Kavita Kané titled her latest mythological fiction ‘Sita’s Sister’. She did not call it ‘Urmila’. Why? Could this be Kavita’s way to make our selectively aroused mythological memories acknowledge the presence of the woman who came from such a significant lineage, but lay forgotten under reams of demi-Gods, if not over-shadowed by her sister’s glory? Somewhere, the very act of writing about Urmila becomes rife with the politics of making the silenced heard, much like what Maithili Sharan Gupt's Hindi poem 'Urmila' sought to do. ‘Sita’s Sister’ thus becomes a bravely imaginative way to re-present one of the world’s most famous stories by letting a woman tell it, not in first person (as the blurb misguides) but through her thoughts and travails as penned by the author.
Any idea of touching-up our sacred epic must stem from an aim, or wherein lies the point of removing the holy cloth from a codified story so many know by rote? Unlike fiction on shelves, this book is not about its plot and its pace, points of suspense and thrill, peaks of narration, twists or even climaxes. Those, we know like granny told us. This book stands distinct for its strong characterization and the larger socio-cultural ideas that find vent through it. Primarily, Kavita Kané re-creates Lakshman’s wife Urmila for us, portrays her relationships, shows the mind behind her 14-year-long fortitude and honestly depicts the various roles she lives or is made to live.
In doing so two important things happen. One, the story is contemporized to be assimilated by modern mindsets which like to question gender discourses and patriarchal fabrics. Two, the chosen ideas of the original story which are highlighted help universalize the story. Both these happen because of the epical themes Kavita chooses to fill her novel with, and which I would like to elucidate.
Making it Human
From the four ‘disarmingly frank’ sisters in Mithila to the three lonely mother-queens of Ayodhya, from brothers inseparable to Kings of glorious kingdoms and from the scheming Manthara to the evil Ravana, Kavita has shown us the humans behind these calendar personae.
Sita, who picked up the Shiv Dhanush at 10, is a ‘wide-eyed, lovelorn idiot’ on seeing Ram. Urmila enjoys a ‘flamboyant mind’ and ‘irrational bursts of resentment’, falling for Lakshman, the ‘reluctant man in love’. And, ‘probably he was distracted’ when godly Ram broke the bow during Sita’s swayamvar. Lakshman’s introduction of his brothers to Urmila paints them in all their boyish contrasts. When Lakshman decides to follow Ram into the forest, pure human heart-wrenching turmoil takes over, and Urmila, in faux anger towards her husband, wonders ‘would hatred be easier than loving?’ At this point, emotional portrayals of mortal souls supersede the story itself, giving all characters an earthly dimension.
What have also been humanized are character motivations. Kaikeyi’s ‘evil manipulation’ in opportunely asking for the two boons and demanding Bharat’s coronation, the fulcrum to all events, is ‘self-preservation’ according to her. For did not Sunaina admit to her daughters that ‘maternal love can falter’, after all?
Overarching is an idea of all humanity living parallel lives. The ‘unusually strong bond between the brothers’ is reflected in the one the sisters share. While the men follow their idea of dharma, the women follow their own. Each woman in the palace of Ayodhya ‘was living in her own pain, their chambers their refuge’. Kaikeyi was prejudiced against Sita and Urmila against Kaikeyi, both wrongly. Ultimately, as Urmila puts it, ‘we are suffering in common – love and loss, separation and abstinence. Or Fate, besides having a twisted sense of humour, is quite egalitarian’.
Fate reminds me … of course there is a larger pattern at work here - Of ‘moments snatched from Fate’ and predestination, auspicious nakshatras and curses, Gods and their whims and demons and their evil. In the most significant of human circumstances, invisible hands of one or the other of these are realized later. As if men are playthings in their hands of a scheme they cannot defeat. When Sita is abducted by Ravana in the forest, Sumitra says ‘everyone had lost their minds … this was to be’, excusing human error by blaming destiny, something that even the theory of karma is used for in texts like Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntalam’.
However, Kavita has successfully relegated fantastical and fatalistic agencies to the background, to keep the focus on those man-made. I liked how Lakshman reminded Ram in this book - ‘don’t blame it so conveniently on Fate, brother’. This makes us see the author’s mind.
Women-speak, male order and Dharma
While human thoughts and motivations endow the book with an emotional chord, what gives it a revolutionary strength of overturning boulders of patriarchal thought is the voice given to female characters. No, not just to Urmila!
Women in ‘The Ramayana’ are to ‘reap what they receive, not what they have sown…’ but the women in ‘Sita’s Sister’ are different. Unabashed, Urmila confesses to Lakshman that ‘I am yours … you are not mine’, when she accuses Lakshman’s faltering love as ‘depriving us of our present at the price of withholding our future’. Sita confesses for Ram that ‘I love him … I have to marry him for myself. To make myself happy’. When discussion is rife in Ayodhaya to get Ram remarried, Urmila lashes ‘I won’t have it, Sita’ and Sita adds ‘And neither will I…it should be me who should be protesting the loudest.’ Urmila bluntly questions Lakshman as to why he needs to go with Ram and Sita into exile. ‘Either take me … or don’t go’ is what she screams. Mandavi wows with her outburst at Bharat’s decision to go into exile too, lamenting ‘I am sick of these lofty words … where am I? Who am I? … I feel like a mad caged animal’. Even Sunaina, their mother, ‘would have calmly broken off the wedding, social mores be damned’ if she knew what was coming. Some very strong statements there.
But nothing will come close to Urmila’s confrontation of the elders and ministers in Ram’s hut in the forest, when Bharat decides to do unto Mandavi what was done to Urmila. It is the questions which Urmila raises here that open the debate between the patriarchal idea of loyalty and duty versus the ‘personal’ one of love for women - an idea beautifully treated in Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ and humorously in Aristophanes’s ‘Lysistrata’.
Lakshman confidently pronounces that a ‘soldier does not take his wife to the battlefield’. Urmila stays back. But when Mandavi is to undergo similar years of loneliness, she bursts out - ‘everything, Gurudev, has been personal here, every single political decision’. This is what she says for the ‘royal family … cruelest to its own family members’ – ‘We have talked about all sorts of dharma – of the father and the sons, of the king and the princes, of the Brahmin and the Kshatriya, even of the wife for her husband. But is there no dharma of the husband for his wife? Of the son for his mother? Is it always about the fathers, sons and brothers?’ Similarly, when Ram makes Sita undergo the chastity test, Urmila says forcefully – ‘It was a dilemma of a husband versus the king- who is higher is the moral question.’ It is a question that is significant for epics from around the world!
Countless such examples of liberties taken exist, not just on the part of women characters but also on the narrator’s. The original story is cleverly pinched and tweaked in places to add challenging facets to it and generate fresh perspectives in the reader’s minds. This merging of original with a new version is so seamlessly done that you wonder if it ‘really’ happened, or is it happening only here, through Kavita’s pen. It is this that can make a reader itch frustratingly, and Google the ‘original’ events. It did me!
The language used in the book is in keeping with its year of publication, not the original’s. Which means, some readers may find conversations between characters too "modern" (though not slangy) and thus unable to fit into the image we carry of these mythological characters through popular media or from the ancient context they have been resurrected from. Usage like ‘being dolled and decked up’, over use of ‘dear’ combined with enough huge words like ‘perspicacity’ sometimes interfered with the impression.
While all successful effort has been made to describe the characters’ emotions and conflicts, the physical description of palaces and chambers seems typically borrowed from the TV version. They lack in grandeur as well as novelty, and keep the book bereft of much royal beauty. Traits of characters, say ‘composed’ for Sita and similar adjectives for Ram, and ‘huskily’ for Lakshman’s manner of speaking are repeated till Kingdom come, as is the mention of the strong relationship between the two brothers.
And then there is lots of alliteration, which I personally enjoy but which may not strike the right note with every reader.
‘Sita’s Sister’ is a courageous re-creation of mythology, which presents us with a subaltern viewpoint. It seems to be written in response to Lakshman’s burning question – ‘O Urmila! Will the world ever know of your inner suffering, your divine sacrifice?’ yet it is not just her version. Every character is given space and voice, even if the author does not let them break free from the fabric they were originally created in, or turn the events of the story accordingly. None is ‘indicted’ by the author just like none is favoured unduly. Perhaps, Kavita Kané intended to erase the black and white idealism that epics are wont to have. So, while Kavita subtly shows us ‘ugly cracks in the façade (of the palace of Ayodhaya) … hiding a lot more than they showed’ she also works us ‘a reminder … of the little evil residing in all of us.’
While each reader receives and appropriates this into their contemporary lives, the book will make us rethink even if it won’t make us question what we have lived believing. It will raise the dust, make us examine ourselves – in the man-made scheme of things and also in the larger pattern. Isn’t this what all epics the world over asked of us – Know Thyself?
A must read, especially for those who like their mythology served anew.
Sita's Sister is a Rupa Publication, 2014