Sita in Norway

Sita in Exile is Rashi Rohatgi’s new novel which features a second-generation Indian American young woman who is struggling to belong to her new country in the cold Arctic north, after moving there with her French-Vietnamese husband.

The novel is remarkable in capturing the Norwegian landscape both its sublime beauty as well as its haunting isolation. Whether it is the cold or protracted periods of darkness, Sita seems to be struggling to belong to her new country. Even though, Pierre, her husband seems attentive, she remains unmoored. The narrative often jumps back in time to her old life as a child of Indian American medical professionals, her friendships with Micah, a fellow anthropology student in Chicago, and his parents, and her long relationship with her childhood friend Bhoomija who is charting an alternate path as an artist and webzine editor.

Sita, Pierre, Morten & Mona

In her new environment, the only two people Sita is in contact with besides her husband are Pierre’s friend Morten and his wife Mona, a Muslim immigrant, who is also possibly the only other woman of color in the town. Even though, Mona extends a hand of friendship, Sita senses a lack of the same instinctive connection that she shared with Bhoomija and Micah. With Mona’s husband, the relationship is even more tenuous. He calls her Stella and rationalizes it as his habit of nicknaming everyone. More ominously, there seems to be an undercurrent of sexual tension between them; they are both aware of the Lakshman Rekha that if crossed will upset the delicate balance between the two families and the friendships that sustain each other.

Sita, Lars & Nenn

Early in the novel, Sita and Pierre adopt a talking mongoose, abandoned by a carnival. It becomes in a sense, Sita’s first child. After she gives birth to her son Lars, Nenn, the mongoose, continues to be a companion. Motherhood is portrayed as an ambivalent experience for Sita. She does not immediately feel an attachment for her son and is compelled instead to escape to the mountains not to feel stifled by her maternal duties. In these instances, she leaves her baby alone supervised only by Nenn.  This is also coupled with acts like drinking while pregnant and nursing.  It can be inferred that Sita is suffering from postpartum depression as well as guilt for failing in her new role as a mother.

Exile and motherhood

Like her anthropology thesis on shame, Sita possibly feels a sense of shame and remorse at her treatment of both Lars, her son, and Nenn, who she had mothered even before Lars. This ambivalence about motherhood parallels Sita’s tenuous position as a migrant in a northern country, without familiarity with the local language. In a way, she is doubly exiled, first from India, the land of her immigrant parents and ancestors, and then from the U.S., where she grew up and established some sense of belonging. Like her mythical namesake, Sita has had to leave her ancestral land due to marriage and then face exile in a forest following her husband’s banishment from Ayodhya, due to contests over succession.

The protagonist, Sita, like her mythical ancestor, has an ambiguous relationship with the forest, at once feeling a sense of kinship with the natural world but also a sense of foreboding and danger in its midst. However, unlike the Sitas of the various versions of the Indian epic Ramayana, the contemporary Sita is not a monolithic representation of traditional feminine virtues of chastity and motherly devotion. She is presented as desiring other alternatives to her life than conventional marriage and motherhood: a return to the U.S, living with Micah and Bhoomija as roommates, and caring for a female mongoose named Tara.

While readers from the South Asian diaspora now scattered globally can certainly identify with Sita’s feelings of physical and psychic dislocation,  the novel leaves readers in a state of stasis. Sita is unable to adjust to her new environment, yet unable to reverse the trajectory of her life. The reader is left with a sense of entrapment that Sita experiences which oddly enough parallels the experiences of the mythological Sita. In spite of rebelling against conventional expectations of femininity, Sita is not able to subvert patriarchal scripts of her life and destiny.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English and Philosophy and Chair of the Literature Committee at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Wisconsin's Polytechnic University.