In the fertile landscape of Indian writing in English, poetry is a less prolific genre. This is not due to a dearth of talent, but because poetry has generally been considered less likely to attract a popular readership. However, lyric poetry in Sita’s Choice is more relevant than ever during a public crisis.
It is no accident that New Yorkers after 9/11 turned longingly to poetry. In today’s period of COVID 19 isolation, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins has been reading his poetry live on Facebook. The musicality of the lyric form provides a sense of comfort in uncertain times and the shorter stanzas allow us to anchor for a short time in words that can transport us beyond our immediate devastation.
Sita’s Choice is Athena Kashyap’s second full-length collection of poetry. Kashyap grew up in India and currently teaches English at City College of San Francisco. In her foreword, Kashyap introduces the character of Sita in Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana and uses Sita to “explore issues facing women living in contemporary India.” Kashyap is not only drawn to Sita as the embodiment of a suffering wife but also to her role as a mother and her connection to the earth and the environment leading to three thematic sections in her book: ‘Body’, ‘Seed’ and ‘Soil,’ following the opening section titled ‘Sita Septet’
Kashyap is haunted by the mythological Sita’s decision at the end of the epic not to subject herself to another test of fire to prove her chastity. Instead of reuniting with her husband Rama, Sita chooses to return to the Earth, her mother.
This scene is evoked in the poem “Sita’s Choice,” in which Kashyap depicts this myth through a detailed description of Raja Ravi Verma’s painting of Sita being taken by Goddess Earth. In the poem that immediately follows “Letter to Valmiki from the Other Sita,”, we hear Sita’s voice expressing her disappointment in the poet Valmiki “It broke my heart, . . . the story as you told it.” Kashyap is thus reimagining Sita as a vocal woman, talking back to male figures of authority.
Kashyap segues from the fire image to contemporary issues of dowry burnings in India in the poem “Fire Trials.” Instead of brides being killed, Kashyap recreates these women as asserting agency, packing their bags, and returning to their natal families.
In the section ‘Body,” Kashyap shifts her attention to many aspects of contemporary Indian American life, with an emphasis on the female body capable both of sexual fulfillment and degradation. From the joyous celebration of “Punjabi Wedding,” to scenes of hidden bodily trauma in “The Mirror” and “Crocodile Lake Revisited,” this section progresses to poems which bear witness to the indignities of women in India not having access to toilets in “This City is Claimed,” ending finally with the desolation of widows living in a peculiar limbo between life and death in “City of Widows.”
The sections ‘Seed’ and ‘Soil’ which follow offer many vignettes of women’s lives as mothers, from the onset of menarche in “Blood, Oil and Water” to the travails of pregnancy, birth, and the sleepless monotony of early motherhood. In “The Leela Poems,” of the final section, Kashyap widens her focus to include experiences of farmers marching to Lalbagh, Bangalore to demand attention to their precarious lives. Leela is a servant and a migrant domestic worker in the city, subjected to myriad oppressions. But like Sita, the central figure in the collection, Leela longs to go back to the rice fields of her home in the village and is haunted by the longing for rich harvest.
Unlike a novel, a work of poetry does not follow a linear path of plot and character. Instead, this collection of poems is like a palimpsest, the poet’s own life layered with images of disparate women’s lives and traumas, yet gesturing at hope and fulfillment inspired by the mythological Sita.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.