“Stories, apart from giving hope, must be told and shared so everyone can try to understand the experience of life from another point of view,” says Sita in Vayu Naidu’s debut novella Sita’s Ascent, a retelling of the Ramayana epic with Sita cast in the main role. A performer of folktales, Naidu tries to bring to her readers “a reimagining of the idea of woman as goddess.”
The book begins with the six months pregnant Sita being driven to Valmiki’s ashram for a visit by Lakshmana who knows that Rama has forbidden her return to Ayodhya but chooses to remain silent. When she comes to know about Rama’s order, Sita is devastated but silently accepts her fate and begins to live in the forest where she has two sons, Lava and Kusa. Although she had “reached a point past caring for social opinion,” she remains devoted to Rama.
The love story of Sita and Rama is constructed through a string of remembrances. When Queen Kaikeyi exiles Rama for 14 years, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana accompany him to the forest. In the 13th year Sita is abducted by Ravana who is then defeated by Rama with the help of Hanuman and his brother. But Sita has to prove her purity to her husband and his warriors. She ponders, “if the dead could not return, then those left behind wanted purity as the price of blood.”
Naidu uses memory as “a metaphor for ‘re-membering’ a dismembered story because it is told to us infrequently and in parts”. The major characters that influence Sita’s life are each assigned a chapter as narrator to lend depth of perspective to the text. But one expects from feminist revisionist mythmaking a strong female protagonist who subverts the norms of patriarchy, rising out of the margins of history. Naidu’s Sita, though, fails on account of these expectations. When the books opens we encounter an emotionally battered wife abandoned by a husband who fails to trust her despite his better judgment. Subsequent plot details show us how “faithful” and “virtuous” a wife she had been, refusing to be “corrupted” during the period she was abducted by Ravana. Now that she is the “victim” of a misunderstanding husband, she latches on to being the “perfect mother” to her children. If Naidu’s reimagining of woman as a goddess perpetuates the myth of incorruptible purity and limitless patience, her portrayal of Soorpanaka, Ravana’s sister, is nothing more than a stereotyped femme fatal.
Naidu’s construction of Sita’s character is reductive at times. Women are reduced to the sole role of birthing and mothering when Valmiki says: “A woman holds an entire epic in her womb, brings it out and it speaks for itself.” Urmila, Lakshmana’s wife, fooling the guards and escaping the palace to live with Sita, appears to have the grain of rebellion that is so profoundly absent in Sita.
Valmiki’s is one of the best rendered characters of the novella: “He had so far chronicled events; he now had to tell the story of the heart.” Rama, despite his solicitude and responsibility of running a kingdom, appears to be a shallow husband whose trust in his wife crumbles in face of public pressure, his obsession with chastity casting his wife as mere object of male possession and pride. Lakshmana, on the other hand, shows more spine in his guilt over Sita’s abduction and pain over Rama’s injustice to Sita. Naidu describes his devotion to his brother beautifully: “After years in the forest and being on guard, and then the war, he could not think of anything else but Rama’s safety. He no longer had a sense of himself.” As her sons and husband take the main-stage during Sita’s supposed ascent at the end of the novella, she stands in the shadows saying, “All would be well for a while”. Sita in Sita’s Ascent remains a shackled creature on the dark margins of the narrative.
The language of the novella, though beautifully demystified, tends to reach the point where vernacular becomes trivial. Moreover, the excessive use of parables and metaphors is rather desultory, failing to provide any psychological depth to the characters. Although using modern and colloquial idiom and a casual tone helps improve the approachability of the text, the book lacks the seriousness that is desired to deprecate antiquated gendered biases. A good introduction for the uninitiated readers interested in the story of Ramayana, Sita’s Ascent is less revision than a slightly different retelling of the old epic.
By Vayu Naidu