Mythology is more of a structured sequence of events marked with bitterness, war, casualty and unprecedented misfortunes to closed ones and enemy alike. The center piece of focus still remains the events, some of which are often expressed in non-human forms, filled with magic and devoid of human elements and most importantly, devoid of emotions. The Gods are often shown to be super humans who did everything out of their duty and are seen as perfect who can never tread the path of dishonor. Every story is about being righteous and we idolize them because of their non-human elements.
I have been trying to revisit mythology to explore the more human forms of the revered Gods. How did they feel upon being separated from their spouses? How did they feel after deceiving their own brothers? Or gambling their wives?
In that pursuit, I picked “The forest of enchantment” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. It is the story of Sita, the wife of Ram, mother of Lav and Kush but this story does not limit her to that, it also talks of her, as a woman, a voice that is often hidden in the chaos of dramatic events and wars. Her life was torn by people in her life as they all chose to be righteous in their own sense.
About the author
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning and bestselling author, poet, activist and teacher of writing. Her work has been published in over 50 magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, and her writing has been included in over 50 anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, the O.Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her books have been translated into 29 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Bengali, Russian and Japanese, and many of them have been used for campus-wide and city-wide reads. Several of her works have been made into films and plays. She lives in Houston with her husband Murthy and has two sons, Anand and Abhay
Premise of the book
Sita is residing in Valmiki’s ashram and she is attempting to write Sitayan after Valmiki has written Ramayan telling the story of Ayodhya’s beloved king, Ram and his adventures. Sita takes the work as a disregard towards her sacrifices and hardships. She finds it imperative to make her voice heard. She tells stories of her times in Mithila, where she was found lying in the field and was taken by Janak, the king of Mithila as her daughter. Most of the books miss on Sita’s childhood, her ability to heal, her ability to communicate with plants, a constant yearning to be drawn towards the forests and that she was well trained in Martial arts by her mother. She is married to Ram, son of King Dashrath of the Ayodhya as Ram breaks the bow of Shiva and even before he did that, Sita fell in love with Ram and chose him as her only one.
Parts of the book take us to the cozy, intimate moments between Ram and Sita and even make us witness passionate love making between Ram and Sita on Pushpak as they return from Lanka to Ayodhya. Sita is a perfect wife, sister, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and soon to be, a perfect queen. Ram is the most deserving heir to the throne, everybody knows that, except Kaikeyi. She is so blinded by love for his son, Bharat that she asks Ram to denounce the throne and wander in forests for 14 long years. Sita tried to protest but Ram stops her midway.
“I obeyed, but in my mind, I begged him. Protest. If nothing else, remind your father of his kingly duty to the people of Ayodhya.“
But my husband didn’t do that. Instead, without hesitation, he said “It will be as you wish.” He bowed formally to Kaikeyi, his face impassive. Only I saw the hurt that flickered for a moment in his eyes.”
Sita, Ram and Lakhshman start their journey to the forests and Sita feels at home. Initially the forest throws some hardship on their way, but Sita gradually earns a prowess in dealing with the forest. They reach Sage Gautam’s Ashram where Sita comes to know of his wife, Ahalya who was blessed by Ram and turned back into a woman. Ahalya was cursed by her husband, Gautam when he accused her of infidelity. Sita is very curious to know the whirlwind of emotions that would have forced Gautam to take such an action.
“Your husband- he condemned you even before he gave a chance to speak. You’d been his faithful wife for many years. He loved you – and he knew you loved him. You’d never given him cause to doubt you. And yet he forgot all that in an instant and punished you so severely. But you forgave him, not just his jealous, blind fury, but also for not trusting you, for immediately thinking the worst of you. Or did you? And do you still love him? How is it possible to love someone after they did something like that to you?”
Ahalya turned from me, her face unreadable, “the answer to this one you must figure out through your own life’s challenges- they will be upon you, soon enough.”
On a fine day, Sita feels an unusual urge in her to catch a deer and keep it with her as a baby, a baby she could not conceive herself. Ram and Lakshman perceived threat but all Sita could see was the deer.
“What was wrong with him? Why was he being so insensitive today? Couldn’t he feel how achingly lonely I was? How much I longed for something to hold in my empty arms and cuddle and take care of? Something that depended upon me for its happiness, may be even its survival, the way a child might. The way a husband never would.”
Having known the consequences of this act of hers, this entire episode kept me on the edge and I felt bad for Sita as she was not doing thing on her will, rather working under the grips of fate. At some point in the books, she also agrees that we cannot always control or desire of things in a certain way, we can just keep enacting whatever role the fate has fixed for us. Sita is kidnapped by Ravan and taken to Lanka where she is agonized after being separated from Ram and she thinks its all her fault. She thinks of killing herself or die of starvation but she lives on, in hope that her loving Ram will rescue her someday and there will be happiness forever and he does. He kills Ravan and as Sita hears it, she feels no hatred, instead she had admiration for being a mighty sovereign.
One more issue that I have with mythological books is that they speak volumes about the Rakshashas, their uneven body, ability to do super natural things and it sometimes perplexes me. I have a hunch that these are just stories of our ancestors who overcame problems of their times and became God for us. The Rakshahsas might have been tribal who look heavy and different from common men and demanded full control over forests. This book does not deal a lot with demonizing them and also tried to clarify that Rakshashas are just different, not threatening all the time.
As Ravan is defeated, Sita is longing to hold Ram in his arms and instead of meeting her in the palace, he meets her on the shore which seems doubtful.
“It was my duty to rescue you” Ram repeated patiently. “But I cannot take you back to Ayodhya with me. Ravan abducted you from my home. You’ve lived in his palace for a year now. Who knows what kind of relationship you had with him –”
These words speak volume of the insecurities which were accentuated by his kingship. Everyone might say that he banished Sita in a quest of being righteous as a king but perhaps the seeds were sown long ago when he wanted to a righteous husband and went lengths to prove his control over his woman. Though Ram tentatively accepts Sita and she blesses him with the good news of pregnancy, Ram is not able to let go of his insecurities and asks Lakshman to drop her in the Valmiki Ashram, forever, away from him.
“My head spun. I had to sit down on the muddy riverbank to keep from falling. Was this some kind of nightmare I was having? It happened every once in a while. I’d wake up, gasping, hearing again his voice in my head, Now I have slain Ravan, and set you free. Here ends my duty to you, and my responsibility. Go where you will to live the rest of your days. Inside the babies sommersaulted, agitated by my fear”
She leaves Lakshman behind and starts walking on her own.
“Things did not go quite the way I’d declared so optimistically. In my agitation and ignorance, I walked in the wrong direction away from Valmiki’s hermitage. It was only by luck that I wasn’t attacked by a wild beast. Or perhaps it was fate. It’s hard to tell them apart, what we bring upon ourselves and what destiny determines. They are as difficult to disentangle as love and sorrow.”
She explores the stronger side of her and brings up her sons, Lav and Kush to the best of her abilities and they are equally revered to their mother. As fate would have it, they meet their father and sing Sitayan to him which deeply moves Ram. Ram accepts his sons and invites Sita to complete the family after she would have walked the fire to prove her purity, yet again. She chooses not to. She chooses to stand up for women in upcoming times who’d have the power to say No after witnessing what she does. She prays mother Earth to take her inside her.
“One last, crucial thing I must tell my husband.‘
I forgave you a long time ago’, I say to Ram. ‘Though I didn’t know it until now. Because this is the most important aspect of love, whose other face is compassion: It isn’t doled out, drop by drop. It doesn’t measure who is worthy and who isn’t. It is just like Ocean. Unfathomable. Astonishing. Measureless.”As quoted from forest of enchantments