INDIAN history is dotted with stories of abandoned wives, who live their life with forbearance. Chandramati, Damayanti, Shakuntala and Ahalya to name a few. And yet their stories do not evoke the kind of reaction that Sita’s does, probably because their stories end ‘happily ever after’ which does not happen with Sita?
The relationship between Rama and Sita, rather his treatment of her, has been matter of debate and passionate argument for centuries. While every man can aspire a Sita for a wife, no woman prays for a Rama as husband. For that they turn to Shiva or Krishna, both of whom are considered ideal husbands. An interesting anthology of articles, essays and interviews on Sita by persons from various walks of life has been edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale under the title In Search of Sita, Revisiting Mythology. The book presents refreshing discussions and points of view on Sita with many women identifying with Sita’s travails.
Several writers see the agni pareeksha of Sita, ordered by Rama after the conquer of Lanka as a rejection of him by Sita. As if it were a statement ‘if you won’t take me back, so be it. I shall find my peace elsewhere.’ It was a moment of great emotional stress for Sita, who had been told months earlier by Hanuman that Rama was pining for her and missing her and would come personally to rescue her. And at that moment, when her long awaited reunion was at hand, the summary rejection of her by Rama shocked not just her but everyone present. Left alone, she could not have gone back to Lanka or to Ayodhya least of all to Mithila.
Says Nina Paley “The agni pareeksha I see as a metaphor for grief. I wanted to kill myself when my husband dumped me and the unbearable pain was like fire – I thought it was going to kill me and I’m still kind of amazed that it didn’t.”
Namita Gokhale in her introductory piece writes “Sita has been there, in the mass consciousness of our subcontinent, for very long now. She has been there since the beginning of our timeless history in different versions and recensions of the Ramayana, written or recited and never forgotten. She lives on in all the Sitapurs and Sitamarhis of the nation, in the Janakpurs and Ramgarhs and Rampurs. She has been seen on celluloid, and on television; she has been elected to Parliament from Vadodara, in the person of Deepika Chikalia, the actress who played her role in Ramanand Sagar’s television serial titled Ramayana.”
Sonal Mansingh in conversation with Rina Tripathi compares Ramayana and Mahabharata and says that both Draupadi and Sita were “extremely powerful women who not only have a firm grip over their own lives, but also greatly influence events and personalities with their strong convictions and ideas.” She also points to striking differences between the two women. While Draupadi had friends or confidants, Sita had nobody to whom she could confer and share. While Draupadi’s identity is not dependent on any male character, Sita’s revolves around that of Rama.
Malashri Lal is a professor in the Department of English and current joint director of the University of Delhi, South Campus and has written extensively on women’s socio-cultural positioning and women’s writings. Namita Gokhale is a writer and has authored several novels. She is a director of Yatra books and one of the founders of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The essays in the book have a plethora of references to various versions of Ramayana – regional and folk. Most contributors are women with a sprinkling of men, including Meghnad Desai. Sita as the earliest of single parent bringing up two boys on bare minimum resources is an aspect that has not been touched by any author. And she brought them up well, teaching them to stand up to power.
An interesting book that offers fresh ideas and hopefully would spark off a healthy debate.