Review: Recovering from the Ramayana the Spirit of Sisterhood

Volga's The Liberation of Sita is not a Ramayana of war and rivalry, but a re-envisioning of the epic through Sita's eyes.

“I am the daughter of Earth, Rama. I have realised who I am. The whole universe belongs to me. I don’t lack anything. I am the daughter of Earth.”

Rama was left speechless by these solemn words.

Devoid of Sita’s support, Rama tasted defeat for the first time in his life. By refusing to bow down to external authority, Sita had fully experienced, for the first time, the inner power of self-authority. (41)

The Liberation of Sita, written by the well-known Telugu writer Volga and translated into English by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree, tells of a very different heroine from that of Valmiki’s and Rama’s Ramayana. It is an important addition to the thousands of retellings of the epic that exist – not all focusing on privileged princess Sita, like Volga’s – largely so because many of those are yet to be translated into English, and also because it is remarkable in itself.

In Volga’s narrative, a single Sita raises her sons by herself in Valmiki’s ashram. She has been abandoned by her husband Rama, king of Ayodhya, even after he freed her from the ‘demon’ king of Lanka, Ravana. Ravana abducted Sita after Rama cut off his sister Surpanakha’s nose and ears.

Sita loves the peace and beauty and wildness of the deep forest, a contrast to the splendour of the capitals of her past life and wanders through it unafraid, seeking her own adventures. These adventures form the stories in her narrative of liberation. Sita starts off full of pain and confusion about the past and her husband’s abandonment, as well as an almost stubborn confidence in his virtue and love. As she meets one woman after another – the ‘minor’ women characters of Valmiki’s Ramayana, Surpanakha, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila – she questions her husband and his dharma, her own identity and the complexities of the ideas of truth and fidelity. She ends up sure of herself and her values, and her need for no one, not even Rama.

Volga The Liberation of Sita Harper Collins, 2016

The Liberation of Sita
Translated by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree
Harper Collins, 2016

Her first adventure – the story called ‘The Reunion’ – takes Sita to the ‘demonness’ Surpanakha herself, the sister of Ravana. Sita’s thoughts have circled around her ever since Rama mutilated her for declaring her love for him. Sita has reflected that she and Surpanakha are similar, despite being of rival kingdoms and races, in that they have been both been marred by Rama’s love. Sita finds Surpanakha in a forest home amidst a beautiful garden she has cultivated, through which she has conquered her feelings of rage and retribution. Surpanakha teaches Sita that joy need not depend on a man, or anyone at all.

In ‘The Music of the Earth’, Sita meets Ahalya. Like us, Sita has been told her story – how Indra lusted after her and disguised himself as her husband Gautama in order to fulfil his desires, how Gautama disowned Ahalya once it became clear what had happened and how Ahalya turned into a rock as a result. But the Ahalya Sita meets is full of life and wisdom. She counsels Sita on the power of men in compelling women to question their fidelity and the meaningless of such questioning to begin with. When Sita defends Rama proudly as a seeker of truth and his love as true, Ahalya points out: “What does conducting an enquiry imply…? Distrust, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be better, instead, to believe in either your innocence or guilt?”

In ‘The Sand Pot,’ Renuka, whose husband ordered their son Parasurama to chop off her head for looking at a man, illuminates for Sita the futility of identifying oneself as merely a wife or mother. “A woman thinks she doesn’t have a world other than that of her husband’s…” she tells her, “But some day that very husband will tell her that there is no place for her in his world. Then what’s left of her? She thinks giving birth to sons is the ultimate goal of her life. But those sons become heirs to their father… They submit to his authority… Why bear such sons?”

In ‘The Liberated,’ Sita meets Urmila, who observed a penance of silence for fourteen years while Lakshmana accompanied Rama into the forest and meditated on herself and her identity. She tells Sita: “You must liberate yourself from Rama… Each of these trials is meant to liberate you from Rama. To secure you for yourself. Fight, meditate, look within until you find the truth that is you.” This is Sita’s last and most important lesson.

Sita’s encounters with these women – Surpanakha, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila – form a series of dialogues. Rather than being given descriptions of the women and their exchanges, we listen to their voices, which is liberating in itself, and true to Sita and her own journey as well. It is their voices to which she listens again and again, and from which her own inner voice finally gains strength. Their voices, speaking to one another, powerfully reinforce a spirit of sisterhood that contrasts from the Ramayana of war and rivalry.

The Liberation of Sita is a collection of stories of Sita’s encounters with the Ramayana’s ‘minor’ women characters. Volga wrote them over several years, treating the characters and incidents separately. Together they come together as the narrative of Sita’s liberation. But the book is bigger than just a collection of single stories coming together. Each story is as much the other woman’s – Surpanakha’s, Ahalya’s, Renuka’s or Urmila’s respectively – as it is Sita’s. And, in repeating its questions, characters and incidents, the stories resound across settings and times.

Volga’s voice is itself strong, poetic and altogether memorable. The Liberation of Sita suffers from the stiltedness from which all translations inevitably seem to suffer. But the lyricism of the original Telegu nonetheless carries through.

What makes The Liberation of Sita ultimately striking is its dealing of Rama, who features in the last story, called ‘The Shackled’. Rama realises that he has no freedom, that his identity is wholly conducted by his role as ruler and upholder of the Arya dharma. He realises that his time of banishment in the forest with Sita was paradoxically the only time he experienced true freedom. He laments to Lakshman: “My exalted nobleness is my handicap. With this political power, I have lost power over myself. I have lost my Sita.” He abandons Sita after rescuing her from Ravana, but in the end, it is Sita who chooses to hand over her sons as his heirs and to leave him. She liberates herself while he remains chained.

Volga’s story tells of a very different Sita from Rama’s Sita – or does it? This was probably Sita all along. The Liberation of Sita is not a simple ‘retelling’ of the Ramayana, but a reliving of it, a new bringing to life.

But given that, one also has to reflect on the injustices that often seem to come, paradoxically, with searching for justice through narrative. In emphasising its heroine’s journeys of spiritual self-discovery and rebellion of different kinds, does The Liberation of Sita run the risk of portraying women as all the more fundamentally different from men, as unrealistically unaffected by the material concerns and corruptions that define men’s characters and lives? Hopefully one day a story will be told that is equally Rama and Sita’s.