From In Search of Sita to Sita Sings the Blues, the Ramayana has been retold, reinterpreted and resurrected several times over. Indeed, it has caught our imagination like few other stories have, writes Pervin Saket
If Christopher Booker has argued that there are only seven plots in the world and all others are variants, the recent spate of books and films from India suggests that the number has shrunk even further. With several writers and filmmakers deriving inspiration for their stories from the Ramayana, retelling and rethinking are the flavour of the season. From In Search of Sita — a collection of essays, interviews and interpretations edited by Dr Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale — to Madhureeta Anand’s documentary Laying Janaki to Rest and Nina Paley’s animated film Sita Sings the Blues, the Ramayana has been resurrected several times over.
Much of the literature inspired by the Ramayana is rooted in contemporary times, with the narrative taking strictly realistic forms. For instance, Ramnika Gupta’s Sita, originally written in Hindi, places Sita as an intelligent dalit woman, trapped by caste discrimination and labour laws. It traces her efforts at self-preservation while her husband and his second wife manipulate her and even attempt to murder her.
Vijay Lakshmi’s Janaki strips the epic of its grandeur and its veils of honour and duty, shocking readers with the pettiness behind Sita’s accusation and banishment. The short story, told from the point of view of a domestic servant, begins innocently enough with a DINK childless couple, Sudhir and Janaki Thakur — he a manager in a textile firm, she a successful lawyer. Ravana here takes the form of Sudhir’s childhood friend who visits the couple, and the abduction is the seemingly harmless exchange of jokes, laughter and late night coffee while Sudhir pores over important reports. Sudhir is unperturbed however, until he hears his dhobi slander his wife’s character. After he violently confronts Janaki, she storms out of the house and crashes her car into an oil tanker. She is untouched by the flames, but succumbs before her grieving husband can get her to hospital.
Anil Menon, author of The Beast With Nine Billion Feet and co-editor of Zubaan’s upcoming anthology, Speculative Ramayana, says: “I think (the fascination with the Ramayana) has to do with the final scene where Rama rejects Sita. If Valmiki had written the scene differently, I doubt we’d be discussing the story today. It’s the unfairness of that act, a culmination of many unfair acts, which makes the story so uniquely bitter-sad. It’s defeat snatched in the face of love’s victory. The Ramayana is a love story that speaks to of the impossibility of keeping love, even for a god.”
The injustice that Menon refers to is not too far removed from the biases that many women face even today. Chandra Ghosh Jain’s Sita’s Letter to her Unborn Daughter, has a woman writing a winding letter to her daughter in her womb. The letter unravels the attempts her husband is making to get the girl-foetus aborted. The slow, convoluted explanation suggests the traps Vaidehi finds all around her and her frantic but futile efforts to free herself from these. As she writes, Vaidehi feels her daughter slipping out of her body. The letter ends poignantly with: “What is it that you say: you don’t want to be another Sita? Abandoned by father, husband and family. No, Paakhi, listen, don’t go…”
The need to re-imagine the epic in contemporary times probably stems from two other factors as well. One is the compelling nature of the story. It touches on issues intensely personal, simultaneously seeing its characters as part of a complex social labyrinth, and also prescribes to subtle and lofty considerations of dharma and righteousness. An ambitious attempt, sweeping in its wake too many concerns to justify all, thereby raising more questions than it seeks to answer. The other factor is the way it has interwoven itself with our lives. From bedtime stories and primetime television, from comics, video games and movies to prayers, rituals, poojas, blessings and implorations to ‘be like Sita’, the Ramayana lives in the air we breathe. It is hence perhaps understandable for artists to find parallels between the fantastic world of mythology and mundane truths around them, given that there is a timeless quality to the restlessness that the Ramayana inspires.