“Women face the same challenges as Sita even today”

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In The Forest of Enchantments, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni retells the Ramayana through Sita’s lens, a rendering that is both timeless and timely. She shares more on her labour of love in an exclusive interview with Arati Rajan Menon


Two years ago at the Jaipur Lit Fest, a loud cheer went up in the crowd when Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni announced that her next book would be the story of Sita—this year, The Forest of Enchantments (HarperCollins; 372 pages) was the best-selling book at the mega event.  “I always want women at the centre of my canvas,” she told me then. “I want her voice to be heard.” Indeed. You can’t ignore Divakaruni’s Sita—she is a woman who needs to be heard, reckoned with; shackled by the strictures of her age, yet empowered by her innate potential and talents. Brought to life by Divakaruni’s simple yet magical words, this is a Sita we can all relate to; a woman with opinions and desires, who has her peeves and enjoys her pleasures; a woman who is often a prisoner of love, yet freed by its very complex nature. And like much of Divakaruni’s oeuvre, her story will resonate with every Indian woman: I passed the book on to my daughter, who was as mesmerised by it as I’m certain my mother will be when she reads it!

Divakaruni shares her journey with Sita in an exclusive interview:

This has truly been a journey of love. How do you feel now that the voyage is over and the book is out?

I’ve been working on The Forest of Enchantments ever since I finished writing The Palace of Illusions, for almost 10 years now, because I felt it was so important to bring an accurate portrayal of the complex and strong woman that Sita is to readers, especially Indian women today. I feel very happy that the book is out now and that it is getting positive reviews. Many readers have told me that the book has brought tears to their eyes, and to me that’s the greatest compliment.

What were your primary sources when you were doing your research? How hard was it to find information on ‘her story’ amid all that history?

I read many Ramayanas—Valmiki, of course, and Tulsidas, but also the Bengali Krittibas, the South Indian Kamba Ramayan and the Adbhuta Ramayan. However, I had to dig deep to discover Sita’s story, because the epics are really male-centred. I had to think carefully about how Sita must have been feeling at certain times of her life. I found a lot of interesting material in folk songs about her, though, and that was very helpful.

You also shed light on the other women characters in the Ramayana, many of whom have either been ignored or portrayed very one-dimensionally. How difficult was this to do and why did you feel it was so important?

Again, it was difficult to extract the material and imaginatively develop little hints given here and there in the older Ramayanas. But it was very important to me. All these women—Mandodari, Surpanakha, Urmila, Ahalya—are so interesting, and they are often in such challenging circumstances. Their stories help us to see the many facets of female strength, and their story helps our understanding of Sita’s character.

Having written about both Draupadi and Sita, can you compare their personas? What was common between them, and what set them apart?

They are both strong, but in different ways. Draupadi is more obviously fiery and rebellious. She speaks her mind and is prone to losing her temper. She has a strong sense of self-worth and can be vengeful when necessary. She likes making waves! Sita is quieter, maturer. She is silent when she needs to be, but she never gives up. She doesn’t let anyone pressure her, neither Ravan (all the time she is in Lanka) nor Ram (when he asks for the second agni pariksha). She doesn’t waste time lamenting her fate but does what is necessary. Together, Draupadi and Sita provide Indian women—indeed, women all over the world—with two excellent and different ways of being strong and effective.

In your view and imagination, who would Sita be and what would have become of her life if she had the freedom of choice many women today have?

I think she would have been a leading doctor because she is a great healer! Maybe she would have run her own huge hospital conglomerate because she is very good at organising things, too, and managing money!

Having asked the previous question, I think most women today face the same dilemmas and duties as Sita. Do you agree? What, in your view, still needs to be done, on a social and policy level, to empower women further?

I agree—many women face the same challenges as Sita even today. That’s why her story continues to be relevant and evergreen. Think of the many women who leave their homes and go to a different country with their husbands. The women who are abducted. The women who are abandoned for no fault of their own. The women who are blamed when they have been victims of #MeToo situations. The women who are rejected by their families because they are considered impure (often because they were victims of sexual violence). The women who are bringing up children on their own. In my view, to improve situations on the social level, women’s education needs to be prioritised and women need to be encouraged (often with loans) to start their own businesses. On the policy level, punishments for sexual or physical assaults against women need to be carried through strictly. The laws are there now, but often perpetrators are not held accountable for their crimes.

You tackle the ageing experience with sensitivity in the book, especially when you speak of the older queens. Clearly, the marginalisation of silvers in society is as old as time. Has anything changed? And how can we work to make society more inclusive to elders?

Ageing is an important topic in The Forest of Enchantments—and a topic of continuing interest for me. I showcase it in my previous book, Before We Visit the Goddess, where a grandmother and ageing mother play large roles. Imagining the situation of Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra as they grow older was important to me. The fact that Mandodari has to deal with ageing (and her husband’s wandering eye as she ages) was crucial to the book. I made sure that Sita was sympathetic to the older women.  I think our attitude toward ageing has changed for the worse in many ways. Where before older women were revered because they possessed information no one else knew, in this age of the Internet and Google search, they are considered outdated or unnecessary. One thing we can do, perhaps, to change this trend is to connect older people with youth by creating family history assignments in schools. This way, youngsters will have to interview grandparents or people of that generation about their lives. They will learn a lot and gain respect for their elders who have been through so much, and it will create a bond between the generations.

Despite their ‘divine origins’, your Sita and Rama are abundantly human: you allude to the contraceptive measures they take in the forest, Rama’s allergy when they return to Ayodhya because of all the dust…! How did you place yourself in their shoes, so to speak, and make them so relatable?

It was important to me to imagine Sita and Ram as real people—which they are, in spite of being avatars. They have human bodies and human urges. Human likes and human faults. (Ram sings off-key, and Sita finds it charming; Sita sometimes gets annoyed with her father-in-law; the forest mosquitoes bother her.) That is one way in which my readers will relate to them. I wanted to create that relationship.  I also wanted to show that in spite of their ordinariness on this body-level, it is possible for Ram and Sita to be heroic as well. I think the truth I wanted to point out is that we all have the potential to be heroic, in spite of our ordinariness or our shortcomings.

This book is as much about the nature of love, in all its facets, as it is the story of Sita. Please comment on this and tell us how love, in your view, can be both an enabler and an obstacle to personal growth.

Love is a huge power, and it is at the centre of The Forest of Enchantments. Throughout her life, Sita is learning more about this power. Being such a force, it can obviously be misused as well. One thing Sita discovers is that, sometimes, because we are afraid to anger the loved one, we will not speak up against wrongdoing, as when she sees Ram indicating to Lakshman that Surpanakha’s nose and ears should be cut off. She feels her silence at that moment leads to some terrible outcomes. On the other hand, love allows us to find within ourselves strength that we never knew we had. It is her love for her unborn babies that enables Sita to continue living after she is abandoned by Ram in the forest for no fault of her own. For their sake, she rises to the challenge of the occasion and brings them up singlehandedly and beautifully and without bitterness—and inspires generations of single mothers to do the same.

A final question! What’s next?

I’m working on a novel based on a woman out of Indian history, this time. A woman who fought bravely against the British her entire life but received little credit for it. A woman whose story has been largely forgotten. For the moment, I’m keeping her name a secret!

Read the review of  The Forest of Enchantments here

Photo : Luckmi Pawa
March 2019