Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Sita’s Ramayana: A Feminist Retelling

As if it wasn’t enough to take The Ramayana and present it in images, this volume retells the ancient epic through the eyes of a woman. This is Sita’s Ramayana.

House of Anansi, 2011 Artwork by Moyna Chitrakar

The original Sanskrit text is attributed to the poet Valmiki, and it is comprised of 24,000 verses which tell the story of Rama, whose wife was kidnapped.

She, his wife, does not have a voice in that version. It is not, however, unusual for there to be other versions of the story; different regions do put their own spin on thing, imbuing them with local custom and culture.

And it’s not a new idea to afford Sita a more prominent role; the publisher draws attention to the Chandrabati Ramayana, Bengal’s version of the legendary tale, for Chandrabati was one of the few female re-tellers and she, too, focussed on Sita rather than her husband.

Chandrabati’s version dates to the 16th century; Samhita Arni’s was published last year and was produced to mesh with Moyna Chitrakar’s artwork.  Tradition and innovation conspire to produce something familiar and fresh.

What is unusual about this work, however, is affording Sita not only a voice, but a primary position in the narrative. Even when she is not present for events, she recounts them as she believes them to have happened.

Sita’s Ramayana belongs then to a distinctive female narrative tradition. Kept alive by folk songs and memories, this tradition continues to leaven the epic world of heroes and war and the virtues of nurture, compassion and tolerance.”

There are also two other female characters who are introduced into the chain of events in Sita’s Ramayana, who do not appear in the original story. (There is also, apparently, more magic in this version of events than in the original.)

And one other remarkable aspect of this retelling is that Sita takes a position of feeling remorse for all of the losses in the war which results, following the chain of events after her abduction; she feels compassion even for those who are on the “other side” of the conflict.

She is capable of recognizing honour in her “enemy” and betrayal in her “ally”, ultimately condemning the act of war itself.

“Her sense of what has befallen her renders her open to what other women endure. And rather than divide the world up into good and bad, right and wrong, Sita’s vision encompasses all those who suffer, endure and ultimately bear the consequences of what kings and wars do — and this includes not only women, children and ordinary people, but also animals and birds.”

Project Notes:
Day 36 of 45:
This is another example of a work that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon were I not browsing in House of Anansi’s catalogue; not having read the original text, I have a somewhat limited appreciation of what Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar have produced. But I enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad on first reading, without having read The Odyssey too. (And, yes, new theme!)

Do you enjoy retellings like this one? Any favourites?

4 comments to Sita’s Ramayana: A Feminist Retelling

  • Aarti

    Oh, this sounds really good and right up my alley! Did you enjoy it? Your review is great to pique my interest, but I can’t tell if you just liked it or found it very strong.

  • Kat

    It sounds fascinating! I love these retellings.

    I did read one this year: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, a stunning retelling of Antigone set in Afghastian, so at least I can contribute one.

    And Merry Christmas!

  • I usually much prefer Sita’s version to Ram’s, even in the original mythology books simply because Ram is always perceived as the hero even when he falsely accuses his wife for committing adultery. It’s something that’s always enraged me growing up. I’ve found the Sita versions to be more balanced – credit is given where it is due and the narration isn’t biased. I will have to read this!

  • Aarti – I did enjoy it, but I was also quite aware throughout my reading of it that I had no context for it, so it felt kinda like stepping into the ocean when you have been swimming in chlorinated pools your entire life: still enjoyable, but a bit disorienting at the same time. I think I would have had/expressed a clearer emotional response if I hadn’t felt that I was reading it as much to learn as to feel the story. (Hope that makes sense.)

    Kat – When I first saw your comment come through, I didn’t recognize her name but, then, some weeks later, I came across another recommendation of her work, so found your comment resonating even more strongly when I reread your comment today; I’ve added The Watch to my list…thanks!

    Athira – It is enraging to be sure! I’ll be very interested to hear what you think, if you can find a copy of this one (I hope so!) because you have the context for the story that I was longing to have as a reader. I think I would have been very excited by some of the elements therein, especially if aspects of the traditional tale had niggled me even as a younger reader, as they did you!

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