Tag Archives: Sita

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

Finding the Light in Diwali

My childhood teacher Rammurti Mishra was, both, a yogi and a Western-trained psychiatrist. He liked to tell traditional stories like the Ramayana from a psychological perspective. He encouraged us to think of the characters and events as if they were parts of ourselves; he suggested that we might seek personal solutions by “actively imagining” the stories. The Ramayana tells the story of a perfect couple, Rama and Sita, who are separated by events and reunited through righteous and dharmic choices. Rama is regarded as a “Perfect man,” the personification of dharma; Ram Rajya has passed into popular parlance as a term for an “ideal government,” a kingdom where righteousness and light prevail.

For those unfamiliar with the Hindu epic Ramayana – Rama’s story turns on a great injustice: instead of affirming his ascendancy to the throne of Ayodhya, his stepmother Kaikeyi claims that right for her own son and banishes Rama into exile for fourteen years. Great sorrow befalls the people as a result of her selfish (though dharmically defensible) action, but Rama forgives her and accomplishes many good deeds while in exile. He restores order to the kingdom of the Vanar people, vanquishes the demon king Ravana, establishing a peaceful and just reign in Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka.  He defeats the rakshasas who have been tormenting the forest yogis, and restores life to the woman renunciate Ahalya. Most significantly, he rescues his beloved wife Sita, who had been held captive by Ravana. With his exile completed and wrongs set right, Rama can come home.

Throughout his exile, Rama repeatedly solves problems and resolves conflicts. He is light personified, you might say, and he has a clarifying, enlightening effect on his environment.

TulsidasRamayana tells us:

“When Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya, it was a moonless night. The people illuminated their homes and placed lamps along the roads to light the way as he, with his beloved Sita and his most faithful brother Lakshman, walked slowly home. When Ram returned to Ayodhya, the light of his inner being overcame all inner darkness. No one lied or stole or harmed another with unkindness or ill will. There was no violence or discord in the city. Night-roaming predators remained in their lairs. Animals forgot their natural enmities; predators and prey became friends. The earth was rich in crops. Flower gardens bloomed extravagantly. Everyone’s heart shone with gladness, and everyone spontaneously cherished friends and neighbors as if they were dear family. Petty jealousies and conflicts disappeared like shadows at noon.”

On Diwali we recall Rama’s return and the pure, joyous state of the people. We clean and decorate our homes, we light lamps and eat festive foods, we give gifts to families and friends, we lovingly remember our ancestors. We banish the shadows of criticism and fear and bask in the light of the Lord’s presence.

But the light does not prevail undiminished forever, even in Rama’s kingdom. After a few idyllic years, suspicion and sorrow began to creep back into Ayodhya. Truth, purity, compassion and charity began to erode. Self-interest and callousness found new footholds. The animals began to quarrel. Crops grew less abundant. In the marketplace, innuendos arose, hinting at a dark side in Queen Sita’s relationship to Ravana. To pacify the people, Rama (knowing that the accusations against her were false) sent her back to the forest, breaking his own heart.

It is tempting to wait for another shining embodiment of light, like Rama, to appear and banish the shadows in our lives. We imagine such people in politicians, entertainers, and spiritual teachers. We may even be fortunate to know someone whose very presence “lights up the room” and makes everyone feel happy and harmonious.

I think that each of us has the potential to be such a person. Maybe if we work together we can come up with creative solutions to make the light stay, if not permanently, then a while longer. Let’s brainstorm the actions we can take, or refrain from taking (I’m looking at you, gossipers in the marketplace!), to nurture harmony and joy in ourselves, our families, and our communities. Every effort in that direction can be a step toward establishing Ram Rajya in our world, a world in which every day is Diwali.

Zo Newell is a writer and certified yoga therapist. Her first book, Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis was published in 2007 and its sequel, Flying Monkeys, Floating Stones: More Wisdom Tales, is slated for publication in spring 2020. She has written numerous articles for Yoga International exploring the interface of asana and Indian mythology. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University.

 

 

 

Draupadi’s Rage and Sita’s Sorrow

“It is an angry film. The film is a warning:” Sriram Dalton, on Spring Thunder (2018), a film that had a world premier at the Bay Area South Asian Film Festival. Spring Thunder, about the blood-drenched politics of uranium mining in Jharkhand, is like a punch, like a gunshot, like a blow by a hammer and a slash by a sickle. It might remind you of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Or Bandit Queen (1994), the film Dalton says inspired him to become a film-maker. There is rage in Spring Thunder, a film about how tribal land is being pillaged by greedy and murderous uranium contractors, while government officials are ineffectual, or corrupt. The film is an angry howl, reverberating with the rage of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the have-nots.

Sriram Dalton, Writer/Director of Spring Thunder

I heard the same rage in the voice of two women, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, who screamed at Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in an elevator moments before the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh: “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me.”

Nobody believed me.

By contrast, Dr. Kristine Blasey Ford, the professor “doing her civic duty” to speak out, was sorrowful, tearful, tremulous. But not silent. On the television screen, struggling to continue, the psychology professor narrated her story about how Kavanaugh tried to disrobe her, while his friend looked on and the young men laughed.

An image of the vastraharan scene in Naatak’s Mahabharata play came to me, with Dushasan dragging Draupadi to court and attempting to publicly disrobe her. The rage of Draupadi, according to Purnima Mankekar’s article “Television Tales and a Woman’s Rage: A Nationalist Recasting of Draupadi’s ‘Disrobing” was expressed by her vow to wash her hair in the blood of Dushasan’s thighs, upon which he had insolently invited her to sit. Draupadi’s rage was in contrast to the sorrow of Sita in the Ramayana, who would rather that the earth swallow her to hide her shame when a washer-man didn’t #believe her.

Yes, it’s all happened before. An attempt to disrobe a woman in the Mahabharat. Blaming the abduction victim In the Ramayana. 

At the Naatak play, the vastraharan was executed with the technical excellence one associates with Naatak, Yet I found myself troubled by the Sita-fication of Draupadi. I had seen Draupadi’s tears onstage, but these were not tears of rage as I expected, but of sorrow. “Draupadi is not to be portrayed as sorrowful, Draupadi is to be portrayed as enraged,” I remember thinking.

At the Dr. Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is sorrowful and well-behaved. She keeps her rage from showing, because an enraged woman can be threatening, off-putting, too shrewish, too strident. Dr. Ford is like Sita, with her tears of sorrow, and her resolve to do her civic duty.

The women in the elevator are like Draupadi. They are enraged, and a little bit out of control. “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me.” The statement is like a punch, like a gunshot, like a blow by a hammer and a slash by a sickle. The statement is an angry howl, reverberating with the rage of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the have-nots.

The words are her unwashed hair covered in the blood of her sexual predator.

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. She is usually quite well-behaved.

Cover Photo Credit: Naatak Facebook Page.