Author Samhita Arni
Her voice is weary. “As for Ram, he is a living god to the people of Ayodhya. He holds himself to an impossible standard. He is a visionary in that sense.
But he can’t see beyond himself — he’s obsessed with his actions, with his nature.... striving to be the ideal. That can be another form of cruelty. He was cruel to his father, mother, me, his brothers and his wife.”
Kaikeyi registers my surprise and laughs. “You are shocked at my words? Let me ask you one question: What happened to Sita?” Ram's wife is an enigma. He fought a war to win her back from Ravana, the king of Lanka, and brought her home to Ayodhya. I had seen the old film strip so many times.
The images of Ram and Sita entering the city in a Cadillac, waving to admiring crowds. I had been there myself — a child, twelve or thirteen years old, seeing the young, shining couple for the first time. I remember being disappointed by Sita. Her legendary, dangerous beauty had faded with years in captivity.
But there was a gentleness to her gestures an intelligence in her quick eyes that impressed me. Months later, she left. Rumours abounded. Some suggested that her alleged chastity was really a hoax. Ram had discovered this and Sita had left in disgrace. Others suggested that she had retired to the countryside, her conscience burdened by the many deaths her virtue had caused.
And Ram had never taken another wife, much to Ayodhya’s disappointment. Kaikeyi leans close to me. She reeks of tobacco. I can feel her hot, fetid breath on my skin. “What’s her story?” (excerpt from The Missing Queen) And Samhita Arni, attempts to tell Sita’s story, from a contemporary perspective, through her latest book, The Missing Queen.
Says Arni: “I had been thinking about the Ramayana a great deal, and about its relationship with the society that we live in, and how even today, it influences our ideas of chastity, about what an ideal state (Ram Rajya) and polity should be, and so on. So, the two came together; the Ramayana in the South Asia of today, and what the female characters of the Ramayana would be like today.”
The Missing Queen hurls along in fast tempo following a journalist who decides to search for the missing queen — Sita. Rama is quizzed and interviewed on live television as a nation stays clued in to the happenings after Sita disappears.
There are lot of familiar terms like ‘Ayodhaya Shining’ that will connect the tome with the readers today. Like most other Indian woman in her twenties, Arni says that “for a long time I didn’t feel the connect with Sita.
She’s often portrayed as silent, demure, submissive — not at all a modern woman. Not at all as what my parents brought me up to be, someone who speaks her mind, and fights to protect her rights.” But things have changed and Arni feels the connect as she recognises traits in Sita that can be there in any woman of today. “Sita had to have great strength and courage to endure what she did.
After she’s abandoned in the forest, she carves out a life for herself, no longer a queen, but a single mother who raises two sons on her own .” Samhita Arni’s earlier book Sita’s Ramayana focused on Sita’s perspective of the Ramayana.
The book, which remained on The New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels for two weeks in October 2011, was illustrated by Patua artist Moyna Chitrakaar. According to Arni, Patua artists have an interesting take on Ramayana. “Sita’s viewpoint is something that women from the region identify with. There is a verse which translates thus: Mothers don’t marry their daughters to men from Ayodhya.
Most of the verses tell women that their sufferings are not new as Sita experienced the same centuries back.” Arni is currently in Kabul as a senior scriptwriter, working on a police drama for Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s largest TV channel. “I work with Afghan scriptwriters, helping them to develop story lines and scripts,” she says. Arni’s interest in mythology stemmed early in life. “It’s hard to say when and why my interest got kindled. I suppose it’s because I love stories and myths are the best. The stories never end, and there are countless variations on each myth.”
Empathy for Sita
When the popular television serial of the eighties, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana, was being telecast, as the story nudged towards the agnipariksha, the serial makers received many letters from viewers protesting against showing Sita going through the fire test.
The television Rama had to stress that he believed in Sita’s chastity. In 2009, an 84-minute animated film, Sita Sings the Blues, combined the autobiography of filmmaker Nina Paley with a retelling of Ramayana.
Paley went on to win awards for the film which she described as a “tale of truth, justice and a woman’s cry for equal treatment.” Arni believes in the choices that Sita made: choosing to accompany her husband into a hard life in exile in the forest, raising her children on her own, then choosing not to return to Ayodhya.
“It demonstrates a great deal of strength and courage. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sita is angry about proving her chastity. So, she questions why Ram fought this war, and then instructs Lakshman to build a pyre for her. It’s sort of Sati — she’s doing the only thing she can to prove her honour and what she feels is complex — heartbreak, anger... These are the ideas I explore in The Missing Queen.” Dr Satyavrat Shastri, renowned Sanskrit scholar who taught princess Mahachakri of Thailand, wrote the story of Thai Ramayana in the form of a poem, Sriramakirtimahakavyam.
In his version, Rama was happy in Ayodhya, adored by his people, living with his three brothers and a softhearted Sita, who had suffered innumerable hardships in the past. Sita was also happy and spent her time free from all fears in the world. However, this did not last long, as in throes of jealous anger, Rama asks Lakshman to kill Sita.”
In the Thai version, in the end when Rama requests Sita to come back with him and their sons, she refuses. “I have endured separation from my husband for ten years. I shall now endure a long separation from my sons.
I am Sita, I have to endure everything.” And that sentiment is what makes Sita different from Draupadi says Arni who wrote her first book, The Mahabharata: A Child’s View, when she was eight years old. Draupadi and Sita have different kinds of strength. Draupadi is fiery and passionate, she speaks her mind. Sita speaks sometimes , but often endures in silence.”
How will Sita fare in the modern world? Arni responds: “Well, that’s what I've tried to imagine in The Missing Queen. The journalist who wants to uncover the mystery of Sita’s disappearance, is also intrigued by this — the Sita of popular imagination is different from the Sita that her investigation and interviews suggest, and so she wants to know what Sita is really like.”
►►► For a long time I didn’t feel the connect with Sita. She’s often portrayed as silent, demure, submissive — not at all what my parents brought me up to be
- Samhita Arni