Sharanya Misra

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“I bless my daughters, who are yet unborn. I pray that, if life tests them – as sooner or later life is bound to – they’ll be able to stand steadfast and think carefully, using their hearts as well as their heads, understanding when they need to compromise, and knowing when they must not.”

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments or ‘Sitayan’ as the author calls it, is a fresh take on the legendary epic Ramayan, the narrative of this long-due version being in Sita’s voice. While the story itself is already well known, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni gives fresh life to it by expressing Sita’s thoughts, emotions and learnings as she endures one harrowing experience after another.

With a tale like this that is centuries old, it is indeed regretful that we had to wait this long for Sita’s voice to be given its due. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s writing is effortless as it meanders through the well traversed plot, throwing new light on the events. Her research is evident as she merges pieces of the tale from different versions of the Ramayan. Be it the possibility of Ravan being Sita’s parent, or the true identity of the feared demon king as he nears his end, the role Urmila plays in supporting her husband during the vanvas from miles away or the revelation of Hanuman’s reality, I truly enjoyed learning the little tidbits of information missing in the singular version of Ramayan that I have read.

Sita’s character too is beautifully etched. She is no longer just ‘the wife of’ or ‘the queen of’. Her childhood, merits and accomplishments are drawn out to the readers. Her relationships – with her parents, her in-laws, her sister, her husband – are given ample time to evolve through the story. She is portrayed as she is. Not as a Goddess, but as a real woman trying to understand what love really is even as she repeatedly forgives her husband for not understanding her true essence. Yes, this Sita isn’t afraid of admitting to herself that her husband, the revered always-righteous prince of Ayodhya, is flawed too and doesn’t ‘understand the complexity of the female existence’. This Sita who gives her all to the man she loves, and forgives him time and again for the hurt she bears, understands that

love is the spade with which we bury , deep inside our being, the things that we cannot bear to remember, cannot bear anyone else to know.”

And this is also the Sita who soon realizes that ‘love-no matter how deep-isn’t enough to transform another person.’ Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Sita is endearing, because she is real. She isn’t a mute spectator in the shadow of the man she loves. She emotes. She loves, expects, fails miserably, vents out her anger, endures and treads through the drudgery of her life with as much conviction as she can muster.

Having said this, would I be willing to proclaim that this book completely changed my perception of Sita? Probably not. However, it did give me some food for thought on why she behaved the way she did.  And so to me, Sita still remains a woman who time and again chose to forgive her husband’s betrayals than standing up for herself. She remains a woman who endured and endured until she couldn’t. These are traits that I always associated with weakness. But as I read Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s words

All these had happened without my choice, but I’d survived them. Wasn’t that all we could do as imperfect human beings? I pondered on the word endure, what it meant. It didn’t mean giving in. It meant taking the challenges thrown at us and dealing with them as intelligently as we knew until we grew stronger than them”,

I began to understand Sita’s journey of empowerment. I realized that Sita was a victim of the times, when men were the decision makers and women the followers. Valmiki’s Ramayan stayed true to those times and thus Sita was often left to pick up pieces of her life after decisions were already made. I realized that the story of Ramayan never gave Sita the scope to be a stronger character. And yet, in the end, Sita did emerge stronger. I realized that Sita’s final act of becoming one with the earth wasn’t that of a victim. It was the mark of strength in a woman, who after years of forgetting and forgiving finally decided to stand up for her dignity, who finally established that her self-respect mattered too. And with this realization, I have begun to appreciate the character much more.

The Forest of Enchantments is a wonderful retelling of a story that is already much loved across our country. It is a version that makes the Ramayan more relatable to the women of current times and gives them lessons to be learnt from the life of a legendary character who is revered as a Goddess. It is indeed a retelling with a purpose, a book with a point of view that deserves to be heard.

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