Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s book The Forest of Enchantments is a retelling of the Ramayana with Sita at the center of the tale. The plot of the epic tale – a living, breathing organic story that looms large over the collective Indian mind has as its main tenet the concept of dharma or righteous behavior.
In the foreword, the author says – “I’m going to write the story of Sita, because I’ve always been fascinated by the Ramayan.” The book should only take two to three years to write, she thought initially. Eventually the book took ten years as Sita’s tale and life gnawed within the author. Through that period she read the various versions of the Ramayan – Valmiki Ramayan in Sanskrit, Kamba Ramayanam in Tamil, Tulsidas’ Rama Charita Manas in Awadhi and the author’s favorite – Krittibasi Ramayan in Bengali as she fashioned the story for contemporary readers.
What I bring to this review is my reading of the Sundara Kandam on many occasions, and a recent reading of the entire epic in 32 days. Along with these textual readings, are added the innumerable performative pieces on the Ramayan in classical Indian dance, music and kathakalakshebam storytelling tradition that I have witnessed. And, of course, who can forget the juggernaut of teleserials that I watched along with millions of Indians? Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, televised in the 1980s, brought the whole of India to a standstill with millions emptying the streets to watch the drama that played out on television screens.
In her book, Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee takes on the task of delving into Sita’s mind with great dexterity, drawing one close to her. During her childhood in King Janak’s palace, she sees the grand bow, the Haradhanu and wonders, “How amazing that you’ve come from somewhere so far away, so magical. “I’ve only taken day-journeys from our palace and never alone. Urmila’s always with me, and my nurse, and often my parents, not to mention troops of soldiers.” “Don’t fret,” the bow said. “You have many journeys in your future, some of which you’ll wish you didn’t have to undertake. And, as for coming from somewhere far away, you, too, have done that.” Such conversations bring us simultaneously into the room with the grand Haradhanu and we are swept into the inner mindscape of Sita.
From scenes that evoke the life of grand royalty, we also come in touch with the mundane. When King Dasharath is planning to inform Ram and Sita about his decision to appoint them as king and queen, she paints a scene where Kaushalya says to Sita, “Yes, yes, make some payesh. Dasharatha likes your payesh. The servant can stop at the palace goshala and get fresh milk.” A request from a mother-in-law that is believable and endearing.
Storytelling like this pepper the tale – scenes that take shape with Sita and other female characters at the forefront. Ahalya, the wife of sage Gautham, faced internment in stone for breaking her vow of fidelity. She was deceived by Lord Indra who takes the form of her husband and seeks her with desire. When the real sage returns to see their illicit encounter, she is cursed and cast in stone. When Ram comes to sage Gautham’s hermitage and steps on that stone, Ahalya re-emerges in her human form. In song after song, this episode is celebrated for the wondrous touch of the feet of Lord Ram which can bestow many a blessing on the true devotee, with little thought to the injustice suffered by Ahalya. Not so for Banerjee’s Sita. “Your husband – he condemned you even before he gave you a chance to speak.” Her words resonate with every modern woman for the sense of justice that it conveys.
With her abduction Sita emerges in Lanka, alone in mighty Ravan’s palace, and amidst the Ashoka trees she stands steadfast in her love and devotion as wife to Ram. She declares, “Ravan may force me and take my body against my will – I’m only a mortal woman, after all – but he’ll never touch my heart. That belongs to Ram, forever and ever.” This steely resolve guides her through every trial as she waits for her Ram.
After the victory of Ram in Lanka, Sita returns to Ayodhya in a triumphant manner where Ram is crowned king. As a child, when you are told the story of the Ramayan, this is where the story ends – with the proverbial they lived happily ever after ending. We know that there is far more to the story than that.
Sita lives in an ashram outside Ayodhya, bringing up her sons Lav and Kush, living as a single mother. Which grandmother or grandfather speaks of this to the children in the family? It is frequently glossed over or omitted, dictated by the desire to maintain the rules of patriarchy into the present day, and prompted by an unwillingness to acknowledge a blemish on the unimpeachable Ram.
Unlike this partial truth-lie murkiness that we receive, the book aligns itself more closely with the original verses of the Ramayan and the modern reader, especially women. I have often mulled over the treatment of the brother-sister duo of Ravan and Surpanaka for expressing desire; Ravan for Sita, and Surpanaka for Ram and Lakshman. Female sexuality and desire was frowned upon then and continues to be pushed under the carpet to this day. Women are often portrayed as being willing partners when the male expresses desire, but rarely are they depicted as the one to express desire. Instead of looking at Surpanaka with disdain or mockery, in this book, Sita’s observations echo that of the modern woman in its treatment.
The Sundara Kandam describes the near-impossible feat of Hanuman crossing the ocean in search of Sita who was abducted and imprisoned in Ravan’s palace. Years ago when I read the Sundara kandam for the first time, I was struck by the immediacy of the tale. I was drawn to the inner workings of Hanuman’s mind which moved from despair to certainty to inner strength to elation – every emotion that draws a parallel to the lives of human beings in the twenty first century.
So it was with my recent reading of the Ramayan in a span of 32 days – I was able to delve into the inner workings of Rama and Sita’s minds. And I came away realizing this was indeed Sita’s tale – the epic needed to be renamed Sitayan. Months later when I read Chitra Divakaruni’s book, she says the same thing – how, when she actually read the various versions of the Ramayan, she became convinced that the epic should have been called the Sitayan. The Forest of Enchantments is exactly that, Sita’s tale! Spoken from the heart of a woman who had tremendous courage that will not only make one envious, it will also make one feel true veneration and adulation.
Stories and words are the marks on the compass as we negotiate life’s twists and turns. We live in the way we tell and retell stories. The words in this book need to be read by all – and then, one also needs to turn to the reading of the entire Ramayan (in any language that one desires) to access the tale. Receiving it as an adult without the murkiness, half-truths and lies is a revelation in itself.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan was the Managing editor of India Currents magazine between 2016 and 2019. She is a Bharatanatyam artist and nurtures a lifelong passion for the classical arts of India. @dancenwords