Tag Archives: Ram

In the Mighty Presence of Gandhi Ji

Every October 2nd, August 15th, January 26th, I fondly remember Gandhi Ji.

I was twelve – a young idealist with big dreams for my own life and a compelling desire to see India as a free and prosperous nation, free from the bondage of two hundred years of subjugation by the British.

Then in one of the rarest moments of my life, I had the good fortune to meet the most admired person in India, and the world –the Apostle of Peace and Non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi. The revered Father of India!

On massive, public grounds called the ‘Maidan’, a crowd of thousands had settled down on the ground.  All from far and near were there. I sat along with my sixty schoolmates and teachers, anxiously glancing in every direction to catch the first glimpse of this magnificent hero of mine. I was viewing over a sea of Muslim caps, Congress Party’s Nehru caps, turbans of every color, shape, and size. Occasionally, heads popped up here and there. A bunch of people would stand up abruptly, as if aware of an arrival.

Then, as if magically, there appeared a diminutive figure, sparsely clad in a white home-spun cotton ‘Khadi Dhoti’, tucked in between the legs, giving the appearance of a loincloth.  His narrow shoulders were wrapped around in a white, home-spun shawl.  I was immediately reminded of Gandhi’s image, sitting on the ground with folded legs, spinning cotton yarn at a Spinning Wheel.  He inspired Indians to be self-reliant, so as to be independent of the need to import cotton from the mills of Manchester, in Great Britain.  Gandhiji’s images had inspired me, as they had done millions of others.  I looked around at my friends.  We were all wearing white saris with blue borders – a fabric of five and a half yards of hand-spun cotton.  I was proud of myself.

As he got seated on a small, raised platform in the middle of the vast grounds, there was a hush, a deafening silence!  Could this be Gandhiji? The same towering figure, which had shaken the foundations of the British Empire?  Where was the augur who had incensed the Rulers to a fiery rage?  Could this slight, slender frame endure all the hardships of endless imprisonments – sleeping on cold, cemented floors; fasting endlessly to make a point, and subjugate the mighty master’s will?

Yet this was Mahatma Gandhi, whom I had heard again and again over the loudspeakers, who had endeared himself to me, as to millions of others!

He spoke. Stillness prevailed. From microphones all around, his every word rang loud and clear – entering my consciousness.  The echoes rolled from soul to soul.

As he spoke, I did not hear a lion’s roar.  Yet, this calmly persuasive, magnetic voice was energizing and compelling:

“Arise, my children, rise!

Rise to your soul’s call!

Rise in Freedom, every waking moment!

Remember. When India introduced Zero to the Science of Mathematics, the possibilities became infinite, unlimited, un-limiting!

One small zero – one individual at a time, small or big, can magnify the possibilities a thousand-fold. 

Each small voice, when joined by millions of your heroes, can reach across seven seas.

Do not underestimate the power of zero.  The power of even the smallest, the gentles of you.”

The crescendo of his tone and message rose from perceptibly calming to invigorating, to uplifting.  It was a magical moment; a mesmerizing experience! I was awed by the strength of Gandhiji’s convictions; the appeal of his persuasion across a wide spectrum of society.

“Follow you Dharma, your moral duty.

God’s truth demands Liberty and Justice for all.

We all are the children of one God.  We Hindus, and we Muslims invoke the one and the same God, whether we call Him Ram or we call Him Allah.

We, all Indians, deserve the right to be in charge of our own destiny.”

Gandhiji’s inspiring, invigorating word liberated the downcast souls and challenged the masses.  Even the faint-hearted, the indifferent felt an enthusiasm to take up the cause.

“There are times when you have to obey.

A call which is the highest of all, that is the voice of conscience.

Even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear,

And even more, separation from friends,

From family, from the state to which you may belong,

From all that you have held as dear as life itself.

For this obedience is the law of our being.”

A fine mix of elation and enthusiasm hung in the air.  I was witnessing a rare moment in eternity, a moment bigger than life, infinitely bigger than myself!

Gandhi Ji’s message rings just as true today.

On becoming citizens of the United States of America, by birth or adoption, we have pledged to uphold the principle of ‘Inalienable rights of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for All’. In expressing our voice by casting our vote to elect the President and Congress, we fulfill our civic duty. Follow our Dharma. Our decisions on societal issues have an impact on our lives. They give direction to the destiny of the Nation too.

Remember, your one powerful vote has the power to change the course of history! 

Usha Dhupa has lived extended periods of her life in Africa, India, England, and America.  Her rich experiences over eight decades give us a panoramic view of her life. Find the rest of this story in her recently published book ‘Child of Two Worlds‘.

Sita, the Contemporary Indian Woman

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’

Sita’s ordeal by fire.

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.

Sita’s Choice, Poems by Athena Kashyap. Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2019.

The Forest of Enchantment: It is Sita’s Story, Not Ram’s

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