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Review – “The Forest of Enchantments” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

He has come to teach the men, but you have come to teach the women. The lesson you teach will be a quieter one, but as important.

Most of us know Ramayan, having heard it from the mouths of our grandparents or having read/saw it as kids, or, having at least acquainted ourselves with the basic facts, post the Babri Masjid-Ram Janma Bhoomi issue. With mythology becoming the hottest trend in the story writing market for some years now, I must say it was getting annoying to see everyone trying their hands at it. Choosing the right one seemed impossible. What if it was just fan-fiction? (I must mention here that I am not too fond of fan fiction, I find them ruinous) Or worse, what if some writer was just trying to get in a few bucks by preaching rather than actually presenting a worthwhile retelling to the readers? 

Write our story, too. For always we’ve been pushed into corners, trivialized, misunderstood, blamed, forgotten- or maligned and used as cautionary tales.

The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is not a retelling of Ramayan, it is, for lack of a better word, Sitayan. Because it is the story of Sita, from her own mouth. It is the story of Sunaina, helping her husband Janak run the kingdom from behind closed doors. It is the story of Kaushalya, a queen forgotten. It is the story of Kaikeyi, a woman who’s role as a mother clouded every other aspect of her life. It is the story of Urmila, left behind to wait and weep. It is the story of Meenakshi turned Surpanakha, the trusting asura. It is the story of Ahalya, the unfairly judged. It is the story of Mandodari, the blind supporter of her husband. It is the story of us women, in this world, and those who were before us and will come after us. And most of all, it is a story about women in love.

Red. But of course. How else could I write my story except in the color of menstruation and childbirth, the color of the marriage mark that changes women’s lives, the color of the flowers of the Ashoka tree under which I had spent my years of captivity in the palace of the demon king?

Sita was found as an infant by the King of Mithila and lived her life as a princess, the elder daughter of King Janak and Queen Sunaina, along with her jovial younger sister Urmila. Both the princesses shared a camaraderie beyond just words. They knew the other without them telling anything. So when brothers Ram and Lakshman came to the palace with their Guru, both knew that the other had lost her heart to the respective brother. 

“Remember this, too: sometimes our ill luck has consequences that bless others” 

Marriage was bliss. Love was aplenty and so were pleasures and comfort in the palace of Dasharath, father of their husbands and King of Koshal. The coronation day arrived in a blink of an eye, love tends to do that, pass time like it was just yesterday when they were gawking at the handsome princes in their father’s palace. And then it was time for the fates to turn. Exiled for 14 years of forest living, Ram and Sita along with Lakshman made their way away from the palace and Ayodhya.
Years passed with simple living and minimal troubles. But just when their exile was about to end, Sita was abducted by the demon king. Prisoned and guarded all the time, time seemed to stop for Sita. Waiting for Ram to come and rescue her was the hardest thing she had to do, or so she thought. But when she was finally reunited with her beloved, she faced her life’s exams, and it was even more difficult than the year she spent in captivity.

“What occurred when I was alone in the darkness, under the sorrow tree, you don’t know. You don’t know my despair. You don’t even know my exhilaration, how it felt- first in the forest and then in Ayodhya- when I was the most beloved woman in creation.”

Oh, what a book it was! Lucid and profound, the words slipped easily into my mind and it wasn’t long before I was deep into Sita’s world. Ms. Banerjee’s Sitayan is so relatable! Why couldn’t we have been exposed to such interpretations earlier in life? Why did we have to think that being perfect is the benchmark? Why did we have to grow up thinking that ‘Agni Pariksha’ was necessary to prove women’s innocence and purity? And what does purity even mean? Is it of body or mind? And why, o why, does ‘Log kya kahenge’ matter so much!?

“Anything that makes us forget our true selves is a trap, princess- even something we love or define as beautiful.”

Ms. Banerjee, for me, has done justice to the topic she chose. Trust me when I say this because we are a community of unbending uptight people who regard such writings as blasphemy as they don’t sit well with our patriarchal setups. Although I don’t really know/believe that epics like these are true or not, I cringe when someone breaks them into thousand pieces and makes something indigestible. Why then, this has me swooning all over? Because it has blown me over with the portrayal of love and its different facets at every step. The lovers’ love, the mother-child love, the sibling love, the friendship love, and most importantly, self-love, all are laid bare with the rawest of emotions dripping. And with that, comes the sense behind the entire story. It is all for love, in the end.

Why was it our holy men who made a big deal of giving up on so many things- comfort, fame, family- couldn’t seem to give up their tempers?

While Sita’s character was beautifully built and matured, other characters weren’t given their own voice. Rather, it was Sita from whom we learn of their roles and I would want to go with the flow and think that Sita did justice to them when she spoke about them. Her relationship with Ram is explored beyond the measures we have usually read, or at least I have known. It was a refreshing insight for me to feel connected to her, her human side rather than her being the unreachable Goddess. However, her other roles got subdued in the glow of her wifely duties. Her relationship with her parents, her sister, her mothers-in-law, Lakshman, and lastly Hanuman, there was so much scope to explore there, but I know it would have been a humongous task. Maybe there is time for those voices to come alive. For now, I am glad we have another voice of Sita, a real voice who can stand for her own when the need arises.

Remain true to yourself- and to your heart. Be courageous and remember, even the blackest night must end in dawn.

After I wrote the majority of my review, I admit to having visited Goodreads to see what others have written. Strangely, I found the majority of the reviews were written by women. Is there some diktat that says that books with strong female protagonists or focusing primarily on women must not be read by men? Or is it just their ego that deems such books below their intellect? I find it pitiful, for the men, because when they don’t read such books, they lose out on a lot more than just a book. They lose out on an entire section of the human population.
Before I end my review, I’d like to quote some lines from the book on love, that holds as much true in our lives today.

This was my first lesson on the nature of love: that in a moment it could fulfill the cravings of a lifetime, like a light that someone might shine into a cavern that has been dark for a million years.

I was looking at another of love’s many faces. It made us read to wreak havoc- even on people we cared for- in order to protect those whom we cherished more.

This is what Kaikeyi failed to see: it’s not enough to merely love someone. Even if we love them with our entire being, even if we are willing to commit the most heinous sin for their well-being. We must understand and respect the values that drive them. We must want what they want, not what we want for them.

There are no easy answers, Dasharath’s voice said inside my head. Especially when we want to please the one we love. That same love clouds our eyes and doesn’t allow us to see what’s right in front of us. 

That’s how love stops us when it might be healthier to speak out, to not let frustration and rage build up until it explodes.

Ah, love. Why had Vidhata made its nature so complex? Why did one love conflict, so often, with another?

Forgiveness is more difficult when love is involved.

I knew now that love- no matter how deep- wasn’t enough to transform another person: how they thought, what they believed. At best, we could only change ourselves.

‘I forgave you a long time ago’, I say to Ram. ‘Though I didn’t know it until now. Because this is the most important aspect of love, whose other face is compassion: It isn’t doled out, drop by drop. It doesn’t measure who is worthy and who isn’t. It is like the ocean. Unfathomable. Astonishing. Measureless.’ 

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