The first two poems in this series, Princess in exile and Random Access Man tell the story of Sita from a feminist perspective. Rightwing narratives of the Ramayana, portray her as the ideal, obedient wife whom all women must seek to emulate. Reading between the lines of the epic, one realizes that she is in fact the first woman to literally “Step across the line.” She not only crosses the Lakshman Rekha (a Line of Control that she was asked not to leave), but she also chats up with a stranger, the King Ravan in disguise. When her husband and his brother return, she is no longer home. Sita is reunited with Ram after a massive war is waged to win her back. In the epic, it is said that she was abducted. I try and imagine a scenario where she might have walked out of her own free will. When Sita exercises her civil rights—her freedom of speech and her freedom of movement—I exercise my freedom of expression.
In the third and final poem, Traitress, I look at the Ramayana from the perspective of another victimized woman, Shoorpanaka. She is Ravan’s sister, and she has her ears, nose and breasts cut off when she proposes to Ram and his brother Laxman, whom she meets in the forest. In the traditional narrative, Ram’s fidelity to his wife is upheld and he gets cast as a superhero in spite of (or perhaps, because of) the sexual violence that he inflicts on an-other woman. Moreover, a woman who expresses her desire, a woman who makes her choices is punished ruthlessly, in the most macabre manner possible. The narrative in Valmiki’s Ramayana derides the advances that Shoorpanaka makes towards these men; even the right of making advances resides only with masculinity. It is unfeminine and immoral for a woman to speak her mind (and her body) and for that sin, she has to meet the fate of being dismembered and disfigured. Being a rebel, she is made to bear the burden of being unbeautiful. She is the very antithesis of Sita in these unkind depictions that pander to Aryan/Brahminic notions of beauty. It is easier blaming an ugly victim.
To me, freedom is not just about walking out into the world and shouting slogans and joining every struggle that holds the promise of revolution. Sometimes, freedom is a walk backwards into history. Sometimes it involves dusting statues and breathing life into them. Sometimes it involves smashing idols. Sorry Ram, if you don’t come out looking like a larger-than-life hero in these poems. It has been all about you for a long, long time. To me, the women matter.
When I wrote these poems, I set Sita free, I set Shoorpanaka free. They were soul-sisters from the beginning: women who spoke their minds, women who let their bodies speak. In doing so, they danced with danger.
I hope these poems capture that fearlessness.
Read Meena Kandasamy’s Retelling the Ramayana here http://www.sampsoniaway.org/literary-voices/2012/02/02/retelling-the-ramayana-poems-from-meena-kandasamy/
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, writer, activist and translator. Her work maintains a focus on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms Militancy (2010). Two of her poems, Mascara and My Lover Speaks of Rape have won first prizes in pan-India poetry competitions, and her poetry has been profiled in several international publications. Previously, she edited The Dalit, a bi-monthly English magazine. She holds a PhD in socio-linguistics from Anna University Chennai, and is now working on her first novel The Gypsy Goddess.