This review first appeared in the Asian Review of Books on 24 April 2013
The epics have stayed alive in India through a vigorous tradition of oral telling. This tradition has also cast the Ramayana into several avatars, the story being reinterpreted by region, language, caste in South and Southeast Asia. R. K. Ramanujan, a renowned scholar of Indian literature, in his essay titled “300 Ramayanas”, recounts myriad retellings of the epic, many of which contrast with the Valmiki Ramayana that most Indians are familiar with. In a South Indian folk account it was Ravana, the King of Lanka and Rama’s antagonist, who births Sita through a sneeze. The Thai version gives centre stage to Hanuman, the monkey King—Hanuman being considered a more colorful and empathetic character than Rama.
What is common to the retellings is that they are coloured by the homilies and virtues of the particular community within which they have evolved. For instance, the Jain telling of the Ramayana present Rama as a Jain who doesn’t slay his enemy since it is against Jainism to take life. In a Tamil version of the epic Sita is the warrior who goes to battle against Ravana.
Sita’s Ascent is a novella by Vayu Naidu who runs a namesake storytelling company out of London. This debut is a revisiting of Sita, the heroine of the Hindu epic Ramayana and the wife of its hero, Rama.
Vayu Naidu’s retelling is an attempt at “a reimagining of the idea of woman as goddess” by weaving the narrative through the point of view of multiple characters in the epic who were close to Sita. Dr Naidu, who has researched Indian oral traditions, was fascinated by “the inspiration that is Sita—an exiled queen, an expectant mother abandoned and left alone, undaunted by the extraordinary circumstances that are thrust upon her by the husband she continues to love”.
Sita is the dominant female role model that Indian girls are brought up on. Her values of unyielding loyalty, steadfast devotion and unconditional love despite hardships hurled at her by a patriarchal system are seen as ideal attributes for the Indian woman.
The Sita in this novella is a fully realized character, a woman who speaks her mind, who is confident of her inherent female strengths. Yet she doesn’t break the mould of Valmiki’s Ramayana, content to raise her sons in a hermitage until they are ready to face their father, King Rama.
Some other characters, though, are explored afresh. Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother who accompanied him in exile, is vulnerable as he reminisces his causal role in the ultimate war. Soorpnakka, Ravana’s demoness sister, is self-aware as she indulges in “that curse that humans have—self-reflection” as she takes us into the mind of her demon brother and his intense desire for Sita’s love.
The notion of Sita’s “ascent”, her refusal to undergo another “test of fire” to prove herself is tided over entirely in this retelling .That she escaped the wheel of time and ascended to the abode of Gods by refusing, in the end, to acquiesce isn’t explored. The narrative ends abruptly with Sita reaching for the Heavens without confronting her husband.
The gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi last December has forced into the public a debate on the role of women in a traditional society caught in the whirlwind of economic change. With that perspective, Sita’s Ascent must be seen as adhering to the mainstream retelling of the Ramayana where Sita, despite all her endurance and strength, remains a woman who must bear her fate with fortitude—an unchanging archetype that Bollywood, the Indian film industry, has leveraged profitably over several decades. So while the book is worth a read, certainly for its attempt to flesh out the archetypal Sita of the most popular Ramayana retelling, ithowever falls short by not “revisiting” the epic at a time when the land of the birth of the epic is embroiled in a vigorous ongoing debate on the role of women in a changing India.
Vayu Naidu mentions in a note to the novella that “the function of memory as a metaphor for ‘re-membering’ a dismembered story because it is told to us infrequently and in parts, and for experiencing culture through its epic characters”.
Wasn’t it time then in a contemporary retelling to have Sita battle for the right of a woman to be an individual in a system content to consign her in perpetual roles—daughter, sister, wife, mother?