In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Forest of Enchantments, Sita, at Maharishi Valmiki’s insistence, sits in her thatched hut at the sage’s ashram and armed with a quill, a bottle of red ink and palm leaves, sets about writing her tale, and the tale of the ‘clamoring, whispering and tentative’ voices rising within her. Thus begins Divakaruni’s Sitayan, a story of courage, sacrifice and forgiveness. The author’s latest work, a retelling of the epic Ramayana is narrated by Sita and follows her story from her childhood in Mithila, to her brief sojourn in Ayodhya, the subsequent exile and her trials after she is kidnapped by Ravana, the king of Lanka.
This marks Divakaruni’s second novel that tackles the women of the great epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In 2008, it was The Palace of Illusions that gave a voice to Draupadi’s fierce spirit, her flagrant disregard for preset traditions and her desire to claim her destiny. Divakaruni’s Panchaali, of the Palace of Illusions, is a passionate, belligerent queen, whose tangled, matted hair gleam like the flames of vengeance she rose from, but her Sita, the daughter of the earth, is quite the contrast. Demure and mild-mannered, she is simple, level-headed, yet emerges stern and decisive in the face of turmoil.
The author, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston in Texas, breathes new life into many of these age-old characters such as Draupadi, Sita, Keikeyi, Mandodari and Subhadra through her writing, narrating stories of women caught in the vortex of politics, war, cosmic plays and magic. “It is particularly important to re-examine characters such as Sita and Draupadi because they are already part of our national consciousness, but often they have been interpreted through a patriarchal lens. It is important now to see them cleanly and newly without that filter,” Divakaruni says.
And, despite being a novelist in her own right, she seldom wavers from the original plot of the stories in her retelling. Her interest lies, she says, not in changing plot but in the analysis of character.
“What were Sita and Draupadi feeling and thinking at certain powerful moments of their life?”
“What were their motives for things they did?”
“What might they have said in private moments with their dearest ones?”
It is crucial to keep writing about these characters who were instrumental in turning the tide of each of these stories, and see them, she adds, as timeless women whom we, as modern women, can relate to and learn from.
A strong, alluring and mysterious woman is central to every one of the author’s works, including Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams and Sister of My Heart, which are set in the 20th and 21st century. Even as their journeys vary, one aspect that stays uniform is their insight that transcends the world of consciousness. Having had such glimpses through the course of her own life, Divakaruni continues to be fascinated by these different levels of experience and depicts them often in her books.
“Sita has a number of visions in Forest of Enchantments, and some of them are extremely important in giving her an understanding of herself — as well as Ram and Ravana — as cosmic beings.”
Divakaruni explains, “I believe there are many layers to our existence, and many of the things we learn about life (especially the cosmic aspect of life) occur in dimensions other than our waking state.”
The author is among many prolific writers whose take on mythology enables the modern reader to look at the same characters with varied perspectives. The situations in these epics, she notes, have great value even in current times. “They are much deeper than many of the stories set in contemporary times. Perhaps we all hunger for the magical worlds and powers they depict. And the larger than life characters.”
Of Draupadi, Sita … and Ram
That there would be comparisons between the way the author nurtured Draupadi and Sita was perhaps inevitable. Divakaruni concedes that she too would compare the two in the initial stages of this novel, desirous of making Sita more like Draupadi because she “loved how outspoken Draupadi is, how defiant and how she rushes headlong into situations (in The Palace of Illusions).”
However, researching and analysing characters of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the author realised that Sita was very different. “And I had to focus on her specialness — she has a kindness and sweetness to her, but she speaks up whenever it is needed,” she admitted.
Describing the moment when Sita lifts up the Bow of Shiva, one that none of her suitors had been able to, she elaborates that Sita does so when she is alone and no one knows of it. “She is very strong in her quiet way, but she doesn’t make a big deal of it.”
Early on in Forest of Enchantments, Sita is taught an important lesson: what she cannot cure, she must endure. And it is her special power, Divakaruni points out, that helps her endure through her terrible tortured year in Lanka. It adapts to its circumstances and overcomes obstacles — much as a tree might grow. Quiet, but strong.
“Once I started to embrace that difference, it helped me write Forest of Enchantments in a way that would showcase this power.”
The titles of both of Divakaruni’s novels are special. They denote something particularly significant to the two women. For Draupadi, it was her palace of illusions, the Maya sabha, which she and her husbands could call home, away from the conspiracies of Hastinapur and the cold, hard walls of Drupad’s palace. For Sita, the forest beckoned her. Divakaruni explains that her moments of great transformation come when she is in the forest. “That is where she is the happiest with Ram, the most anguished with Ravana, and the strongest as the mother of Lav and Kush.”
Symbolically, Sita, being the daughter of the earth, is in tune with the power of nature. Her power is natural, emotional, free-flowing — quite different from Ram, who embodies the laws of the city or civilisation.
Conflicted between his private desires as husband and lover and his public values and duties as a monarch, Ram, Divakaruni says, was a difficult character to write, because he was the reason for so much of Sita’s anguish. But as the author probed into his identity, it struck her that he too was a highly nuanced and complex character. When he does things that hurt Sita, she concedes, they hurt him just as much. The author attempts to explore this complexity even in her quest to write Sita.
As readers savour every page of this story, Divakaruni, for her part, has already started on her next novel, a historical work set in colonial times, focusing on a strong woman who fought against the British. “No surprise there, I guess!” she admits but for now, chooses to keep the identity of her protagonist a secret.
Forest of Enchantments, now available in bookstores is published by Harper Collins.
Updated Date: Jan 23, 2019 09:24:43 IST