Sita Speaks Up

Amrita Prasad
Saturday, 5 January 2019

We chat up Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni whose latest novel, The Forest of Enchantments, narrates Mithila Princess’ version of the Ramayana

The way Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni retells the stories of women from Indian mythology, makes them more humane and relatable to present day readers. Her women characters, whether in mythology genre or in fiction, are flawed but they aren’t afraid to speak their mind or seek fulfillment of their desires and aspirations.  

The writer of popular works like Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, Oleander Girl, Palace of Illusions, or One Amazing Thing, finds it wonderful that many contemporary novels are showcasing women from our mythology. “It is a wonderful thing because our myths and epics are timeless and can teach us many values even today. I am glad so many readers are interested in them. Each new book is different, of course. Some are wonderful. Some may not be so well-written. But mythology is a good thing to focus on,” says Divakaruni, whose latest work, The Forest of Enchantments, narrates Sita’s version of the Ramayana. Published by HarperCollins, this story told through Sita’s point of view, makes a strong comment on duty, betrayal, infidelity and honour. 

Excerpts from our conversation with Divakaruni...

- Why did you put Sita at the centre of your novel and narrate her version of the Ramayana? Do you think it was a much-needed expression?
Yes, I believe that it is very important for us to hear Sita’s story in her own voice and to see what happens in the Ramayana from her perspective. After all, she is the heroine of the Ramayana. She makes important choices. But we have not paid enough attention to her. 
We have many stories told with Ram in the centre, but not so many that focus on Sita. We need to imagine her life more. Through her, I believe, readers will become more attuned to how women think and feel. They will become more attuned to women’s suffering, their challenges, and also women’s strength.

- How will this help in changing the popular perception of looking at characters and plots in the book?
In this novel, I want readers to see and feel everything the way I imagine Sita to be feeling. I want them to have empathy with her, to laugh and cry with her, to become very close to her. I want them to feel her despair when she is captive in Lanka for so many months, but also to acknowledge and admire how she refuses to give up. 

I want readers to feel how excited and happy she was to see Ram after he won the battle. But he tells her that he does not want to take her back with him to Ayodhya, which breaks her heart. Even then she is strong and dignified and chooses to enter the fire.

- Tell us about the significance of the forests in the story.
The forest plays a major part in Sita’s life. Early on, when she is with Ram, it is a magical place of happiness, where she finds herself one with nature’s beauty. Later in Ravan’s Ashoka forest where she is held captive, it is a place of sorrow. But even there, nature gives her strength. Finally, when she is sent back to Valmiki’s forest during her pregnancy, the forest nurtures her and gives her the strength to bring up her children in spite of her heartbreak. Being the daughter of Earth, Sita always has a special connection to the forest and to nature.

- How is Sita in this novel different from what people have been shown since time immemorial?
I remember how I grew up with elders telling me to be like Sita. They meant I should be meek and mild and forgiving and put up with any troubles that people create for me. That I should obey my husband and in-laws no matter what they do. That is the accepted societal view of Sita in many places even now. 

But my Sita (and, in fact Valmiki’s Sita, too) is very strong and does not put up with wrongdoing. She speaks up against wrong. She stands up against Ravan. She brings up her children on her own. She is a true role model. People often mistakenly think that Ram made Sita go through agni-pariksha. But that is not true. She chooses to go into the fire herself, to preserve her dignity, and the gods respond to her.

- How will the present day women identify with Sita? Is she a feminist?
Labels like ‘feminist’ are problematic because they mean many different things to different people, so I like to avoid them. Let me just say that present-day women can definitely identify with Sita because she is a timeless character. She wants many of the things that today’s women aspire for and goes through the same situations that they face. She wants to live her life side-by-side with her husband and refuses to stay back in Ayodhya with her in-laws when he goes to the forest. In fact, they have a beautiful, prolonged and loving honeymoon in the forest for 13 years, in spite of many physical hardships. 

Even after her abduction by Ravan, she never loses her spirit and doesn’t give in to him. In fact, he is forced to admire and respect her. When she is wrongly abandoned by Ram during her pregnancy, she courageously brings up her sons by herself. She is the earliest single parent character I have come across in literature. 

- How do you choose your characters for books and ensure that they don’t seem repetitive since all of them are women protagonists?
My life-experiences have influenced my writing, as well as the writers whose work I admire — (Rabindranath) Tagore and (Leo) Tolstoy Mahasweta Devi, Amitav Ghosh, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and Ismat Chughtai. When I imagine a character strongly, I see her in my mind’s eye. I understand what makes her special and different. Each woman (just like in real life) has her own personality, desires and values. 

- Did you have any apprehensions in the beginning that men wouldn’t find your books interesting?
Yes, I used to worry about that. But I have noticed that I do have thoughtful, open-minded male readers, who have often written to me about how my books have changed some of their views. Some of them gifted the books to women (their mothers, wives, girlfriends) in their lives and then read them together. That makes me really happy!  

But I do wish that overall more men would read books with female protagonists. After all, women have been reading books with males as heroes for centuries! Reading across genders would surely help make all of us more open-minded towards social issues.

- So what’s next?
I am working on a historical novel and am very excited about it. And yes, it is also built around a strong woman and how she will fight against enemies of India. But the topic has to remain secret for now!

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