Despite the fact that I have loads of unread books on my shelf as well as the kindle, I end up buying more books and reading them as soon as I receive them. I think this is the case with the majority of us. The same happened on the occasion of world book day yesterday. While browsing through offers on the website, I chanced upon this beautiful collector’s edition of The Liberation of Sita by Volga, translated by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree. Unable to bear the self-imposed “no book buying until I finish off the lot I already have”, I succumbed to greed and had the book in my hands today, and needless to say, I devoured it in a couple of hours and now, here I am writing its review.
When I had bought this book, I thought it would be a re-telling of Sita’s life after her abandonment by Rama. But what I found in it was something very different – a collection of 5 stories, with 5 different female central characters, who had minor roles in the Ramayana, retold from the point of view of Sita, and the impact it has on her as she tries to make peace with the life she has been given.
The first narration is “The Reunion” centering on Sita’s chance encounter with none other than Shurpanakha. When Luva and Kusha first tell Sita about a beautiful garden maintained by a mutilated woman, a woman with holes in the place of her nose and ears, Sita instantly knows that it must be Shurpanakha. Asking her sons to take her to the garden, Sita comes face to face with the former princess of Lanka and discovers the woman she is now, mature and wise for her age. Sita is surprised to learn that the woman, who was a victim of the patriarchal rivalry between two kingdoms, has come to forgive them both and accepted what fate has given her. Of course, the maimed one has had her share of struggles, the hard truth of looking at herself in the mirror and finding a reflection that is disfigured, from being the envy of other women to a hideous one, from having lovers to finding herself all alone, but she wins over her negatives to emerge a stronger and beautiful person from within. Despite the fact that her beauty is no longer with her, she meets her soulmate in Sudhir, who respects her for what is under her skin instead of what is on it. Having conquered her humiliation and rage over it, Sita finds Shurpanakha to be at peace with what she has created, focusing her energy on creating a beautiful garden that she considers her child. It is her that makes Sita think about her sons and realize that the non-dependent joy which Shurpanakha has is much more satisfying than what she herself has.
Sita first meets Ahalya during her exile in the forest with Rama. “The Music of the Earth” retells the story of this accused woman, a woman who is found guilty of infidelity and cursed by her husband, when the imposter Indra, ever so lusting after her, takes his place and has her. Though we have been told that the woman pleads with her husband to take pity on her and soften the punishment, this version throws light on Ahalya’s self-respect. Throwing caution to the notions of female chastity, Ahalya tells Sita that a woman’s loyalty is not the issue, but what is, is that a man’s ability to question and put it to test, be it for any reason. Advising the exiled woman to not bow down to any such demands ever in future, Ahalya leaves Sita bewildered. It is only after her fire trial and later the abandonment by Rama that Sita understands the truth behind the words Ahalya spoke to her years ago. Now, crying in the older woman’s lap in the ashram of Sage Valmiki, Sita knows better than to grieve over spilled milk.
After her son Parasurama beheads her at the orders of his father, her husband, Renuka takes to the forest where she is saved by a group of people. Now years later, when Sita comes to her shrine, she finds herself fascinated with her. “The Sand Pot” is the encounter between Renuka and Sita with the former giving an important lesson to the latter, that of self-identity. One fleeting moment of temptation for another man led to Renuka’s character being questioned, years of her loyalty to her husband, and her love for her son, all lost in that single moment. Wiser from the experience, she advises Sita to free herself of any boundations to another person, anchoring herself will only mean heartache. Although Sita doesn’t like her advice, she does understand and find it useful when she gives her sons to their father and is called upon to claim her position in front of the entire court, which she refuses saying that it isn’t necessary. Cutting off all ties with them and she goes back into the embrace of her mother.
The namesake story of the title of the book, “The Liberated” speaks of the meeting between Sita and Urmila after the elder one returns from exile. On knowing that her beloved younger sister has not been in touch with anyone since the day her husband left her to accompany his brother and herself, Sita is devastated and immediately rushes to meet her. What transpires leaves Sita to astound. Having isolated herself in rage over her husband’s behavior, Urmila soon realizes that she can’t do anything for what has happened, but only change the way she looks at it. Her feeling of anger, jealousy, sadness – all relates to being dependent on her husband, which she ultimately breaks free off by meditating for the past 14 years and finding solace within. When Rama does the Aswamegha Yagya, Sita worries herself over the fact that the said ritual needs both husband and wife to be together to be able to perform. It is then that Urmila asks her to let herself go off the shackles that are still binding her to Rama, whether or not Rama has taken another wife should not be a concern to her. This meeting with Urmila ultimately allows Sita to liberate herself from Rama and establish her own identity independent of any man in her life.
“The Shackled” is the last story to be told, however, it doesn’t include Sita in its active form. Having handed over their sons to Rama, Sita refuses to come back and goes back to where she came from, to her mother Earth, liberating herself. On the other hand, Rama, who has always been bound by dharma since birth, leaving the years when he was in banishment with his beloved Sita, finds himself yet again bound to their sons for the sake of the kingdom, to rear and bring them up as worthy rulers in future. Though Sita herself gains liberation, she sets the path for her Rama too, of breaking the bonds when the time comes to hand over the reins to Luva and Kusha. Who knew that Rama, who protects his kingdom, will have his protection from his wife?
While reading through the stories, I found a beauty in the language, as if I was reading some poetry. The flow was smooth and easy and I was floating with the words. The characters of this collection are interpreted in a way that is new to me. Leaving the conventional notions behind, the author sketches the women in a manner that is unheard of – strong-headed, independent, and content with the way their lives have turned out to be. Repeating myself for the nth time now, I don’t know how much truth is held within the pages of our mythological epics, but what I know is that they do hold great wisdom. With numerous authors trying to interpret the characters in their own way, it does get a bit complicated to choose one’s own favorite, but this version, hands down is my best read to date. The concept resonates with me and is close to my heart, having become closer after this read.
All the stories, though speak about different incidences in Sita’s life are bound by one ultimate goal, that of steering the daughter of the Earth towards her liberation. Each holds a concept that is crucial in a woman’s journey, beauty, fidelity, chastity, motherhood, and independence, from the time of being born to the day she dies. The other females, all victims, and sufferers at the hands of the patriarchy, knowingly or unknowingly, make Sita realize the importance of self-realization and identity independent of anyone else, be it her father, her husband or her sons.