Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni reads from Forest of Enchantments for Diwali: Ram's return to Ayodhya through Sita's eyes

While the Ramayana is primarily centred around the perspectives of men — the 'good prince' Ram and the 'evil demon' Ravana — seldom does one know what the women in the story felt or thought.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni November 14, 2020 10:27:31 IST
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni reads from Forest of Enchantments for Diwali: Ram's return to Ayodhya through Sita's eyes

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (LEFT) and the cover of her 2019 book, The Forest of Enchantments.

Editor's note: Diwali or Deepavali has a strong connection with the Indian epic Ramayana written by Valmiki. It is believed the first Diwali was commemorated by the people of Ayodhya upon the arrival of their Prince Ram, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman after vanquishing the demon Ravana and completing a 14-year-old exile. The people of Ayodhya lit lamps on that new moon night and celebrated the victory of good over evil. Noted author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has presented a new take on this very day in her 2019 book The Forest of Enchantments. While the Ramayana is primarily centred around the perspectives of men — the 'good prince' Ram and the 'evil demon' Ravana — seldom does one know what the women in the story felt or thought. Divakaruni's book looks at the Ramayana and its several episodes from the eyes of Sita.

The following is an excerpt, read by Divakaruni (along with a text version of the same) from chapter 28 of her book, that has been republished here with due permission of the publishers HarperCollins India.

***

Pushpak landed in a large field outside the palace walls. Ahead of us I could see the looming gates of the city, lit with smoky torches, and a huge, silent crowd that had assembled in front of it. They whispered and fidgeted and jostled each other impatiently, held back by soldiers who yelled at them roughly to keep order. I guessed these were Bharat’s soldiers. I looked around, hoping to see Bharat, but in the milling dark I couldn’t recognize anyone. Not Bharat, not Shatrughna, not even Hanuman, whom we’d sent ahead to inform them of our arrival.

I could feel anxiety pulsing through me. Why wasn’t there a welcoming party? Why weren’t the people chanting their new king’s name? Was Bharat having second thoughts about returning Koshal to his brother? Fourteen years was a long time. Enough time to get addicted to power, which was stronger than any intoxicant. Beside me, Lakshman grasped his bow more tightly, his face grim. Only Ram’s face was serene.

My husband descended from Pushpak and strode forward without hesitation. After a moment, Lakshman and I joined him, one on either side. We were followed by our companions. As we came into the circle of wavering light cast by the torches, there was a sudden, shocked silence. The rakshasas and mighty monkey warriors must have been a strange, even frightening sight for the city dwellers who hadn’t ever ventured into the forest, who’d been brought up on terrifying tales of what lived within it. It didn’t help that other shadowy beings—magically fabricated by Pushpak—carried out the treasure chests given to us by Vibheeshan and then disappeared, turning into wisps of fog. Or that Pushpak itself shrank, becoming as tiny as a bird, and flew away.

I felt a moment of pity for the Ayodhyans standing there, for all that they would never understand—and then a stab of worry. How would they greet our honoured guests? Had Ram been right in his reluctance to bring them, concerned that their presence would cause unrest, maybe even violence? Had I been too optimistic in thinking that we were ushering in a new age, a time when men and animals and rakshasas could coexist in peace?

***

Out of the dark, a horseman gave a loud yell and launched himself forward, shaking a great lance. The army took up his cry and rushed out behind him. I stiffened, wondering how to prevent the upcoming carnage. Behind me, I could hear the monkeys and rakshasas stirring restlessly, preparing to defend us. Surely our citizens were going to be slaughtered now.

But Ram laughed. It was a cool, unworried sound that seemed to clear the air and make the lamps burn brighter. Once again, he was right. For the horseman vaulted off his horse, handed the lance, which wasn’t really a lance but a furled umbrella, to a follower, and threw himself into my husband’s arms. It was Bharat, spare, almost emaciated, dressed in tree bark which, I’d learn later, he’d worn for our sake all through the fourteen years when we were gone.

Shatrughna joined them, and Lakshman ran up, too, and the four brothers laughed and cried and held onto each other as though they’d been separated for a lifetime—which in a way they had. But there was something more to this reunion. As I watched them, it seemed that their human outlines lost their shapes and became flame-like, and then the four flames merged to become one great shining. Its brilliance blinded me and its beauty brought tears to my eyes. Were they all part of Vishnu? Part of the divine play the fire-god had hinted at? As I watched, the shining spread across the entire crowd, though it was dimmer elsewhere, as though from small earthen lamps. Still, I could see that there was a little of the One Divine in them all.

After a moment the vision faded, and I became aware of the chant rising from the crowd. RajaRamRajaRamRajaRam. I was happy that they called for my husband, but a small cold hand clutched at my heart. They were not calling my name, as they had on that long-ago coronation day that never came to be. Why was that?

The brothers hadn’t noticed anything amiss. They were clapping each other on the back, all talking at once. Bharat kept saying, ‘Is this really happening? Or am I once again dreaming this reunion the way I’ve dreamed of it for all these years, only to awake alone in the
grey morning?’

And Lakshman, punching him playfully, said, ‘This is no dream. See, otherwise my fists would have awakened you by now.’

I stood back, willing to let the brothers have their time of intimacy, but Ram took me by the hand and brought me forward, saying, ‘Here
is Sita whom even the mighty Ravan dared not dishonour.’ And the brothers all bowed to me with great reverence and addressed me as Queen.

Then a furry shape flung itself out of a tree and landed at my feet, crying, ‘Sita Ma!’

‘Hanuman!’ I called out with joy, for his love was simple and unequivocal, unlike human love, and a powerful bond had been forged between us ever since he found me in the ashoka forest. He was the only one who really knew what I’d gone through, and having him here made my return to Ayodhya that much more of a victory.

Hanuman began a different chant now, SitaRamSitaRamSitaRam, and after the barest pause the crowd took it up, acknowledging me, along with my husband, as royalty.

And thus Ram and I rode in triumph at the head of the procession, the royal umbrella of red silk now unfurled above our heads, to the palace entrance where Kaushalya and Sumitra, aged now and half-blind with years of tearful sorrow, were waiting impatiently to greet us with platters of lamps and auspicious sindur powder and sandalwood paste and sweetmeats. And if their hands shook as they waved the arati plates, and if they wept more than they smiled, and if the palace they led us into was only a shell of what I remembered from Dasharath’s day, none of it mattered.

***

Also read on Firstpost: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on Forest of Enchantments, timeless epics, comparisons between Sita and Draupadi

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