Lanka was finally drowning. At the worst possible time. Prime Minister Rama was in the middle of a press conference about Ayodhya’s upcoming Olympic bid, when a voice squawked in his ear with the news. He kept smiling. Maybe they wouldn’t notice.
“Sir, how will Ayodhya respond to the Lankan crisis?” “Sir, will this affect Ayodhya’s climate policy?” “Sir, does this increase the risk of Asura suicide bombings on Ayodhyan soil?”
Rama put on his caring face. “Ayodhyans stand with the Lankan people during their hour of need. We are very concerned about sea level rise in low-lying Lanka, and I have already assigned General Hanuman to be my point person to monitor the situation, and ensure that Ayodhya is doing all it can to help.”
He switched to his serious face. “To the people of Lanka, I want you to know that when natural disasters strike, we are always ready to help. In return, we ask you to reject the terror tactics that have given your once-peaceful land a bad name. Thank you. My thoughts are with the Lankan people.” He closed his eyes, murmured a prayer, and walked off stage.
Rama switched on the news on the way home. Scenes of devastation from the low-lying island nation. The ticker below read: “Rising tides consume 30% of Lanka: Rama demands end to terror.” Damn damn damn. That was exactly the opposite of the caring tone he’d been meaning to convey. He hated speaking off the cuff on issues like this. Where was Sita when he needed her? She did caring so much better than him, and audiences lapped it up.
She was due to return that evening from yet another state visit to Kishkindha, where she was inaugurating the new Ayodhyan military base. Sita, with her film star looks, was much more popular in Kishkindha than President Sugriva’s caretaker government, so the embassy tried to have her fly out as often as possible.
Rama glanced up. There she was on TV, knee deep in water, hugging a crying Asura mother and child. The heading ran “Ayodhya’s response: Sita on the scene.” A clutch of microphones were stuck in her face. She was visibly shaken. “Coastal areas are drowning faster than rescue crews can evacuate them. We knew this would happen. We’ve failed Lanka.” The camera wobbled, recovered. “We need to cut emissions, accept Lankan climate refugees. Ayodhya will do everything it can. We can’t have this happen again. No more Lankas.”
Tensions ran high at the cabinet meeting the next morning. “What is this ‘no more Lankas’ business?” demanded finance minister Bharata. “There will be ten, hundred, a lakh more Lankas. Surely Sita-bhabi isn’t proposing that we bring growth rates down to zero for a generation just to save a few island states and coastal regions.” He paused. “This isn’t very responsible, with the climate talks coming up.”
Rama sighed. This wasn’t the first time that Sita’s big mouth had gotten him in trouble with the man who held the purse strings. She was a farmer’s daughter, not the kind of girl the eldest of the Raghu clan was likely to end up marrying. But party leaders were full of praise when he proposed to his secret college girlfriend. Her chatty and direct approach helped soften Rama’s image going into elections, humanizing the heir apparent of Ayodhya’s leading political family. He won the election by a landslide with Sita at his side.
But Sita kept on going after the election, making expensive public pledges left and right: crop insurance for farmers, restrictions on moneylenders, homes for earthquake victims.
Every new budget-busting promise ended the same way: Sita repentant, Rama frustrated, and Bharata left furiously tweaking budget numbers. Things improved after Rama had his brother Lakshmana doing full-time Sita-handling duty, but she’d managed to escape her minder yesterday, taking the first flight out from Kishkindha to Lanka as soon as she heard the news.
“Don’t worry,” Rama assured his team. “We’ll work through this.”
Sita had never felt more tired. She’d been up for 20 hours: flying to Kishkindha, watching the news, giving Lakshmana the slip, flying to Lanka, and getting out to the coastal zone, where she accompanied the stream of homeless Asuras trudging inland, hounded by press the entire way. She felt that she would pass out, but didn’t have any of her assistants to ask for help. She managed to flag down a passing police car. A few minutes later, a wide-eyed officer was rushing her off to the Ayodhyan embassy, but they couldn’t get anywhere near it, because of the huge crowd of asylum seekers surrounding the building. She grew agitated.
“Can you take me to Ravana?” she asked the officer. The car sped away toward the Presidential Palace. As she was being buzzed in, she heard the din of voices from the refugee encampment in the park across the street.
General Ravana was nicer than he looked, dressed in full Asura warrior regalia, including the traditional horned headgear that could get one stopped at airports the world over. Yet he’d invited her into his situation room, where he was taking reports. Sita sat off to the side, trying not to fall asleep. The evacuation effort was going largely as planned, explained the home minister. Emergency stockpiles had not been situated in the right places, and the military had to step in to help. The situation was peaceful now, but might deteriorate. Lanka might lose substantially more land mass in the days ahead if coastal defenses failed.
Ravana turned to Sita. “Why are you here?” She opened her drooping eyes. “When I saw the rising waters, I had to come.” She tried to recollect her thoughts, but Ravana interrupted. “Of course I appreciate your being here—it’s the only reason the media’s covering us. What does the situation look like from the field?” Sita was awake now. “Things are miserable. One of the families I walked with got separated from their youngest son on the road, and the army men wouldn’t let them stop to look. I saw an old man die on the way.
The refugees I talked to are tired, hungry, angry. If they have relatives in town, they’re staying with them, but many of the families don’t have anybody to turn to.” She paused, and caught her breath. “I’ve been seeing emergency services teams around the city, but they’re not getting where they need to be quickly enough. I’m particularly worried about the elders.
They’re having a hard time getting evacuated, and slowing things down. If more coastal regions drown, families need to start getting evacuation orders earlier to give them more time to prepare.” Sita was trembling. “I never quite believed this could happen.”
“Five thousand years of Asura civilization, and we may not survive as a nation past next week,” said Ravana deliberatively. “We’ve begged and pleaded with industrialized and industrializing nations, but we were consistently ignored. You can talk all you want about Ayodhya’s Rama-rajya, but it was Ayodhya that led the charge to scuttle the global agreement. We’re not sitting around waiting for your aid. It’s your Rama, back at home, who’s the problem.”
“But why the terrorism,” interjected Sita. “Blowing up oil tankers or factories doesn’t win you friends. Any child knows that. Go to the climate talks. Dialogue is the only thing that can ever work.”
Ravana replied, “You said something on TV about ‘no more Lankas.’ We believe the same. We may be the first to go, but rising seas will affect low-lying areas the world over unless we act. Lanka has many friends. Can you blame them for trying to slow down the rising tide?”
His face hardened. “What choice do we have left? Can you expect the young Asura men you saw today to accept the destruction of their homes? We’ve tried rocking the boat, but it’s the whole ship that needs to be taken down.”
Asked Sita, “What does that mean? Do you expect every citizen of Lanka to become a terrorist? Lanka’s shrinking. Where will the Asura people go?”
“Some of us will join the climate resistance. Others will drown. We will drown, but we won’t leave. Lanka is our home. It may not mean much to your climate negotiators, but to us, Lanka is swarga.”
“Have you seen the state of the refugees? I have. Do you mean to condemn women, children, elders to drown? They’re already victims. Why make it even worse? I’ve seen the lines outside the Ayodhyan embassy. People want to get out. Will you be the one to forcibly hold them back to drown?”
“Mass migration? Do you want to condemn Asuras to life as perpetual second class citizens? Outsiders subject to eternal suspicion?”
“Not second-class citizens, Ravana. Advocates. Truth-tellers. Would you prefer that Lanka become a fairy tale, some mythological land remembered only by old women? You’ll go to the conference, won’t you? For Lanka?”
“Who will accept Asuras? Ayodhya? You know perfectly well how they demonize us.”
Sita remained silent.
“Sita, we’ve had a stressful day. Why don’t you come join me in my quarters?” She glared daggers at him. Ravana rose, sat down again, and finally called an attendant, asking him to show Sita to a guest room. She followed, and found herself in an ornate bedroom. She slammed the door shut, locked it, and finally blocked it with a chair for good measure. Then she finally breathed. As Sita lay in bed, she thought of everything she’d seen that day. The look on the refugees’ faces. The dire predictions of future loss. Ravana’s passion for Lanka. She remembered what they said about Asura men. And then slept.
Rama boarded the plane with his laptop, along with a stack of briefing papers and cuttings. He was tired of making edits to his opening speech for the new climate talks; he’d been given a plum primetime spot, but things had suddenly gotten so complicated. He started flipping through the cuttings. “’No More Lankas’ Surprise” warned an Ayodhya business journal. “Sita’s Lankan Fling,” announced a local paper; the accompanying photo showed Ravana and Sita sitting next to each other at a press conference. “TREASON?” read the headline in the opposition paper. There was more. A foreign newsweekly had a picture of Sita on the cover, holding a refugee Asura child: “Sita in Lanka: Human Rights Hits the Climate Talks.” An international paper lauded “No More Lankas: Ayodhya’s New Climate Strategy,” while an editorial in a typically unfriendly overseas paper derided “Sita’s Lankan Photo-Op: Same Policies, Better Marketing.”
He looked up. There was Ravana, sitting three rows ahead. Suddenly first class felt too crowded; he should fire his assistant. Rama’s father had told him to always Do the Right Thing, but things must have been easier for a national leader in a simpler time. Greater moral clarity and all that. Or perhaps not. He remembered the complications his father had to deal with around succession issues. Politics was brutal. Sometime he felt like giving it all up, just to avoid having to continuously disappoint people he cared about. Dharma was a bitch. Someone was walking up the aisle; Ravana was heading his way, the twin horns of his headgear bobbing up and down. Rama feigned sleep.
When the plane arrived, Rama was quickly whisked away into a waiting limo. He’d made some major edits to his speech, and finally felt good about it. Bharata might not approve, but he knew what he had to do. Several police cars joined his vehicle as they progressed toward the conference center. He heard chanting outside, and saw a flurry of signs. As the car approached the building, Rama saw a large group of Asuras in horned headgear. “No More Lankas,” several signs read. A young woman silently clutched a hand-lettered poster:
“Sita speaks for me.” Rama turned away. Where the hell was Sita? He’d waited day after day, but she hadn’t left Lanka. When they spoke on the phone, she kept asking him for time. She always had one more press conference. One more emergency. One more day.
He’d feel better if she’d just come out and tell him what to do about Ayodhya’s climate position, but when he finally asked about it, she just broke down. “Haven’t you been listening? You’re the prime minister. You have all the facts. You’ve always had all the facts.”
Sita may have been speaking for the young girl on the street, but she had stopped speaking to her husband.
Rama’s car stopped inside the conference center perimeter, surrounded by a thick ring of guards. He found his way to the main hall; he’d arrived just in time. Rama was seated with delegates and leaders from several other South Asian nations, but Ravana wasn’t there. In fact, the entire Lankan block lay empty. Half an hour of boring introductions, and it was finally time for his rewritten opening speech. Lanka was still missing.
“Welcome, friends. We are in a time of shared crisis, and Ayodhya is finally ready to take responsibility, as we should have in the past.” A few claps from the audience. Overhead, appeared an image of a forlorn Asura child. “When disaster struck our friends in Lanka last week, Ayodhya jumped into action. My wife Sita is there now, leading rescue efforts. The Lankan delegation apparently couldn’t be with us today, but it’s up to all of us to speak on their behalf. We’re proud to report that Ayodhya is responding on every front.” Overhead, an image appeared of a group of Ayodhyan children wearing matching green t-shirts.
“Ayodhya’s schools are rolling out the greenest curriculum ever.” Next, an image of smiling Ayodhyans in suits. “Our top industrialists are partnering with environmental NGOs, voluntarily going green. In Ayodhya, we believe caring for the planet never has to conflict with profits.”
Rama’s speech was being televised outside on huge screens outside the convention center. A massive multi-hued crowd jostled in front of the security line. Extra police had been stationed outside after an attempted breach in event security. The protesters’ chants and cries grew louder as Rama spoke: “NO MORE LANKAS. NO MORE LANKAS. NO MORE LANKAS. NO MORE LANKAS.” Near the front of the crowd, a lone man in horned headgear fought his way to the front and tried to call out to the guards, only to be roughly shoved back. He emerged elsewhere in the crowd, and pushed his way forward again. Behind him had gathered other Asuras.
Inside, above Rama’s head, appeared a massive image of Sita. Rama beamed. “I’m so proud to announce the launch of the Sita Global Fund, to help victims of climate change. The people of Lanka will be the first recipients. Ayodhya will send every citizen of Lanka a bucket, to help impacted communities adapt to changing conditions. Ayodhya has made its bold commitment to the people of Lanka. Who will join us?” Wild cheers and claps from the Ayodhyan delegation. Rama stood at the podium, soaking up the love.
Outside the building, chaos reigned. “Hornheads!” Panicked security guards tear-gassed a large cluster of Asuras. As the crowd backed up, one man kept walking toward the entrance, his voice drowned out by screams. He tried to fish a badge out of his pocket, but it was too late. A volley of rifle fire. Ravana fell.
Rama spent the day in meetings and headlined the green business summit that night. He checked in with Bharata, who was, for once, pleased with his performance. Jet lag struck, and he fell asleep in his clothes. Rama was woken up by a call in the middle of the night. A familiar voice. “I’ll drown if I need to, but I’m never coming back.” Click. The leader of Ayodhya lay in his bed staring at the ceiling, trying to make sense of it all.
Author’s Note: This story was written after the Copenhagen climate conference as I was interviewing climate activists in Bangladesh and India, the two most climate-vulnerable nations in the world over the coming 30 years. The Ramayana is a timeless story of crisis and statecraft, and I enjoyed seeing the characters find their way into a contemporary South Asia. The interviews that inspired this story are athttp://www.facebook.com/l/1050ejhuKmdPoX3EULLe3zU42lQ/www.YearOfNoFlying.com.
Shilpa Agarwal: The timeless characters of Rama, Sita, and Ravana are evoked within a modern, political crisis which sheds light on the complexity of their humanity. Rama is not all virtuous. Ravana is not a demon. But most humorous and moving of all is Sita: not at all the dutiful, obedient wife we know, but a compassionate, fearless “big mouth” who is not afraid to stand up for what is right.
Ronica Dhar: I loved the gesture this story makes: to take an old, old story and modernize it in such a way that it sheds light on both the original setting and the new one is a great challenge. This story succeeds in that effort.
Anirvan Chatterjee is a techie and entrepreneur from Berkeley, California. He spent 2009-2010 documenting the work of climate justice activists and policy analysts across Asia and Europe as part of the Year of No Flying project.
Photo Credit: Nisho Arul via Creative Commons