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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Forest of Enchantment, was in conversation with Vandana Kumar, publisher of India Currents at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park, California on November 5, 2019. The Forest of Enchantment is Divakaruni’s 19th book.
I last attended a reading by Divakaruni at Mills College, in the late 1990s. To my great surprise, she lit some incense and started playing Indian classical music to accompany her reading, saying this is how she writes. Which may well be the case, but it smacked a little of gimmickry. The South Asians who witnessed this responded with head-shaking and laughter in later discussions. The word “pandering” was used, if memory serves. So I wasn’t sure what to expect at Kepler’s. Would there be incense burning and classical music again, I wondered. To my relief, there wasn’t. (Saved by fire codes? Consideration for people’s allergies?)
Kumar spoke of Divakaruni’s book Arranged Marriage, which was published in 1995. When she read it, she felt the book was about her, and that people like her could be protagonists. “Our stories too are important, I thought,” Kumar said.
Divakaruni, in turn, commented on India Currents, which started in 1987 before today’s Internet searches were possible. It provided information on all the South Asian events in the area, which would otherwise have been difficult to find. She was honored when India Currents reviewed her book. In 1991, Divakaruni founded Maitri, an organization for South Asian women survivors of domestic violence. At the time, there was great resistance within the South Asian community in the Bay Area to acknowledge that such violence could occur within the so-called “model minority.” While several news outlets appeared supportive, nobody was willing to run the Maitri ads with the telephone number of the confidential phone helpline. There was quite a backlash, despite which India Currents carried the Maitri ad. Divakaruni thanked India Currents cofounder Arvind Kumar, who ran the ad for free.
Kumar introduced the Ramayana, referencing Rama’s standing as “Maryada Purushottam,” the ideal man. Divakaruni provided the basic overview of the story, much as the sage Narada does to Valmiki in the beginning of the Ramayana, urging him to tell the story of Rama. Sita, she said, is regarded as the ideal woman. Her research into this book let her to see Sita very differently. She feels the earlier tellings are patriarchal. During Diwali celebrations in Bengal where she grew up, a common blessing was “May you be like Sita.” This blessing did not make her happy.
Expressing some understanding for Rama, she added that Rama has many modern counterparts, men whose public responsibilities overrides their private responsibilities to their wives. For example, Mahatma Gandhi privileged the nation over his family.
Divakaruni read two passages. The first was from the Prologue, on how Sita comes to write her story. Having written his Ramayana, Valmiki invites Sita to read it, and asks her what she thinks. (As writers tend to do, Divakaruni quipped.) On reading it, Sita says, this is not my story. You must write your own story, say Valmiki.
In a warm, friendly, informal manner, Divakaruni talked of the other women in the story and described Rama and Lakshmana’s act of cruelty towards Surpanakha, whose ears and nose they cut off. That seems to be “a bit of an overreaction,” she said to laughter from the audience. While men’s stories typically have one hero, women’s stories are interwoven; there’s more community.
The second passage she read was from the end of the Ramayana, where Sita is going to an ashram in the forest, for some “R and R” before her babies are born. She sees Lakshmana weeping as he escorts her there, and asks him why. As he responds, she learns of Rama’s betrayal.
This was a beautiful, moving passage, and it conveys Sita’s shock and sadness at Rama’s incomprehensible betrayal of her. The passage was very hard for Divakaruni to write, she said: she was weeping as she wrote it.
Divakaruni read many Ramayanas while researching her book. The Krittibasi Ramayana was her main source, because it was in Bengali, her mother tongue. Sita went from simple Mythila where there was one king and one queen with two daughters, to much more complicated Ayodhya, where the king had three main wives and hundreds of additional wives. Sita worked quietly, improving her mother-in-law’s standing without offending others. Her strength, according to Divakaruni, is that she had a lot of emotional intelligence. During her trial by fire, she tells Rama that he is victim-shaming her. It is in fact Sita’s agency that summons the fire.
Kumar alluded to some “mind-blowing revelations” about Ravana and Sita, asking where that come from. Divakaruni replied that she didn’t want to give away that plot twist, but that it in fact came from the Adbhuta Ramayana, in which there was a story of how Sita came to Mythila.
Kumar commented on two of the other women, Urmila and Surpanakha… Kumar mentioned that the greatest retelling of the Ramayana which perhaps reached everyone on the subcontinent and beyond, was Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana which aired on television in 1987. So much so, that in Afghanistan, a wedding was paused when it was time for the show, a television was wheeled in, and after the show, the wedding continued!
On the relevance of this book in today’s world, Divakaruni said all epics are resonant throughout the world. Epics continue to be important and they have to be reinvented so people can identify with them. Sita is not a goddess, she is an avatar, which means she lives just like any other human being. During the second agni pariksha, or trial by fire, she refuses on the grounds that future generations of women will have to prove themselves if she does this.
During the audience Q and A, an audience member, Jaya, asked about the Lakshmana Rekha, where a man draws a line to contain woman. Divakaruni replied that the boundary is not in Valmiki’s Ramayana, it is in the Krittibasi Ramayana. Sita tries to balance one good versus another. She could stay within the circle and remain safe herself, but invoke curses on her family. Alternatively, she could step out of the circle to feed the mendicant, and potentially invite danger. There was no perfect choice, and she decided to step out of the circle.
Sonali, an undergraduate, said it’s worth examining the biases of people who interpret stories over time. How do you balance retelling versus sticking to the canon?
Divakaruni replied that it was not difficult. During her research, she saw that it had been retold in many ways.
Another audience member Anahita, a journalist, commented that she loves how subtly subversive Divakaruni’s women are.
Divakaruni commented that ten years ago, she wrote The Palace of Illusions about Draupadi, who would go headlong into problems. But that is not the only way to be strong. Divakaruni herself had to grow into how to attack a problem effectively. Sita does not go headlong into problems, but she does not give up; she figures out a way.
Modern politics came into the conversation as well: a woman compared Elizabeth Warren to a modern Sita. Divakaruni said there are many examples of women who approach problems with emotional intelligence.
The final question was from Vijay Rajvaidya, managing director of India Currents. He had studied Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas in school as a piece of literature. That didn’t prevent it from becoming the holiest of holy books, hundreds of years after it was written. He asked if Divakaruni was prepared for her book to gain that stature 300 years from now.
Divakaruni responded that she would leave that for the audience to decide. Tulsidas was a staunch devotee of Rama, and did not go into the controversy of the final chapter, the Uttara Kanda, and his book ended with Rama’s coronation.
Divakaruni signed copies of her book after the event, and graciously engaged in conversation with each of her readers. As I signed up for her newsletter, she glanced at my name and said “You’re Raji. If you like the book, write a review!” I was in a bit of a rush to get home to my daughter and father. But on the way home, I wished I had stopped for a few more seconds to converse with her in Bengali.
So here you go, Chitra, this one’s for you! Thank you for this moving Sita.
A more detailed version of this article was originally published at www.rajiwrites.com and is excerpted here with permission.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.