Tag Archives: Ramayan

I Will Not Cancel Us!

 Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Cancel culture is a form of boycott in which a person is expelled from one or more of their social or professional circles. This happens in real and virtual arenas.

A friend called. “I texted you a couple of hours back and you haven’t responded. I just wanted to make sure we are good….” Her voice trailed off. She did not need to complete her sentence. I understood her predicament. Having become used to my quick responses, the delay had seemed abnormal to my friend. The message to which I had failed to respond was one in which she had declined to participate in a group project. Afraid that I had taken offense, she was worried that I was “canceling” her.

The ubiquity of instant communication has primed us to expect quick, albeit short, responses. When such responses fail to appear, our minds fly to catastrophe. At the same time, the geographically dispersed manner in which many of us live, and the non-overlapping nature of the communities in which we participate, have made it easy to sever ties with seemingly little collateral damage. It is therefore tempting to think that “cancel culture” is a bane of present-day society and that it did not occur in the “good old days.” However, this is far from reality.

The event that gives the Ramayan its momentum is the banishment of Ram to a fourteen years-long exile. His stepmother Kaikeyi demanded this because she wanted her son Bharat to inherit the throne. She knew that the mere presence of this beloved prince (and rightful heir to the throne according to the laws of the time) would be an unceasing reminder of the underhanded way in which she secured the throne for her son. And so, Ram, together with his wife Sita and younger brother Laxman, removed himself from the kingdom. In effect, Ram was canceled.

The Ramayan has another more heartbreaking episode in the same vein. At the end of the war with Ravan, Ram and Sita returned to Ayodhya and Ram ascended to the throne. Some subjects of the kingdom rejected Sita’s “normalization” because they believed her to be impure as a result of having been in the custody of a man other than her husband. When Sita heard about this, she took it upon herself to leave the kingdom. She did not want her presence to compromise her husband’s honor among his subjects. Ram did not try to stop her. In effect, he prioritized his own reputation over standing up for Sita. In effect, Sita was canceled because of a remark uttered by one judgmental person.

The contrast is stark. The wife shared her husband’s burden and stood by his side when he was exiled. But, the husband did not hesitate to let his wife cancel herself at the mere suggestion of scandal. Too often, those who have less power and less protection are held to a more exacting standard and a bigger price is extracted from them.

The Mahabharat has its own instances of ex-communication. After the Pandavas lost their kingdom to their cousins, the Kauravas, in the game of chess, they were banished from the kingdom. Wanting to completely erase them, Duryodhan, the oldest of the Kauravas, had a palace built for his cousins. Lac (wax) was the building material used, the better to burn without leaving any traces of arson. Fortunately, the Pandavas managed to escape unhurt. But, the facts of the two attempted cancellations remain.

As the philosopher, Kant, proclaimed, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” In other words, humans are imperfect and, like Duryodhan and even Ram, are capable of dishonorable actions out of malice or cowardice. In such situations, it is human nature to seek restitution and justice. Unfortunately, too often this urge manifests itself as an unwillingness to compromise, to forgive, or to make a fresh start. So, the challenge is to devise strategies to respond to infractions in a measured and rational way.

From time immemorial, societies have had only a few ways to encourage preferred (“good”) behavior and discourage “bad” behavior. Religions promise reward and punishment in the afterlife. In the present, the threat of religious ex-communication is used to keep individuals on the straight and narrow. Social customs and traditions use the mechanisms of public honor or shaming. In modern developed societies, civic fines and taxes do the work. When all else fails, a person who offends the norms of a society is jailed.

 

Amazingly, a way to temper the impulse to cancel an offender and deploy a more thoughtful and measured response is also found in the Mahabharat.

The conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas ended up with both sides locked in a fight-to-the-death battle. Arjun, the Pandava brother who was also the most skilled warrior, felt deeply conflicted. Was it moral to seek to kill his cousins, who were, after all, his own flesh and blood? What was the righteous option given the fact that his cousins had cheated and had even tried to kill him and his brothers? Even though Arjun sought restitution, protection against continued threats, and yes, maybe even revenge, he struggled to convince himself that war and annihilation were an honorable way to achieve those ends.

Arjun’s charioteer was Krishna. Cousin to both sides, he was unaffected by their rivalry. With no skin in the game, (and maybe thanks to his divine wisdom) he was able to be principled, deliberative, and detached. He told Arjun that his duty was to fight injustice. But the right way to execute this righteous duty was to act without hatred or the expectation of a reward or a desire for personal glory.

Ironically, the words in President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address echo the same sentiments. “With malice toward none and charity for all…” A further irony is that these words too were uttered at the end of the bloody and devastating Civil War in which brothers fought against brothers and families split over their positions on slavery.

Indeed, it was by putting this principle of generous grace into action that the victorious United States helped rebuild the societies and economies of its erstwhile enemies, Germany and Japan. I am referring, of course, to the Marshall Plan.

My personal Marshall Plan works like this: If I feel hurt or offended by a friend, I don’t react at the moment. If the infraction is not too severe, I file it away and carry on as graciously as possible. If it is, I convey my thoughts using forthright and compassionate words.

Sometimes, the differences are irreconcilable. In that case, I also state what needs to happen for the relationship to be repaired. In this way, at the very least, the person knows exactly why there is conflict and they know how they can fix the issue through compromise, communication, or some other form of healing. Agree to disagree, but do so agreeably.

Finally, it is helpful to remind myself that I may have unknowingly hurt a friend. So, consistent practice of open dialogue has the potential to empower my friend to express her views and seek wholeness.

As for my friend who had worried that I was miffed at her, I reassured her that my response had been delayed for no other reason than that I had become caught up in other tasks. In addition, I told her I appreciated her reaching out because I would not want her to feel anxious. Lastly, I told her that, in the event of a conflict, I would not resort to canceling without having at least one conversation to clear the clog in our friendship. The antidote to the impulse to cancel or “ghost” a person, at least on the personal level, is to always keep the door of honest and compassionate communication open.

My new mantra is “I will not cancel Us.”


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

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