As a teenager, novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni had no desire to grow up to be a woman like Sita. But she was always drawn to the story of the immortal character in the Ramayana, even though the focus of the epic is more on her husband Ram, rather than on the devoted wife worshipped for centuries as a role model for women.
It is not surprising therefore that Divakaruni places Sita at the center in her new novel ‘The Forest of Enchantment’ which is a retelling of the Ramayana in Sita's voice. The book was launched in India earlier this year by Harper Collins and has just been published in the U.S., also by Harper Collins.
Divakaruni says the traditional Ramayana is the story of Lord Ram and his heroic deeds, but in her latest novel she has tried to right that imbalance.
“I have focused on Sita, and shown how we have misinterpreted her character and her motives. She is energetic and feisty and courageous, particularly as a young woman. Many people think of her as meekly following Ram to the forest because it is her duty. The truth, based on my research sources, including Valmiki, Krittibas, the Kamba Ramayan and the Adbhuta Ramayan, is that Sita has a strong mind of her own,” Divakaruni said in an interview with India Abroad.
The book has been widely acclaimed, including by author Amitav Ghosh who complements Divakaruni as “one of the most strikingly lyrical voices writing about the lives of Indian women.” Divakaruni also wrote “The Palace of Illusions,” her retelling of the Mahabharata in Draupadi’s voice-reading some ten years ago.
She said Draupadi is very vocal and aggressive and goes for revenge when she is wronged, which is one way to be strong, but Sita speaks to more women because she shows how one can be powerful without having to hit back. One finds strength and intelligent answers to problems in the deep silence of the soul.
“Many women — in India and elsewhere — want to change things but not necessarily break or destroy them. Sita is the perfect role model for them. She has great depth and dignity. As I wrote the book, she certainly became my role model! I think men can learn many things from her character as well,” Divakaruni, the best-selling author, poet and activist who lives in Houston, told this correspondent.
To a question about the response in India to her book that has the focus on Sita rather than on Ram, against the backdrop of clamor for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Divakaruni said even though she had misgivings before its publication, it was very positively received.
“I think this is because, while I show Sita's greatness, my project is never to belittle Ram. The Ramayana is a great love story, with a hero and a heroine that are both admirable, each in his/her own way, and I try to show that. Ram is noble and brave and good and gentle, and I respect him for many things even though my focus is on Sita. Sita herself never belittles Ram -- not in Valmiki and not in my Forest of Enchantments,” Divakaruni said.
“Sita understands that he has to make difficult choices because being a good king is very important to him, and sometimes that means he has to sacrifice his personal happiness and the happiness of family members for the sake of his people. She always loves and forgives him, although she does not compromise because she has her own values, too. That is the spirit in which I wrote this novel.”
In praise of the book American Indologist Philip Lutgendorf noted: “Among the many, many Ramayanas there are now even — thankfully— some “Sitayanas”, but I know of none with the special magic that Chitra Divakaruni … brings to the telling.”