Sunday, March 03, 2013

Review: Sita's Ascent

Last week's Sunday Guardian has my review of Vayu Naidu's Sita's Ascent.

Suddenly there's a lot of Ramayana- related writing going around. There was Zubaan's anthology of speculative fiction about the Ramayana called Breaking the Bow. (I'm sad to say I've only read one story from it but will get around to it eventually). I'd been meaning to get Arshia Sattar's translation of the Valmiki Ramayana for some time now and used my mother's birthday recently to get it and her book of essays as well. Most recently - like, this morning - I finished Samhita Arni's The Missing Queen.

I feel I shouldn't mix up a straight review post with my thoughts on Arni's book, which were decidedly mixed; but I guess, I hope, I'll get around to it. Eventually. (Why does this sound like something I've said before? Oh wait.)


In her endnote to Sita’s Ascent, storyteller and performer Vayu Naidu explains that one of her aims in writing the novella was to explore the ‘function of memory as a metaphor for ‘re-membering’ a dismembered story because it is told to us infrequently and in parts’.

As anyone growing up with stories from the epics knows, every telling is a new one – not just a remembering and a reclaiming, but a re-visioning. In Sita’s Ascent memory is the primary hallucinogen, unlocking the past in a dream-like manner.

The story begins with the pregnant Sita being delivered to Valmiki’s ashram by Lakshmana. She thinks she’s on a visit, and though Lakshmana knows better, he chooses silence. In the shock of abandonment, Sita begins to fail until Valmiki pulls her out. Sita begins to live in the ashram and Lava and Kusa are born and grow up, the older people pass on the baton of remembering as if they were runners in a relay race.

Naidu has clearly immersed herself not just in stories from the Ramayana but also in the critical texts about the epic, and in ways of writing about epics. It is easy to see in the structure of the book – each chapter given over to one character – the form of the older Yuganta by Iravati Karve. In the sourcing of stories, Naidu cites Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas, especially Velcheru Narayana Rao’s essay on the Telugu songs about the Ramayana sung by women in Andhra Pradesh. Naidu writes as one who is fully aware of the multiplicity of narratives and perspectives.

And yet, oddly, the multiplicity of perspectives does not always produce a variety of psychological responses in the narrators. Sita’s love, her well-managed anger and infinite capacity to endure comes across less as steadfastness and more as passive acquiescence. Surpanakka’s anger is entirely avoided because what she recounts is Sita’s swayamvara and Ravana’s failure at it. In Naidu’s narrative, she is Ravana’s sister first and always; never the desirable and desiring woman punished for her outspokenness. If there is some kind of push-back, it comes from Urmila, who rebels by disguising herself and escaping from the palace to live with Sita in the ashram.

The question I find myself asking is, can a retelling of the Ramayana in the 21st century entirely ignore feminist critiques of the epic? There are, after all, demonstrable ways to write against the grain of the central and indisputably patriarchal narrative: just to take the example of one writer, Volga’s story ‘Liberated’ (‘Vimukta’ in Telugu) reinterprets Urmila’s years of supposed sleep as one intense, solitary meditation out of which she emerges liberated and strong; in another story, ‘Reunion’ (‘Samagamam’ in Telugu) Surpanakha and Sita meet in the forest and find deep empathy for each other.

Given how vividly these characters recall the past, it is surprising how little they examine the reasons for the actions of the people involved. The one exception is Lakshmana. In an incident drawn from the Velcheru Narayana Rao essay, Naidu has Lakshmana fall into an ecstasy of laughter when he sees the goddess Nidra approach him in court. As he laughs, Lakshmana watches and calibrates everyone’s reaction to him – each person imagines Lakshmana is laughing at him and begins to examine his conscience.

Not just this incident, but the guilt Lakshmana feels in having precipitated the entire war by attacking Surpanakka, his self-pitying and horrific justifications – ‘I had been provoked’ – then and later, when he draws the lakshman rekha around Sita – ‘I had never seen her eyes flash fire and her mouth utter such filth. Did she say that to provoke me? – are chilling, but give us psychological depth where we have grown used to archetypes.

A part of the problem lies in the choice of medium. I can see how the impressionistic narrative structure would work as performance and storytelling. As a novella, though, the tone is sometimes disconcertingly casual and colloquial, sometimes mystical and mostly slanted towards the now-tired tropes of the bhakti tradition.

Which is why the actual event of Sita’s ‘ascent’, her final refusal to undergo another test of chastity/purity/loyalty is elided over entirely in this book: when Lava and Kusa finish recounting the Ramayana to the man they do not yet know is their father, Naidu considers the story resolved – ‘The leaves shivered and there was a stream of light where she stood. There was no pain or need for reconciliation. Sita had ascended time cycles.’

If that isn’t a cop-out I don’t know what is.

In another recent retelling of another epic, Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, the narrator is the river goddess Ganga who is surrounded by a sceptical, disruptive, bawdy audience. To them she says early in the narrative: ‘Much is made of unflagging optimism – that blind, bouncy state which understands neither cause nor effect.’

I wish any one of the narrators in Naidu’s book had a grain of this kind of self-awareness. It would have raised the book from a tolerable and not unreadable tale to one worth returning to, as any epic worth its salt should be.

1 comment:

dipali said...

Fascinating, the number of versions and interpretations that abound. One of the few that I have read and that moved me deeply was Arshi Sattar's Lost Love's- Exploring Rama's Anguish. Also, Amit Choudhuri's description of the injustice done to Surpanakha, in , I think, The Little Magazine. My version of the Ramayana would end up with no epic, because Rama would explain nicely to his father that he would happily forgo the throne for Bharat, but would insist on living with his father, either within or outside Ayodhya, as he would not like to cause the death of his father by parting from him!