One-line review: Enrichening, but not as spectacularly successful as ‘Jaya’.

Review:

In recent times, Devdutt Pattanaik has been the most prolific and successful mythologist-author in India. For almost a decade now, he has explored almost every facet of Hindu mythology, from a rapid-fire look at the spectrum of Hindu mythology in “Myth=Mithya” – that became his most successful book, to gods and goddesses in books like “7 Secrets of Siva“, “7 Secrets of Vishnu“, “7 Secrets From Hindu Calendar Art“, to even dabbling in fiction in “The Pregnant King“, and more recently to books targeted specifically at children – “An Identity Card for Krishna“, “Shiva Plays Dumb Charades“, etc… In 2010, he plunged into a very imaginative and well-researched retelling of the Mahabharata – “Jaya – An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata“. The results were spectacularly successful. The book became a blockbuster bestseller.

It was therefore only a matter of time before he tackled the Ramayana. In October 2013, Penguin released “Sita”, Devdutt’s retelling of the Ramayana. This book follows “Jaya” in more ways than one – the length is roughly the same, the format is the same, the illustrations and cover are similar – and this is also destined to find its way as one of the prominent retellings of the Ramayana.

I am not going to get into the details of the Ramayana – the story is as old as the art of storytelling itself. What makes this book different from other translations, abridgments, and retellings – and similar to “Jaya” – is that Devdutt draws upon a vast store of retellings and regional narrations of the Ramayana over the last two thousand years, blends them into the story, and adds notes at the end of each chapter, identifying these regional narrations and interspersing these with his commentary.

As readers would have found out in Devdutt’s “Jaya”, there are innumerable factoids that enrichen reading experience. The same is the case with “Sita”. Not many may know that Lakshman also went through a trial of fire! This happened when they – Ram, Sita, and Lakshman – were spending their period of exile in the forest. Indra decided to test Lakshman’s fidelity, and sent an apsara – Indrakamini – to test him. When Lakshman would not be swayed, she left some strands of hair that “clung to Lakshman’s clothes of bark.” Later when Sita spotted those hairs and remarked in jest, “Looks like you found yourself a wife,” Lakshman “jumped into the fire around which they sat” and emerged unscathed. This episode comes from the Baiga Ramayana from Central India.

“This rare episode draws attention to the value given to male chastity in tribal lore.”

Then there is the story of Urmila sleeping for the entire fourteen years of the exile, while Lakshman “remained without sleep in the service of Ram.” This comes from Buddha Reddy’s Ranganatha Ramayana.

Or that Rabindranath Tagore had “criticized Valmiki for overlooking the contribution of Urmila, inspiring the poet Maithili Sharan Gupt to give prominence to Urmila in his Ramayana titled Saket.” While both “Vibhishana and Hanuman are chiranjivi, meaning ‘those who live forever’,” it is for Hanuman that a seat is kept empty whenever and wherever the Ramayana is told. Or that such was the might of Ravana, that, according to “Assamese folklore, if one cups one’s hand over one’s ears the sound one hears is that of Ravana’s funeral pyre still burning.

Even though we know that Sita was banished – and most unfairly so – to the forest by Rama because of gossip among the residents of Ayodhya – (in)famously blamed on a washerman (dhobi) – different retellings of the Ramayana have put forth different interpretations for this blot on Rama’s otherwise spotless conduct (though the killing of Vali is a second stain by most accounts). So while in Valmiki’s Ramayana “there is a reference to street gossip only“, the “reference to the quarrel of the washerman and his wife” comes from the “Sankstrit Kathasaritsagar and the Bengali Krittivasa Ramayana“.

Perhaps the most satisfying explanation, at least from a storytelling perspective, is that of a vengeful sister – Surpanakha – who would seek out her final revenge against both Rama and Sita. She travelled to Ayodhya, disguised as a hairstylist, and when questioned about Lanka and Ravana by the inquisitive women of the queen’s quarters, slyly replied “None would know him better and more intimately than your own queen.” The women “begged Sita to draw the outline of Ravana’s shadow. Sita indulged them: she drew the image on the floor using rice flour. … it was so perfect that Surpanakha wept in memory of her beloved brother. Her tears fixed the drawing to the floor. … That is how the gossip began.

This comes story of Surpanakha at Ayodhya and Sita drawing “Ravana’s shadow is found in the Teleugu, Kannada and Odia retellings.

While scholars are mostly unanimous that the story of the Ramayana had existed for and had spread over centuries in an oral manner, the first ‘formal’ narration as such was Valmiki’s – a lyrical work par excellence. Traditional belief holds that the story was first told by Siva to Parvati in “a hundred thousand verses“, while Hanuman narrated “60,000 of these, Valmiki narrates 24,000 and all other poets narrate fewer than that.

An “approximate and highly speculative” chronology of the different Ramayanas, starts with, of course, Valmiki’s Ramayana sometime in the 2nd century BCE, is followed by Vyasa’s Ramopakhyana in the Mahabharata (1st century CE). Bhasa’s Sanskrit play “Pratima-nataka” comes in the 2nd century CE, Kalidasa’s Sanskrit Raghuvamsa in the 5th century CE. Kamban’s Tamil Iramavataram dates to the 12th century CE, followed some four centuries later by Tulsidas’s Avadhi Ram-charit-manas, and so on.

The first major retelling of the Ramayana was Kamban’s work. He was a temple musician, and was one of two poets commissioned by the Chola king to write a Tamil Ramayana. The other poet was Ottakoothar. Kamban wrote the Tamil Iramvataran – ten thousand verses long – in a last-minute two-week manic burst of frenzied creativity, “with the Goddess herself holding the light so he would put down the thoughts through the night, enabling him to present his work first.

“Inspired and overwhelmed by Kamban’s inspired storytelling, Ottakoothar decided to destroy his retelling. But Kamban managed to save the last book. So in Tamil literature, the Purva-Ramayana is written by Kamban while the Uttara-Ramayana is written by Ottakoothar…”

Unlike the Mahabharata, the Ramayana has remained a more attractive and vicious target for Indophobes, Hinduphobes, self-proclaimed liberals, perpetually angry feminists, and other intellectuals who have seen only unadulterated misogyny and abusive patriarchy – and nothing else – in the Ramayana. Unlike “Jaya”, Devdutt gently chides such vituperation at more than a couple of places in “Sita”:

“Many modern renditions of the Ramayana focus on Sita’s banishment by Ram, but do not even refer to Ram’s refusal to remarry and even his refusal to live after Sita’s descent. Such incomplete narratives, often qualified as a woman’s perspective, strategically reveal a very different Ram. These have won many admirers in the West, perhaps because they reinforce a particular image of India and Indians.” [pg 305]

or

“Unlike Greek narratives, where achievement is celebrated, and biblical narratives, where submission and disciple are celebrated, in Indic thought understanding is celebrated.” [page 174]

or

“The Ramayana needs to be seen as an organic tradition, created by people who pour into it all that they consider best. The desire to fix and fossilize it is typically seen amongst politicians and academicians who wish to impose their views and dominate all discourse.” [pg 165]

or

“Many who hear the story of the Ramayana, unlike Sita, fall prey to what psychologists call the Stockholm Syndrome … and start appreciating the qualities of Ravana even though he uses force to drag a woman into his house and keep her captive by force.” [pg 145]

or

“The idea of laying claim over the wives of the enemy, however, does not find great favour in Indian epics; in contrast Greek epics such as the Iliad are replete with instances of Trojan women being raped and turned into slaves.” [pg 241]

On the whole, people will find Devdutt’s “Sita” a tremendously illuminating read. Having said that, there are also a few, albeit minor, faults with the book.

First, it is with the bibliography.

Perusing the bibliography at the end, I was somewhat surprised to find that Arshia Sattar’s abridged translation (“Ramayana“), or Robert Goldman’s unabridged translation (“The Ramayana of Valmiki“) do not find a place. Nor does the Critical Edition put out by the Oriental Institute at M.S. University in Baroda.

It is from the Kashmiri Ramayana, Devdutt informs us, (on page 87) that “Dashratha weeps so much that he becomes blind.” However, in Arshia Sattar’s abridged and edited translation, Dashratha’s blindness is part of the Ramayana (her source for the translation was the Critical Edition of the Valmiki Ramayana prepared by the Oriental Institute at M.S. University, Baroda) – “Kausalya, touch me. My eyes which followed Rama have not yet returned to me!” [page 155]

The second quibble is with the dialogue. The dialogues of the principal characters, almost without exception, sound stilted and forced, and it’s impossible to tell one character from the other. A surfeit of philosophy suffuses, almost suffocates, the dialogues.

If you read Arshia Sattar’s Ramayana, on the other hand, for instance, this excerpt on Hanuman’s dilemma and spiraling panic over the consequences of his impending failure to locate Sita in Lanka brings out the humorous side of the Ramayana.

“If I tell Rama that I did not see Sita, he will end his life. And Lakshmana, who is so attached to him, will see Rama dead and he too will die! When Bharata hears that his brothers are dead, he will die and then so will Satrughna. And the mothers, Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi will die when they see their sons dead. Sugriva, the honourable king of the monkeys, will give up his life when he sees Rama dead. And virtuous Ruma will die of grief for her husband and so will Tara who is already upset about Vali’s death. How will young Angada cling to life without his parents and without Sugriva? And then, upset over the death of their leader, all the monkeys who live in the forst will kill themselves by beating their heads with their fists.” [pg 427, The Ramayana, Abridged and translated by Arshia Sattar]

You can almost feel the tide of panic rising inside Hanuman. There is none of the strong passions or emotions within “Sita”. If this were a movie, one would say that the characters went through the motions, mouthing their dialogues with only a patina of faux emotions.

Sample this fairly lifeless, metronomic passage:

 “Tell her that I will be happy only if she returns to Ayodhya. But to return as queen she has to prove her chastity publicly before the people of Ayodhya…


They heard Sita say, ‘The earth accepts all seeds with love. She bears the judgment of her children with love. If I have been as true as the earth in my love for Ram then may the earth split open and take me within.'” [pg 304]

Or, can you guess which characters say these lines?

  • “Inside [this line] is Ayodhya and you are Ram’s wife. Outside is the jungle, you are a woman for the taking.”
  • “Inside the line you were someone’s wife. Outside you are just a woman for the taking.'”

In case you are wondering, the first line is said by Lakshman to Sita as he goes out in search of Rama. The second line is uttered by Ravana after Sita has stepped outside the line to pay her respects to Ravana!!

In a balanced analysis, Devdutt’s “Sita” is a massively informative book, short enough and organized into short chapters to make it an easy read. Look past the somewhat monotonous dialog and it is a rewarding experience.

Book details:

Paperback: 320 pages

Publisher: Penguin (20 October 2013)

ISBN: 0143064320, 978-0143064329

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are the personal opinion of the author.

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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.