I grew up listening to myriad stories from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. During my high school, I spent a lot of time learning and reciting slokas (Sankrit prayers in meters) from Bhagavad Gita, and Bhagavatham. Whenever we visit ancient temples, Father narrates intriguing stories from Hindu mythology.
I have always loved the stories. It’s been exhilarating, intimidating, and comforting to be told that, regardless of all the trials and tribulations, the law of karma wins. But as I began to expand my reading horizon, it became obvious that only men won in all the stories which I learnt from my childhood. Women were abused, humiliated, and used as pawns. I didn’t recognise then the need for a story to be written about the women who are pushed behind the curtains. When I spotted Volga’s The Liberation of Sita at a bookfair this year, I knew it was an important book, for it’s the voice of a woman who was not given a chance to talk.
Originally written in Telugu (one of the widely spoken native languages of India), and translated by T Vijay Kumar and C Vijayasree, The Liberation of Sita is a beautiful remaking of the past.
Sita is now abandoned by her husband Rama. She lives in sage Valmiki’s ashram and raises her sons Lava and Kusha. The tiny book, presented as five stories which are interconnected, follows Sita as she meets the women — Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila, and Ahalya — who were insulted and hurt by men. Sita listens to their inspiring and enlightening stories, learns how they rebuilt their lives, and gradually releases herself from the clutches of her love for Rama and their sons. Toward the end of the book, Sita, as ably aided by the women’s wisdom, discovers herself and a life beyond her husband and her family.
In India, writers are most often not allowed to exercise their creative freedom to recreate parts of Hindu mythology. Despite the straitjacket, Volga has woven a tale that is clever enough to not offend the fundamentalists, and loud enough to offer a feminist voice to all the women who were insulted in mythology.
Besides allowing me to travel with Sita as she liberates herself, Volga dedicates a chapter to Rama. In that surprising tale, Rama laments for being a prisoner of Arya Dharma which doesn’t allow him to bring back Sita from the forests until she proves her chastity. The reluctant king is lovelorn, depressed, and finds no way out from everything that suffocates him. Sita might have been abandoned by Rama. But, with the help of the women like herself, Sita discovers her free path and Rama continues to be caged. The most unexpected irony.
I adore this note written by the translators:
What Volga attempts through these stories is a compelling exercise in ‘revisionist myth-making’. It was nearly four decades ago that Adrienne Rich made that famous statement about women’s writing as ‘re-visioning’. In the words of Rich, ‘Re-vision — the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction — is for us (women) more than a chapter in cultural history, it is an act of survival’. Since then, re-visioning has figured prominently on the agenda of women writers, and all institution — political, social and religious — have been subjected to a critical re-vision in women’s writing. Even the process of cognition and contemplation have not escaped the re-visionist project and feminism has come to mean ‘a rethinking of thinking’ itself. In the process, re-vision no longer remains a simple act of looking back nor a mere act of survival. It evolves into an active remaking of the past and a re-invention of tradition. In other words, re-vision has turned into an act of creation and trans-creation.
The Liberation of Sita is a fitting tribute to all who try to break gender stereotypes, who raise their voices for the suppressed, who struggle to eliminate the taboos, who initiate life-altering dialogues, and who stand up for what is right.
Note: This is my second read for Bibliobio’s ‘Women in Translation’ month. I am so glad that I read something that was written in an Indian language.