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Book Review: Volga’s ‘The Liberation of Sita’

Photo: The Whimsy Bookworm

By Paromita Sengupta

Title: The Liberation of Sita
Author: Popuri Lalita Kumari, Volga; Translated by: T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree

Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2016.

I met Volga, who defines herself as a Telugu feminist writer, at a conference in Hyderabad. She spoke simply but forcefully, confidently and by the time she was done speaking, I had already ordered online the English translation (she writes in Telugu) of her latest book, The Liberation of Sita, a thought provoking retelling not of the Ramayana as a whole but of some its events and characters. Volga is the pen name of Popuri Lalita Kumari, a writer-activist, a soft spoken yet self-assured woman, who knows her mind and the Sita in this book seems but an extension of that persona. The Liberation of Sita (2016), by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree, is the English translation from its Telugu original.

Volga presents Sita through five short narratives, in four of which she is shown encountering “marginal/minor” women characters of the Ramayana, and each encounter is enriching for both Sita and the respective characters who are Surpanakha, Ahalya, Renuka, and Urmila. The fifth and final narrative features Rama.

The stories, if we may so call them, in The Liberation of Sita were written by Volga over a span of several years but strung together in a single volume, they function as a kind of journey of the protagonist’s self-discovery, as she moves from one tale to the other, one experience to another, one life to another. Here we meet a mature Sita, who lives life on her own terms as a single mother of two sons. She lives in the forest, teaches archery and other arts to the ashram children, and is a strong woman whose mind is not subject to the appreciation or approval of others. “Minor” women characters are presented in a new light and the narratives are as much about them as they are about Sita herself. Thus, in the first story, “The Reunion”, Sita meets Surpanakha. Presented in the grand narrative of the Ramayana as an evil seductress, Volga’s Surpanakha is, to say the least, human. She is a beautiful woman, who was disfigured for no fault of her own but rather became a scapegoat in the larger politics of Rama’s scheme to invade Lanka. Surpanakha here is the mistress of a beautiful garden that represents her mind and that is symbolic of her beauty. The garden is Surpanakha’s way of taming her mind, directing it to something creative and beautiful, her way of dealing with her grief and rage for being mistreated and mutilated by the man she had loved. Sita realizes that her own condition has much in common with that of Surpanakha. That same man, who disfigured Surpanakha and passed such a vicious act as a virtuous one, had also ultimately deserted Sita. For Sita, who is already living alone, Surpanakha affirms that a woman’s life and value should be independent of a man.

The second story, “The Music of the Earth”, takes Sita to Ahalya. Ahalya’s story is perhaps one of the most narrated and re-told and interpreted stories of all times. Ahalya is said to have been created by Brahma as the most beautiful woman. She was given in marriage as a prize to the much older sage Gautama, for having exercised restraint as her custodian. Right from the Brahmanas texts of the 9th to 6th centuries BCE to the present day, Ahalya’s story continues to be retold. In the earliest full narrative of the story, Ahalya sees through Indra’s disguise when he comes disguised as her husband but nevertheless accepts his advances, thus being a willing partner. Later sources often absolve her of all guilt, showing her as one who falls prey to Indra’s trickery. In all narratives, Ahalya and Indra are cursed by Gautama. The curse varies from one text to another, but in almost all versions Rama is the eventual agent of her deliverance. Later, numerous writers have written her story in various ways. Amidst so many retellings, Volga’s narration of Ahalya is yet significant because she does not go into the question of whether Ahalya was a willing partner to Indra. Volga’s Ahalya redirects the questions to Sita, making Rama and his motives the subject of inquiry:  “What does conducting an enquiry imply…? Distrust, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be better, instead, to believe in either your innocence or guilt?” The redemption here is of Sita, not Ahalya.

The third story, “The Sand Pot”, asks us to examine another facet of women- motherhood. Sita here meets Renuka, whose son Parashuram beheaded her at the orders of his father. Renuka – which is derived from Sanskrit Renu which means “fine grain of sand” – means “atom” or “mother of the universe”. Renuka is said to have gained the power of concentration from her chastity. She could create unbaked sand pots that would hold water. However, a few moments of distraction took away all her powers of concentration and her sand pot broke. It enraged her husband so much that he ordered his sons to behead her. Renuka escaped and committed penance. Meanwhile all her sons but Parashuram had denied their father and had been turned to ashes. Parashuram obeyed his father and beheaded Renuka. The sage was so pleased that he then granted Parashuram a boon, by dint of which Parashuram is said to have brought Renuka and all his brothers back to life. Volga’s Renuka is not a repentant woman. She questions the very meaning of a woman’s life if it is under constant test, under constant pressure to prove one’s chastity. If only a few moments’ distraction can ruin her, is it at all meaningful to try to be chaste or to try to prove it? Volga’s Renuka goes on to question motherhood itself. Isn’t the son but a continuation of his father’s authority? Does being a mother change a woman’s life or condition? Renuka here liberates Sita from the shackles of motherhood.

The fourth narrative, “The Liberated”, is a kind of culmination of Sita’s journey so far. Here she meets Urmila, the wife of Lakshmana, who had been left back at the palace while her husband chose to be by the side of his brother Rama. Urmila had been silent for the fourteen years of her husband’s absence and she teaches Sita that one has to be liberated from the clutches of all relationships for all relationships only enslave us. Volga’s Urmila is a liberated woman and she helps Sita to become one. Urmila 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.”

The final story features Rama. Titled “The Shackled”, it contrasts Sita’s freedom with Rama’s restraints. He remains bonded to his numerous commitments, while Sita leaves behind everything and rises above all bonds and bondages. Volga’s Rama is a weak man, a man who loses his wife as she chooses to desert him, a man who may be a victor in the battle field, but is a loser in the domestic sphere of conjugal happiness.

Not able to read Telugu, I cannot compare the English translation to the Telugu original. All translations are generally by nature removed from the original in some degree. However, The Liberation of Sita is a powerful text that is so relevant to all women all over the world that it should be a pleasure to read in any language and the translators have done a commendable job because the text is a pleasure to read with its poetic evocative quality and its serene expression of a deep philosophical message. Attempts must be made to translate this fascinating text into all Indian languages so that the voices of Surpanakha, Ahalya, Renuka, Urmila, and Sita are heard by all. This is a book that raises questions and a book that carries a strong message of liberation. Written mainly as dialogic exchanges, all the narratives are beautifully woven together so that while they are individually meaningful, taken together they chart the wonderful evocative journey of a woman’s soul as it searches for meaning. A must read for all men and women who want to set themselves free, The Liberation of Sita is a simple and forceful narrative that reinforces the idea that there is nothing wrong with the love for freedom.

Bio:

Paromita Sengupta is Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English, Sovarani Memorial College, West Bengal. An alumni of Presidency College, she has earned her PhD from the University of Calcutta in 2009. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, nineteenth century Indian writing in English, gender studies, and nation and identity. Paromita’s research has been published on national as well as international platforms. She has recently (release date January 2018) edited and re-introduced the first Indian drama in the English language, Krishna Mohana Banerjea’s The Persecuted or Dramatic Scenes Illustrative of the Present State of Hindoo Society in Calcutta (first published in 1831). She is currently working on her book on the constructs of motherhood.

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