Thousand faces: ‘In Search of Sita’ edited by Malashri Lal & Namita Gokhale

Sumana Roy is the author of How I became a Tree, a work of nonfiction, Missing: A Novel, Out of Syllabus: Poems and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories, a collection of short stories.

My mother's name is Sati. It is, of course, not a name that she would have given to herself. But a name being one of the many matters that parents impose on their children, she learned to accept it, at first grudgingly and later graciously. It is a name that often got her children in trouble: in history class, when teachers would condemn the practice of a widow jumping into her husband's funeral pyre, her son would find it difficult to write an answer condemning sati. Her daughter, meanwhile, would inevitably misspell her name – it is now a part of family folklore that, as a child, I would always write Sita for Sati.

Growing up should have helped to clear the distance between the two names, but marriage, and the noise of its symbolism, ensured that I continued to languor in the lazy substitutability of 'Sita' and 'Sati'. There could be no better cheerleader for that cruel totem of self-sacrifice than Lord Ram's wife – virtuous, innocent, giving – she who sacrificed her youth, comfort and even her dignity for a cruel and foolish husband. Reading this fine new anthology of essays, fiction and art was therefore a double delight: first, to discover a history of reception about a cult figure is an adventure in itself; and, second, to clarify, if only for the lapses of one's childhood spelling error, how the bold and courageous Sita has, over centuries of misinterpretation and angular storytelling, come to be seen as the quintessential doormat.

"Gandhiji saw Sita as a symbol for woman's struggle in a man's world precisely because her chastity holds off Ravana," writes the eminent British economist Meghnad Desai in the opening "Commentary". And while the next few wonderful essays – Reba Som's "Chitrangada not Sita", Malashri Lal's "Sita: Naming, purity and protest", Ranga Rao's "R. K. Narayan's Ramayana", Karen Gabriel's "Draupadi's Moment in Sita's Syntax" – moved through a space of interrogation about the reception of the cult figure, it was obvious that the 'father of the Indian nation', who himself devised, played and supposedly won his battles with chastity, could not have thought of Sita otherwise.

There are two particularly interesting features in this anthology. The first is the section "In Dialogue", which collects seven remarkable conversations on the subject. As such, co-editors Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale talk about "Sita's Voice"; Sonal Mansingh, Indira Goswami, Madhu Kishwar, Nilimma Devi and Madhureeta Anand offer their differing takes on Sita; and, rounding it out, is Nina Paley, the creator of the tragic-comic animated Sita Sings the Blues. The other interesting feature is Aman Nath's collection and commentary on "Sita in Victorian Indian Prints". Nath takes us through the evolutionary trajectory of Sita as nayika, the beautiful young heroine, to the Raja Ravi Varma-endorsed mould for the "pan-Indian, head covered, sari-clad woman"; parallel to this is the shift in background from the exilic life in the forest to her life in Ravan's Ashok-vatika, and how this likewise marked a shift in the "academic modeling" of portrait paintings. For instance, it is interesting to see Sita feeding pigeons and deer in one slide, and then sitting like a model in a government art college in the next. But perhaps most fascinating is Sita's portrayal as ardhanarishwara, or Shiva as both man and woman, which in spite of all its loaded symbolism cannot fail to make one laugh – Sita sitting on a throne, her man's chest half covered, her half-moustache flaunted like a powerful weapon.

There is an old Bengali saying that, in Bengal, the language's dialect changes every hundred kilometres. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to apply the same variability about the different 'versions' of the Ramayana. In a full section devoted to this subject, Mandakranta Bose writes about the portrayal of Sita in two Bengali versions of the epic, while arguing that it was Tulsidas's Ramacharitmanas that "transformed" the strong and independent Sita "into a model of obedience and dependency". Elsewhere in this section, Meenakshi Faith Paul writes about Sita in the Ramayana of the Pahari languages, the Lok Ramain; D Rama Raju likewise discusses the Telegu version, in which Ram breaks into a refrain of sorts about the "identification marks" on Sita that Hanuman should watch for; G K Das looks at the interesting departures in the Oriya version of the epic. Finally, Navaneeta Dev Sen's Sita is an "essential orphan", who sings the same words in almost every version of the epic: "I have no father/ I have no mother/ I was found at the tip of a plough/ I don't know who my parents are …" She lives amongst us today, as Dev Sen argues, as "the child bride".

Among the most interesting 'creative interpretations' of the epic is "An Infatuation", in which an episode from the Ramayana is retold by Amit Chaudhuri. Here it is not Sita but her foil who is the central protagonist. Sita is not just the model of a virtuous wife; her looks, or at least representations of it, have given birth to a template of the beautiful Aryan woman. Here, she is longhaired, true, but the hair is always tied into a bun to ward off desire (as in Raja Ravi Varma's painting of her, used in the cover of this anthology). She also has fair skin; long, arched eyebrows and dark eyes; long limbs and small feet; a full bosom but not voluptuous, with a slim waist but heavy hips. Overall, she has a delicate build but strong character, which evidently shows in her gait. And such it has continued, the narrative creating a model of beauty that is impossible to approximate. It perhaps needed a male writer to make us see Sita's other. Sita, before her marriage, is Janaki, King Janak's daughter; after marriage, she is only wife, always the other half of a whole. And hence her life in our ears, always as Siyaram, even in the name of a brand of 'suiting-shirting' that small-town middle-class India coveted during the 1980s and early 1990s.

My own girlhood was troubled by my grandmother's patriarchy-endorsed interpretation of Sita's character. I was to grow up and become Sita's daughter or her clone, whichever was more difficult, such was the moral of her bedtime stories. But my only source of worry – and hence my persistent query to grandma – was why Sita never felt hungry, when my mind so often wandered to the tiffin box during mathematics class. For me, as it must have been for many others, Sita was little more than a doll, a metaphor for stiff stillness. So when Chaudhuri begins telling us about a woman who is not yet a wife, who like us is someone's sister (even if it is to the great enemy Ravan), ugly in the Aryan's eyes and hence still not taken, our curiosity is stoked. The stories of beauties are passé: it is the ugly women who we feel most akin to, and Chaudhuri's Surpanakha – nonconformist, lusty, a flesh-and-blood woman who is looking for a language to articulate her desire – is us.

Here is a Sita who could be mistaken for the wife in Nandalal Basu's illustrations, which accompanied Rabindranath Tagore's Bengali-alphabet primer: "the pale, rather docile wife with vermilion in her hair … attended to household chores … she'd chop and cook." Chaudhuri's Sita is the angel in the house (even in a "forest"), "radiantly beautiful but [a] more or less useless woman", even "godly" – a woman whose mind does not colour her face, as in the passive-looking Raja Ravi Varma painting. Indeed, Surpanakha is anything but a painting: "Sighing, she looked at her own muscular arms, used to lifting heavy things and throwing them into the distance, somewhat hirsute and dark but undoubtedly efficient … her face had cavernous nostrils and tiny tusks that jutted out from beneath her lips."

In Surpanakha's self-image, we recognise our need to use fairness creams and cellulite erasers, and run to orthodontists. Surpanakha knows that, compared to Sita and her fellow humans, she is "braver, less selfish, more charitable, and better-natured" but "it was true that latter were prettier". And yet such knowledge is useless in the face of longing, for love, or at least lust, demands beauty – "She decided to change herself … Her heart, like a girl's upon glimpsing a bride, beat faster at what she saw; a woman with large eyes and long hair coming down to her waist, her body pliant."
Metamorphosis for the love, a version of instant plastic surgery – which woman has not felt the urge, at least once, to become the kind of woman he loves? But as many of us realise every day, and as Sita perhaps came to regret, Surpanakha eventually understands that "it was bad luck to fall in love with a god or human being." God, rakshas or human, falling in love with either or all is, evidently, still "bad luck". The brilliance of Chaudhuri's retelling of this episode from the epic is not only the Dravidian woman's point of view. There is something more intensely political there, too: Lakshman has cut her nose, Surpanakha is dripping blood, "it was from here, in this state, she went looking for Ravana" – a true recipe for tit-for-tat honour killing.

Woman's toll
It is when the 'Other's' point of view bleeds in Valmiki's epic that it becomes most interesting. So Mallika Sengupta's "Sitayana", where it is again the arena of the female body where so much of the action takes place. Sita is again us, she who we are afraid of becoming: "On beholding her ordinary garments and guessing at her emaciated frame, Rama had turned away her gaze. This woman was not the Sita whose beautiful form was etched in his memory. Deprivation and age had taken their toll." Again, which woman is not scared of hearing her husband think about her in such a way? Perhaps this also explains Sita's persistent presence in our consciousness: she is as real as her husband is unreal.

Sita is also the Subcontinent's poster mother. She not only gives birth to one son but twins. That is why Chandra Ghosh Jain's "Sita's Letter to her Unborn Daughter" reiterates (to borrow a phrase from contemporary Indian sociologists) the 'missing girl' thesis. Sita calls her unborn daughter Paakhi, or 'bird', perhaps the bird without wings, and signs off her letter as "Ever-Hopeful Ma". We ask ourselves, again and without hope, about the missing daughters in our epics of twin sons and a hundred brothers: Where are the women? And yet, so much of our fictions and fantasies continue to breed and grow on that one moment of non-action or involuntary movement on the part of the woman. As Smita Tewari Jassal reminds us by quoting a Bhojpuri song: "If you were indeed so chaste and pure, Sita/ How come you went off with the husband of another?" Try to answer that one.

~ Sumana Roy teaches at the Department of Humanities, Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College.

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