The Liberation of Sita – A Book Review

It takes a strong feminist bent of mind, to revisit the thought process of a goddess, beyond its Maa image. There is no recorded attempt by Luv and Kush (Sita’s sons) to present their mother’s side of the story. Maithili Sharan Gupt, a renowned feminist Hindi poet, has presented the stories of Yashodhara (deserted wife of Gautam Buddha) and Urmila (wife of Laxman), but not Sita.

I had written a poem ‘What happened to Shupnakha?’ in 2016, which was not accepted by most publications, perhaps, due to a fear of repercussions. Hence, seeing the book “The Liberation of Sita”, by Volga (Popuri Lalitha Kumari) kind of vindicated my stand. It is a translation of the Telugu version by T.Vijaykumar and C.Vijayasree, published in 2016.

The book narrates the meetings of Sita with the other female cult figures of her time, and the messages from them depict the mental process of a woman discovering her own identity – beyond that of a wife, mother, sister or daughter.

1. Ahalya

The wife of Rishi Gautam was turned to stone, as punishment for her dalliance with Lord Indra. Indra had approached her in the guise of her husband, Gautam, and she was unaware of his real identity.

Her message to Sita is perhaps the strongest in the book

“Never agree to a trial, and do not bow down to authority”.

And these words are uttered, long before the controversial AgniPareeksha (trial by fire) happened. She raises the most powerful question – Did it really matter, whether she knew Indra’s real identity? And can anybody claim to have proprietory rights over her, including her husband? She has spent her life as a stone, in analysing the social structure, and forming her own philosophy.

2. Surpanakha

Laxman had cut off her nose and ears, perhaps, to instigate Raavan to initiate war.

She is found living alone in a forest, away from her brother’s kingdom. She has created a garden more beautiful than the fabled Ashokvan (where Sita was held in captivity), and has found a man, Sudheera, to love her disfigured identity. As Sita describes, it is a relationship that has never existed between any man and woman before. The internal strength of both the man and woman comes to fore here.

3. Renuka Devi, mother of Parshuram

Her son had almost killed her on his father’s orders. She was being punished for looking at another man.

Here, Renuka Devi has evolved into a renowned sculptor, who alone knows the art of creating pots from sand. The process of creating a durable pot from sand, is symbolic of the solidification of an amorphous identity. Her message is that a woman’s existence is irrelevant in society, beyond her role of a dutiful wife and mother. The husband she has devoted her life to, and the sons she has borne, turned against her, in their quest to follow Dharma (any cult they believe in). They study scriptures and become renowned scholars, but continue to treat the women in their lives, as a mere object in their possession.

4. Urmila, her sister-in-law

She was deserted for 14 years, as her husband valued loyalty to his brother, more than his conjugal duties.

Urmila has been in self-exile mode for 14 years. She is bitter about not being consulted before her husband’s epoch decision. She says that she is a stronger and changed person now, and her husband will have to decide what kind of relationship he seeks with her.

Reviewer’s Note

The incidents in the book  do not appear in chronological order, but are a part of Sita’s thought process. What evolves as a strong binding factor between the women, is their ability to speak to their husbands as an individual in the end, and negotiate their terms and conditions.

Ram is depicted as a loving, but conservative husband, who treats her with kid gloves. Finally, his role as a Kshatriya ruler overpowers his love. The sacrifices were hailed as his exemplary conformity to Dharma. Sita believes that he will only have her best interests at heart, till circumstances prove otherwise.

It reminds one of movies like ‘Arth’ by Mahesh Bhatt, and ‘Astitva’ by Mahesh Manjrekar, filmed on contemporary women. The gist of the stories remains the same.

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