at Mills College, in the late 1990s. To my great surprise, she lit some incense and started playing Indian classical music to accompany her reading, saying this is how she writes. Which may well be the case, but it smacked a little of gimmickry. The South Asians who witnessed this responded with head-shaking and laughter in later discussions. The word "pandering" was used, if memory serves. So I wasn’t sure what to expect at Kepler’s. Would there be incense burning and classical music again, I wondered. To my relief, there wasn’t. (Saved by fire codes? Consideration for people’s allergies?)
Kumar spoke of Divakaruni’s book “Arranged Marriage”, which was published in 1995. When she read it, she felt the book was about her, and that people like her could be protagonists. “Our stories too are important, I thought,” Kumar said.
Divakaruni, in turn commented on India Currents, which started in 1987 before today’s Internet searches were possible. It provided information on all the South Asian events in the area, which would otherwise have been difficult to find. She was honored when India Currents reviewed her book. In 1991, Divakaruni founded Maitri, an organization for South Asian women survivors of domestic violence. At the time, there was a great resistance within the South Asian community in the Bay Area to acknowledge that such violence could occur within the so-called “model minority.” While several news outlets appeared supportive, nobody was willing to run the Maitri ads with the telephone number of the confidential phone helpline. There was quite a backlash, despite which India Currents carried the Maitri ad. Divakaruni thanked India Currents cofounder Arvind Kumar, who ran the ad for free.
Kumar introduced the Ramayana, stating Rama’s standing as “Maryada purushottam,”, the ideal man. Divakaruni provided the basic overview of the story, much as the sage Narada does to Valmiki in the beginning of the Ramayana, urging him to tell the story of Rama. Sita, she said, is regarded as the ideal woman. Her research into this book let her to see Sita very differently. She feels the earlier tellings are patriarchal. During Diwali celebrations in Bengal where she grew up, a common blessing was “May you be like Sita.” This blessing did not make her happy.
Expressing some understanding for Rama, she added that Rama has many modern counterparts, men whose responsibilities to the organizations they work for overrides their responsibilities to their wives. For example, Mahatma Gandhi privileged the nation over his family.
Divakaruni read two passages. The first was from the Prologue, on how Sita comes to write her story. Having written his Ramayana, Valmiki invites Sita to read it, and asks her what she thinks. (As writers tend to do, Divakaruni quipped.) On reading it, Sita says, this is not my story. You must write your own story, says Valmiki.
And so she begins.
Divakrani wore a beautiful churidar-kurta in blood red, which seemed fitting: the color of Sita's ink. And while we are on attire, Vandana Kumar wore a stunning sari embroidered in kantha stitch: a form of embroidery in Bengal.
In a warm, friendly, informal manner, Divakaruni talked of the other women in the story and described Rama and Lakshmana’s act of cruelty towards Surpanakha, whose ears and nose they cut off. That seems to be “a bit of an overreaction,” she said to laughter from the audience. While men’s stories typically have one hero, women’s stories are interwoven: there’s more community.
The second passage she read was from the end of the Ramayana, where Sita is going to an ashram in the forest, in her mind for some rest and relaxation before her babies are born. She sees Lakshmana weeping as he escorts her there, and asks him why. As he responds, she learns of Rama's betrayal.
This was a beautiful, moving passage, and it conveys Sita’s shock and sadness at Rama’s incomprehensible betrayal of her. The passage was very hard for Divakaruni to write, she said: she was weeping as she wrote it.
Divakaruni read many Ramayanas while researching her book. The Krittibasi Ramayana was her main source, because it was in Bengali, her mother tongue. Sita went from simple Mythila where there was one king and one queen with two daughters, to much more complicated Ayodhya, where the king had three main wives and hundreds of additional wives. Sita worked quietly, improving her mother-in-law’s standing without offending others. Her strength, according to Divakaruni, is that she had a lot of emotional intelligence. During her trial by fire, she tells Rama that you are victim-shaming me. It is in fact Sita’s agency that summons the fire.
Kumar alluded to some “mind-blowing revelations” about Ravana and Sita, asking where that come from. Divakaruni replied that she didn’t want to give away that plot twist, but that it in fact came from the Adbhuta Ramayana, in which there was a story of how Sita came to Mythila.
Kumar commented on two of the other women, Urmila and Surpanakha. The story of Urmila, Sita’s sister and Lakshmana’s wife is generally in the background, we don’t really get to know much about her. But in “The Forest of Enchantments,” we do. Pointing out that Urmila had been left back in Ayodhya for 14 years, Divakaruni commented there was not a lot of drama, but there was a lot of heartache.
Kumar mentioned that the greatest retelling of the Ramayana which perhaps reached everyone on the subcontinent and beyond, was Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana which aired on television in 1987. So much so, that in Afghanistan, a wedding was paused when it was time for the show, a television was wheeled in, and after the show, the wedding continued!
On the relevance of this book in today’s world, Divakaruni said all epics are resonant throughout the world. Epics continue to be important and they have to be reinvented so people can identify with them. Sita is not a goddess, she is an avatar, which means she lives just like any other human being. During the second agni pariksha, or trial by fire, she refuses on the grounds that future generations of women will have to prove themselves if she does this.
During the audience Q and A, an audience member, Jaya, asked about the Lakshmana Rekha, where a man draws a line to contain woman. Divakaruni replied that the boundary is not in Valmiki’s Ramayana, it is in the Krittibasi Ramayana. Sita tries to balance one good versus another: either stay within the circle and remain safe herself, but invoke curses on her family, or step out of the circle to feed the mendicant, and potentially invite danger. There was no perfect choice, and she decided to step out of the circle.
Sonali, an undergraduate, said it’s worth examining the biases of people who interpret stories over time. How do you balance retelling versus sticking to the canon?
Divakaruni replied that it was not difficult. During her research, she saw that it had been retold in many ways.
Another audience member Anahita, a journalist, commented that she loves how subtly subversive Divakaruni's women are.
Divakaruni commented that 10 years ago, she wrote “The Palace of Illusions” about Draupadi, who would go headlong into problems. But that is not the only way to be strong. Divakaruni herself had to grow into how to attack a problem effectively. Sita does not go headlong into problems, but she does not give up, she figures out a way.
Modern politics came into the conversation as well: a woman compared Elizabeth Warren to a modern Sita. Divakaruni said there are many examples of women who approach problems with emotional intelligence.
The final question was from Vijay Rajvaidya, managing director of India Currents. He had learnt Tulsidas’s Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas, in school as a piece of literature. That didn’t prevent it from becoming the holiest of holy books, hundreds of years after it was written. He asked if Divakaruni was prepared if 300 years from now her book gained that stature.
Divakaruni responded that she would leave that for the audience to decide. Tulsidas was a staunch devotee of Rama, and did not go into the controversy of the final chapter, the Uttara Kanda, and his book ended with Rama’s coronation.
Divakaruni signed copies of her book after the event, and graciously engaged in conversation with each of her readers. As I signed up for her newsletter, she glanced at my name and said "You’re Raji. If you like the book, write a review!" I was in a bit of a rush to get home to my daughter and father. But on the way home, I wished I had stopped for a few more seconds to converse with her in Bengali.
So here you go, Chitra, this one's for you! Thank you for this moving Sita.
A condensed version of this article was published in India Currents as "It’s All About Sita — a Conversation About Agency" on October 11, 2019.