Sita’s Ramayana, as the name suggests, is a version of the epic told from the point of view of the hapless princess. Author Samhita Arni begins her story with a heavily pregnant Sita walking into the forest with bruises on her feet and tears in her eyes. The inhabitants of the forest, the leaves, flowers, creepers, and animals wake up from their long sleep at the intrusion. They wonder what this beautiful maiden, dressed in silks and ornaments, is doing in their world and start questioning her. In response, Sita recounts her story and the horrified forest creatures pledge to protect her and make her stay as comfortable and secure as they can.Arni not only relates the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view but also touches upon Sita’s response to the plight of other women she meets during the time she is abducted and confined. The age-old messages of right and wrong, compassion, love, loyalty come across in vivid detail along with subtle references to the terrible price extracted by conflicts on women and children, whether they are on the winning or the losing side.Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar’s illustrations in earthy hues depict Sita’s agony, hope, and horror though her journey from abduction to rescue to public trial.The colorful art form of Patua is native to West Bengal and combines storytelling, performance, and art. Stories are depicted frame by frame through paintings done with vegetable and mineral dyes on handmade paper pasted on cloth. Traditionally, Patua artists travel from village to village with their scrolls narrating stories from epics and mythologies.Moyna Chitrakar has more than 30 years experience in this art form that she learnt from her mother. Her paintings in rich red, mustard, olive, muted blue earthen colours lend support to Arni’s precise prose ensuring an engrossing read.Arni’s interest in mythology and retelling epics began early. Her retelling of the Mahabharata was published when she was only twelve. It has since then been translated and published in German, Italian, French, Portugese, Spanish, Catalan and Greek. The Mahabharata—A Child’s View, written and illustrated by her, was named Book of the Month by the German Academy for Youth Literature and Media in 1999. It won the Elsa Morante Literary Award from the Department of Culture of Campania, Italy (2004) and was chosen as one of the Best Published Books of 2004 by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.
Arni has a double major in Religion and Film from Mount Holyoke College in the United States, and has lived in Pakistan, Thailand, and Italy among other countries. She is now working on a thriller set in Ayodhya which is again based on the Ramayana.
Here she talks about the experience of giving a feminist perspective to the Ramayana, her interest in mythology, and her forthcoming novel.
Tell us about the process that went into telling the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective; did you look into different versions of the Ramayana found in different parts of Asia?
Moyna’s images came first and they are the primary narrative. The text is secondary and was written after the images—the images are so powerful that the text is just meant to frame, give a context when needed. It was a collaborative process—the result of many back and forth conversations—and included, besides Moyna and me, editor V. Geeta and publisher Gita Wolf, and the supremely talented Jonathan Yamakami, a Japanese-Brazilian designer who did the layout. It was not always easy, but it was a wonderful, thought-provoking experience.
Yes, there were times where I introduced characters from other versions, like Trijatha from Kamban’s Ramayana, to add nuance to the story. But I’ve tried to stay true, as much as possible, to Moyna’s conception/retelling as expressed in the artwork. The different, pan-Asian, polymorphic versions of the Ramayana have been the major inspiration.
What triggered your interest in the Ramayana, particularly about telling the story from Sita’s perspective?
I was researching the Ramayana for my other (forthcoming) book, which is a speculative-fiction thriller centred on Sita, but set in contemporary times. I had not really engaged with the Ramayana as a child. The Sita that we are most familiar with today, the demure and chaste one, is not the kind of ideal that girls like me, growing up with feminist mothers and encouraged to pursue what we want, can identify with.
So when I ran into my old publisher Gita Wolf, we started talking about my other book and the Ramayana, and Gita mentioned that she wanted to do another book with Moyna, a Patua artist who had a very feminist, very Sita-centric version of the Ramayana. Now the Patuas are very interesting—they are a mix of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims and they exist outside the caste system. They’ve been retelling the Ramayana for as long as they’ve existed, I guess, and since it’s an oral and visual storytelling medium, with each artist-storyteller the retelling is different. I was fascinated with this.
Was any part more difficult than the rest, and how did you get around it? What is your favorite part in the book?
The difficult bit was retelling the war, because Sita never saw it, she was imprisoned in a garden in Ravana’s palace. We had to take a call—do we find another character who sees the war firsthand, or do we stay with Sita? I felt it was more powerful to stay with Sita, to create this sense of fear and anticipation, of not knowing.
But to relate the major events of the war, I had to find a character who would tell this to Sita, and I found the perfect character in Trijatha, a Rakshasi. She is Sita’s jailor, who in the Kambharamayana is a seer gifted with foresight and prophetic abilities. And because she’s from Lanka, she has a different take on the war, which was interesting to explore.
Favorite bits—Moyna’s illustrations! I love the one we begin with—Sita in the forest, crying, surrounded by plants with faces. And the one where Hanuman jumps across the sea—there’s just sea … and it’s a wonderful way of expressing distance.
Apart from Sita, who do you empathize with the most?
In the Ramayana, many of the female characters are interesting. I find Trijatha interesting, she has a prophetic vision that foretells the destruction of Lanka, and her father Vibhishana switches sides and joins Ram, but Trijatha seems to feel that it is her dharma to remain in Lanka and that is such an interesting choice. Tara, Vali and Sugriva’s wife, is also interesting; she critiques the idea of dharma and points out how women lose out when men pursue their dharma.
Tell us a little about The Mahabharata—A Child’s View. How did it come about?
I came back from Pakistan at the age of eight, after having lived there for three years, and I think, in retrospect, I found in the Mahabharata a sort of allegory/analogy/echo of the India-Pakistan situation, two sides of a family quarrelling over property/inheritance. I had nothing to do since it was summer holidays, and since I loved the epic so much, someone in my family suggested that I busy myself with retelling the story.
I didn’t have many friends in school in India at first (I told everyone I had come from Karachi, and this around the time of Babri Masjid so tensions were running high, and I was sort of ostracized), so I continued writing and illustrating the Mahabharata. I guess it was therapeutic. My mother kept the manuscript together (I would write and draw on anything, greeting cards, backs of other people’s letters), and showed it to a publisher, Gita Wolf, who offered to publish it.
You have retold and interpreted both of the great Hindu epics. Have you had any instances of people reacting in an unfavorable way?
So far people have been very positive. I can only hope that it stays that way, knock on wood.
Do you take care to ensure that you don’t deviate too much from the original in order not to offend religious sensibilities.
Yes, very much so. I don’t intend, I don’t want in any way to offend religious sensibilities, but I want to engage with the questions and concepts the Ramayana asks and puts out. It’s also a beautiful literary tradition, in all its various forms, and I think to keep the epics and traditions alive one must retell these stories, so that they continue to be relevant to our lives.
Give us an idea about your forthcoming novel?
Sita (tentative title) is a “speculative-fiction-feminist-thriller,” which explores the end of the Ramayana and the consequences of the war in Lanka. In a world that resembles ours, Ram rules over “Ayodhya Shining.” But even in this prosperous, perfect kingdom, darkness lurks. A journalist realizes that there are always two sides to history when she meets Kaikeyi, Ram’s stepmother and former queen of Ayodhya. Kaikeyi voices the one question that Ayodhyans are afraid to ask—where is Sita, Ram’s absent wife, whose abduction triggered the Lankan war? And so the journalist begins to search for Ayodhya’s missing queen, to ask questions that reveal the “other” side of Ayodhya Shining, and meets both the victors and the defeated from the Lankan war. Soon, her investigation attracts the notice of the “Washerman,” the head of Ayodhya’s powerful intelligence agency. She is forced to flee to Lanka and Mithila to elude the Washerman and find the one person who has the power to answer her questions, to tell it like it really was—Sita.
It’s being published by Zubaan, hopefully next year. If anyone’s interested, an excerpt was published a while back in Caravan magazine, and there’s a link to the online version on my website www.samarni.com.
Note: For another feminist perspective on the Ramayana, check out the animated movie Sita Sings the Blues (2008), by Nina Paley.
Fehmida Zakeer is based in India. Her work has come out in various national and international publications including Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Garden, Prevention, Azizah, Herbs for Health, Ritz magazine, and others.