Growing up, I saw a woman devoted to her husband because that’s what she thought she was supposed to do, and never receiving that love in return. I would wonder the point of such a marriage. Over the years, their relationship dwindled and is non-existent now. They’re together because the alternative is difficult to step into, unfathomable because they can’t come to terms that an alternative is there for them, but they’re not with each other either. My idea of marriage and a love story has been greatly influenced by their relationship.
I knew, for sure, that I wouldn’t want a marriage between unequals. I wouldn’t want a marriage of dependence. My ideas were, and are, different – a marriage for companionship and interdependence is the only kind of arrangement that would work for me. And growing up so, I constantly felt removed from the popular narrative of worshipping Ram as God and putting Sita on a pedestal as a divine representation of how women should be.
The lack of Sita’s voice in the Ramayana was, of course, something that I had questioned from an early age. And yet, the storyteller determines the story, and from that perspective, it made sense for Valmiki, and all the other future writers, to choose what to narrate. Like Divakaruni says, external blessings of ‘being like Sita’ would annoy me – why should I be like the woman who was left alone to fend for herself? Why would people who claim to love me want me to be with a person who would not value me? Where is the dignity in such a blessing?
When Divakaruni reimagines Sita, she does so keeping the strength of such a woman in focus. She tells of Sita who rebels quietly, silently, in the privates of her relationship. And when she’s alone, with a stoic grace and courage. There’s a common, yet often overlooked, kind of feminism at display in Sita’s characterization. The current trend glamorizes raging feminists, feminists breaking structures that are inherently oppressive, feminists challenging status quo for a better world – feminists pushing for change. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, it also puts pressure on those who do not have the privilege to escape such structures and status quos; those for whom the change is a lot more threatening the status quo. A constant critique of the marches for equality is that often times, women who support such trailblazing women are left in domestic confines, and have to face the brunt of such rage. Sita’s character does not want to escape the structures, but she wants to change, and she does so by being a quiet trailblazer. She does so by interacting with those around her – she’s not the top-most on the chain, she’s a holistic part of it. She fights between her duties as a sister and a wife, as a woman and a lover, as a queen and a mother. She feels the pain of other women, she rejoices in their joys. And in the end, she dies not for revenge for the atrocity of love, but to inspire – this is how women ought to be.
Over the last few years, my mother and I have bridged the distance and become more like friends. We have often spoken about how she managed to live in such a relationship – removed from both sides of the family, bringing up two children (girls, that too), looking after a sick but constantly demanding husband, being the breadwinner, and yet managing to live through it. I’m not sure if she has managed to retain her sanity through this, but she has been quietly climbing mountains without much hullabaloo. These are the small kinds of rebellions she’s led and emerged victorious. She isn’t and can’t be fit into the popular mould of Sita that her (pretty conservative) mother thinks of as the right way for women to be, but she has been Sita.
Divakaruni’s Sita talks of her emotions with as much ease as she talks of justice. This doesn’t surprise me. A passion for justice is one that I often find lacking in the leaders of today. Why is lack of emotion equated to a strength of character? What kind of leaders and role models are we creating that don’t feel passionately enough to lead change, to lead development? It’s these passionate individuals who we find in our families if we look close enough: those who make sure that the family continues to thrive, even if there are minute adjustments to be made ever so often.
In terms of writing, Divakaruni is a literary genius. I love being engrossed in her creations, being a voracious reader. But, my mother, who is slowly finding ease with reading in English, enjoys the worlds created as well. Divakaruni’s writing bridges age gaps, generational and thought differences, perspectives and opinions. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about her writing – it deeply impacts your relationships with those around you, and in turn changes the person you are. We had attended the Delhi launch of The Forest of Enchantments at India International Centre on 21st January 2019, hosted by HarperCollins India and KRM University. After the launch, my mother and I bumped into her again at Bahrisons, Khan Market. She told us that she loves mother-daughter pairs reading her books together and finding common ground. I think that’s the sentiment that runs through all her writing.
The cover of the book is quite striking, and a reflection of the world we are to enter. ‘The Forest of Enchantments‘. Usually a place of the unknown for city-dwellers – and now more so for I don’t know many amongst us, urban humans who have ever seen village life, let alone forests – the forest is the place of all important events of Sita’s life – her birth, her healing powers, her vanavasa, her abduction, her time in Lanka, her time as a mother. Sita’s connect to the forest – the nature – is also metaphorical. She’s acutely aware of herself as a woman – her powers, her insecurities, her strengths. Even if at times she’s not aware of her future potential, she’s in-tune with her nature. A life of introspection and such connect with oneself enchants you – how do you go on being ignorant when you know better? The pink, the colour most linked to feminity, but the darker pink – signifying strength, depth, intensity.
During the launch, Divakaruni expressed hope in reclaiming the blessing – ‘May you be like Sita’. Having spent time with Sita and known her a little more personally, I wish that blessing does come true someday.
The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Harper Collins Publishers India
Cover Image: Cleveland Museum of Art
Cover Design by Bonita Vaz – Shimray
To Aruna (me) and Basant (my mother, whose name means Spring).