Book Review: The Forest of Enchantments
By Susma Sharma Gurumayum
Released early this year, ‘The Forest of Enchantments’ is Sitayan, as opposed to Ramayan. This is the story of Sita, with her as the protagonist. It is a love story, a tragedious love story.
The mythological gods Ram and Sita never enticed me. I always saw Ram’s treatment of his wife Sita as unfair, and her extreme diligence and meekness problematic. And, glorification of the later for the same always unsettled me. I thought this might book change my stand on them for a while, and it somewhat did, but not so much. Not having read the Ramayana but having had knowledge of it in bits and pieces through TV series, stories and movies, I did get to learn more Ramayana related stories, like how some Jaina sources depicts Sita as the daughter of Ravan in one of the epic’s many versions.
The book questions Ram’s attitude towards his wife. It is explained on the basis of the importance of dharma and statecraft, and him bound by his duty of being a king. How he had responsibility towards maintaining a social order, and maintaining the peace of his kingdom. How he had a duty towards his kingdom, his citizens. At some point, Sita asks (herself) if she was she not a citizen of his kingdom. It questions Sita’s extraordinary endurance, and tries to explain it on the basis of love, first for her husband Ram, and later for their twin sons.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tells us stories of other female characters and depicts them as less untrustworthy, less wicked, and makes them more human. They are otherwise “maligned” in the epic, and used as “cautionary tales”.
The novel claims to be Ramayan from Sita’s point of view. But the fact that the epic in original depicts women’s endurance even in the face of unjustness as strength still shows in the fiction. The writer does not waver much from the original storyline. The final chapter did try to make some alteration when Sita’s sons sang Sitayan instead of Ramayan in the climax.
The author contemplates on the essence love throughout the book. Like how forgiveness is difficult when love is involved, and how it “is the most important aspect of love”, how all her endurance was because of love. But even endurance because of love has a limit. While in the first instance, Sita agreed and passed the agni pariksha, the second time around, she says to Ram, “I must reject your kind offer to allow me to prove my innocence again. Because this is one of those times when woman must stand up and say, No more!”
The novelty of the book lies in the fact that Sita is given a voice. And she is no the longer the docile and acquiescent woman I always saw depicted, but a person with some sort of power, not as assertive or powerful as I would like her to have but some power nonetheless; her weakness being love, which was her strength too. She questions the unfairness meted out on her and her fellow female counterparts, at least in her inner musings, if not loudly. Such writing from the victim’s perspective and subaltern(ness), is a welcome trend these days, for the times they are a-changin’.
(Susma Sharma Gurumayum is the Sub-Deputy Collector of Kangpokpi district. She writes book review articles for Blue Bannerman Reviews, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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