We had been reading an English translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, Uttar Kaand included, which would inform the prose section of the exam. A Child’s Garden of Verse—a slim green volume divided into genres based on periods in western literary history such as romanticism and the world wars—would dictate the poetry section of the same exam.
It was the winter of my 13th year and in preparation for the exam, I had found myself in the not uncommon—if incongruous—post-colonial position of having to “mug up by heart” excerpts from both texts. It was all very English of course: the concept of a written exam, the morphing of the Ramayana into prose and the level of itemization that was demanded in the exam question. Perhaps not entirely surprising then that in preparation, I found myself reading Edwin Brock’s Five Ways to Kill a Man—a satire on the torture of 20th century life—alongside the translation of the Ramayana, both of which I would be required to reproduce (preferably verbatim) on the exam.
If goodmarks on the exam were desired, however—and notgetttinggoodmarks is akin to political suicide in most South Indian families so goodmarks are always desired—then it was essential to keep prose and poetry separate during the exam. Being a sucker for goodmarks, I found my own post-colonial juxtaposition free of the injunctions of the exam only in private. Matching the morbid methods described in Five Ways to Kill a Man with the particular kind of torture I was enduring while reading the Ramayana, I found a woman-centered summary of the horrific aspects of the story I had just read.
Five ways to torture a goddess: There are many ways to torture a goddess. You can abduct her to a foreign land and ask her to refrain from temptation. You can ask her to ascend a burning fire and request that she come out unscathed. You can exile her to the forest when she is pregnant. You can slit her throat by silencing her feelings of anger and rejection. Or, you can rouse her to such anger and shame that she takes her own life.
Growing up in the 1980s in what was then Madras—now Chennai—invited any moderately thoughtful woman to ask questions. While the windows were open for occupational diversity, the narrowness of acceptable femininity was reflected in matrimonial column requests for the “Ideal (wheat-complexioned) Wife” and schoolteachers’ demands for “ladylike” behavior coupled with goodmarks. I know I was not alone in feeling the chasm between the burgeoning material possibilities and the psychological barriers that held us arms length from them. Empowerment was offered and obedience demanded in the same serving of thairsadam (yogurt and rice).
The incongruities I was experiencing with the exam extended to many facets of 80s Madras life, that was marked for me by a confusion about what it meant to be a powerful woman. Sugar and spice imagery from little girls’ poems, dainty creatures from Enid Blyton novels offered Victorian morality and femininity, relics of colonialism that ought to have been long-gone post independence. Newspaper articles extolling the virtues of Indian women’s devotion and self-restraint, and avuncular warnings about the unnamable dangers of love marriages, carried remnants of the Manu Smriti, the ancient religious law technically obsolete for centuries, that highly discouraged decision-making among women.
We were a country, post-multiple traumas, trying to sort out its identity, and perhaps it was in order to maintain some semblance of safety in this chaotic aftermath that the social ethos spoke more to law and order than to young girls’ dreams for powerful female archetypes. This was particularly true in Chennai, where the omnipresence of goddesses of dharma and virtue gave messages that did not particularly encompass the diversity resplendent in the Indian goddess tradition.
I knew in my heart that there was a goddess out there who looked like me. Thought I barely remember seeing any pictures of Kali growing up, I had caught sight of her a few times. Kali was dark skinned, hot-headed, and her protruding tongue spoke of papillae that quested—as did mine—for un-nameable pleasures. Perhaps it was those glimpses of her that allowed me to keep ignited—despite discouragement—the fiery embers within myself that seethed with a girlish lust that could only be gratified—in secret—on Saturday mornings.
Saturday mornings were the highlight of my week. Both my parents were away at work and I was at home. Around the time of the above-mentioned 8th standard exam—and indeed for several years prior—come 11 a.m. on Saturday mornings, I would always find myself hungry. Not for the kind of respectable balanced meals that were served up on my mother’s dinning table, but for something luscious, dark, decadent, and unctuous. My very being would tingle with anticipatory pleasure as I carefully blended my child-like recipe for sensual delight: Amul Butter, Van Houten Cocoa, and ration sugar in the perfect proportion. Katori in hand, I would make my way stealthily past the pooja room to the privacy of the backyard to consume my forbidden creation.
No one had ever told me it was taboo to create chocalatey pleasures in my parents’ absence, but I sensed somehow that such ecstasy was probably best concealed. Later, sans katori and relatively guiltless, I would peek into the pooja room—which in my parent’s home also doubled as a makeshift pantry—and inevitably I’d encounter the gaze of Sita.
I found Sita disappointingly inaccessible. Physically she looked so unlike me—disquietingly serene and perfectly pale-complexioned. How could I, with my unruly hair and dark skin be anything like her? Her story was no more reassuring. I didn’t think I could spend all my time in a beautiful foreign land perennially downcast and obsessed with my loss. Nor did I think I’d be capable of restraining my anger when I wasn’t welcomed back home. When I announced that I was no Sita, my patti assured me that any aspirations to being like Sita were designed to remain unrealized. “They (the gods and goddesses) are very high up, and we are very far down, kana,” she said affectionately. “We cannot be like them.” Restraint, it appeared, was a watchword that even extended to the pleasure of seeking union with God.
Be like the goddess that you can never be like. You can imagine what irritation this brought to a young woman whose hunger for chocolate was easily rivaled (at the time) by her hunger for goodmarks. The combination of the dangled aspiration and the yawning gap between its promise and my own made me a little sick. Literally. Deadening leprosy, pernicious anemia, and a relentless pneumonia, are among the most salient on the unusually long (unexaggerated) list of diseases of apparently no clear origin that I experienced growing up.
My analysis of the past requires that I confess here that I have been educated as a psychologist in both the western and eastern traditions. Like Sita, I myself crossed the line, chasing the elusive golden deer, coming to the United States, onto what was then foreign soil. Now, I am officially “kuduthivekkalai” (un-blessed) for I read scriptural stories thoughtfully and with questions, not simply devotedly. What I could not find in Chennai—permission to contemplate the preponderance of Sita and the problems of having highly defined roles of women—I received from my adopted country, the United States. It was on this soil that I felt unproctored enough to realize that there were many ways to read the Ramayana: as a historical document, a mythical text, or a moral treatise in the context of myth and history.
Perhaps it is my own crossing that has strangely convinced me that either the story was not told or translated accurately or Sita’s prominence—in the Ramayana and in Chennai life—serves ends that are not merely spiritual but also social in purpose. Two overall messages stand out—and you may recognize the first in Indian women you know and the second in the Indian body politic: first, the Ideal Wife is uncomplaining, chaste and selfless; and second, she is liable to be watched and punished for even the slightest wavering from these ideals.
The Ramayana—Uttar Kaand included—suggests that an Ideal Wife chooses self-restraint, both physical and emotional, in exchange for nothing other than the sheer goodness of feeling virtuous. There is no tangible reward for the Ideal Woman. A lesser mortal might have burst forth in Shoorpanaka-like rage if accused of being “impure” without having had the chance to so much as taste the forbidden fruit. An Ideal Woman, however, does not rage when her goodness is questioned: she tries harder and she complains less. So Sita acquiesces to trial and punishment with the air of a martyr. I know you are all with me right now, for surely you have seen this psychological tendency in yourselves, your mothers, your grandmothers, your sisters, and your wives?
Eventually, however, Sita can be politely demure no longer. Anger cannot be perennially subsumed. Unexpressed it turns against the self in depression, shame, and self-destructive behavior. Sita’s quiet submissiveness to accusations and trials eventually culminates in an act that boils with anger and rejection—a magnificent suicide, goddess-style.
What message are we supposed to take from Sita’s suicide? You can only push a woman so far before she throws herself over the edge? What appeared gruesome to me in my teens, today feels frighteningly important. I am struck at how this part of the story received such little elucidation. However, for the moment I’ll segue back to the second, more publicized message from the story—perhaps you’ll recognize this one too—and that is the concept of the overseeing and punishing public eye.
In the story, no sooner does happily-ever-after lift her head, she is immediately executed by the strict and, it seems, rather unkind people of Ayodhya who are on a veritable chastity witch-hunt. They whisper cattily about Sita’s foreign adventures and speculate loudly about how she may have spent her long lonely hours in Lanka. Eventually, tired of mere gossip, they escalate to a call for the punishment of Sita, whose time in Lanka serves as an easily available screen for the projection of the public’s most exotic sexual fantasies. Analogous to the western psychology concept of the superego, the Ayodhya public represents the Indian collective superego. They exist in the story to reinforce the qualities of the Ideal Woman with the motivators that have been used to earn submission throughout history: fear and punishment. Sita appeared immune to the first and eventually sickened of the second.
Perhaps you, too, have felt the pressure to be a nice girl, to keep your anger so locked into your stomach that the nausea kills you but your halo is left intact. Perhaps you too have experienced the power of the Ayodhyan public, for it wafts down in the dark hints dropped at luncheon parties of the unspeakable crimes of that Ivy-educated cousin who is rumored to be playing with much more than her books. It injects self-scrutiny through hushed comments about the not-so-decent dress of auntie so-and-so’s daughter that offers up clear evidence of her Un-Indian-ness. The critical public eye may have watched you, too, as a young woman, as it did me, not just from without but also from within, rating your level of womanliness, goodness, and Indian-ness with the air of a Santa Claus with an accounting degree.
Should you be of the ilk that believes that devotion and questioning are mutually exclusive, you may be horrified by my analysis. But before you draw forth a defense of Rama, I invite you to invoke another low-profile goddess: Saraswati. Goddess of education adorning school calendars, she is rarely mentioned in her more powerful role—as a physician—so described on the pages of the Saptha-pada Brahmana.
Saraswati’s lower profile status—the lack of knowledge of her stories, the absence of a temple dedicated to her in all of Tamil Nadu—sends the message that goodmarks, in the form of public appreciation, are not given to women who symbolize knowledge and healing. They are reserved for Ideal Wives, symbols of chastity and deference to social order. As for an appreciation of sex and death, forgetaboutthegoodmarks Kali-Ma.
Life in 80s Chennai was guided by what would achieve goodmarks. So we aspired towards Sita, but we were confused by her picture in the pooja room. I was particularly puzzled by the depiction of her: intact, deadpan, at Rama’s side, her stiff upper lip (colonial irony intended) betraying nothing of the arduous trial by fire and excruciating banishment. The discrepancy between Sita’s public appearance and her Ramayana experience suggests an agreed-upon public dissociation from her pain and angst—that I myself sensed in the story and was only able to metabolize by my Brock-inspired rendition of the same. It also was to me a reminder of another social value: the supreme importance of enduring suffering while looking like you were enjoying it.
Amidst all that conspiracy, whether in mind or in story, many South Indian women still managed to sip on an intact feminine archetype inspired, no doubt, by feisty village deities, tiny “lesser” temples, and, of course, the lower-profile goddesses, who offered a wellspring of spiritual inspiration for a diverse feminine being. This I received growing up not in word, but in deed, though meeting embodied women who had the courage, conviction, and internal permission to make choices that supported their individual, familial, sexual, and educational longings instead of the social status quo.
The passage of that embodiment and those deeds into the words I write has been, for me, an immigration—the kind that brings you from where you are from, to where you are. It is in gratitude to this movement that I invite you into my eyes for a moment, to a spirituality that does not tout chastity and obedience as the qualities of an Ideal Woman, a heroine who does not have to prove herself and people who are not hyper-vigilant for lapses in virtue, and hungry for retribution via punishment.
I give you then my Sita, who believes in a spirituality that is enhanced by pleasure, anger, and myriad emotions; an aliveness that is richer without constant fear of surveillance and punishment; a fierce femininity that claims legitimacy in her beliefs as one of the privileges of crossing the line.
Amrita Narayanan is a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher based in the Bay Area.