It's not quite a public voice, it's heard by women alone, but it fulfils the basic wish to be heard. It is best done using a persona, by speaking through a borrowed voice. And the voice easiest to borrow is Sita's. Draupadi's, surely, would not do. With her five adoring husbands and a divine boyfriend, she is hardly an acceptable role model for the rural Indian wife.
These Sita songs, whether from northern India or the south, the east or the west, express amazingly similar sentiments. Take Sita in exile, speaking to the birds and the trees in this Marathi song:
Sitabai says, "What sort of woman am I?
I was given away to Rama when five years old.
What sort of mother's love have I got?
Dear plum tree, dear babul tree, Sita is telling you
the story of her life, please listen!
I was found at the tip of a plough...."
Women sing of Sita as a foundling, as the essential orphan—utterly lonely. That's how they seem to identify with her. As in this Bengali song:
I have no father, no mother
I was found at the tip of a plough
I don't know who my parents are/ like moss in a stream
We hear not just Sita's voice, but her mother's and her aunts' as well. Forever threatened by the cruelties of child marriage, women want security and care for our daughters. As in this Telugu song:
The tiny girl is only as tall as seven jasmine flowers
she can stand neither the heat nor the rain
such a lovely child is being given away to Rama today....
And this Bengali song:
Pour the water slowly
dry her hair with a towel
or little Sita might catch a cold.
The aunts are giving her the bridal bath. Clearly, the child is not ready even to take care of herself, let alone the responsibility of wifehood. In this Telugu song, a worried Mother Earth pleads with Rama's mother to be gentle with Sita who hasn't yet learnt the household chores:
From today Sitamma is truly your daughter,
she knows nothing...
teach her how to boil milk,
how to make ghee from butter.
In spite of all this, Sita's sasurbas (staying with in-laws) is far from a kind experience, since
Brahma was in a hurry
drawing the line of fate
on Sita's forehead
the line was crooked.
What do women want? They want to be loved. But
Rama gave Sita his love on a tiny tamarind leaf
Kaikeyi poured poison in Rama's ears.
Women also want food when hungry, they want to be clean, to dress up—like most human beings. But Sita?
They fed her only bitter neem leaves for 12 years
they didn't let her wear kumkum for 12 years
her hair is all tangled up
for 12 years they did not
let her wash it.
What do married women want? Well, marital sex wouldn't be bad. But
Sita has been in exile right in her bedroom
Rama did not share her bed for 12 years...poor Sita's youth is wasted away.
That's how the Marathi women sing of their desires during sasurbas.
Thankfully, Sita's youth wasn't totally "wasted". In this cravings-song from Telugu, Sita is pregnant—a time when women are allowed desires: What does Sitamma's heart desire? Well, since you ask, Sita wants nothing less than paneer made from tiger's milk. So, the only gentleman in the women's Ramayana, Lakshmana, gets it for her from the deep forest.
But brother Lakshmana, says Sita coyly, I have one more desire in my heart.
In the middle of the deep blue ocean
lies a distant sandbank
in the middle of the sandbank stands a single teakwood tree
from that teakwood tree hangs a special honeycomb
with that special honey I wish to eat a sada dosa....
Thus the women laugh at themselves, making fun of their desires. Hearing Sita's exotic wish, Kaushalya remarks:
I too had my sons
but did I ask for such ridiculous stuff?
I just wanted tamarind and coconut!
This wonderful self-deprecating humour is what keeps us going. After Sita is rescued from Ravana's clutches, and before the trial-by-fire, she is all dressed up and being led to her husband. On the way, she finds a stone sticking out of the ground. It will make a great grinding stone, thinks Sita, and promptly orders Hanuman to dig it up. But the wise Jambuban stops Hanuman's enthusiastic digging, saying it was rather undignified for a queen to steal stones from other's territories. Oh, the desire to collect kitchen gadgets!
But the bright moment does not last long. A pregnant Sita is exiled by Rama. Here is a Marathi song:
Sita is going to the forest
She is pouring out her heart
only to you and me
saying, "Rama has no compassion
I'm five months pregnant
No one felt any sympathy for me here."
And a Bengali song goes:
Five months pregnant, Sita was in the royal palace
A ruthless Rama sent her off to the forest.
The Bengali village women freely use the word pashanda—ruthless—for Rama, who is supposed to be karunasindhu, the ocean of grace. They even call him papishthi—sinner—Rama, who is known as patitapavana, the saviour of sinners. What do women want? They want justice.
How does Rama take Sita's exile? This is how Marathi women wish to imagine and see it:
Rama wipes his eyes with his shawl and wails:
"Where can I find a queen like Sita now?
Who can sprinkle the floor with water as well as she can?
Who will give me my dhotis?
Who can cook me great meals as Sita could?
With Sita in exile, who will make a fine royal bed for me now?
Who will make the sandalwood paste?
Brother Lakshmana, let us shut down the pleasure palace."
A terrible loss, no doubt.
In another wish-fulfilling song from Bengali, Rama's lament peaks when he begs Lakshmana to bring Sita back.
Sita is the breath of my breath, the life of my life
how could I ever abandon her?
darling brother Lakshmana
I beg you most humbly
bring back my Sita to me!
I cannot live without Sita.
This is what women want Rama to say.
Meanwhile, in the forest Sita is about to give birth, alone. What does she want now? A midwife. Here is a song from Mithila, Sita's hometown:
Sita walks to her forest exile...
in the third mile the pain arises
Now life wishes to be born, girls,
call the midwife, quick!
The tree came out of the forest.
So, you are my friend, then? My well-wisher?
You take my golden bangle then
and cut the cord of my child.
Again, a picture of terrible loneliness at a moment of distress.
What does the new mother want? Postpartum care, naturally. And we have here a Marathi song for that:
Sitabai has given birth.
Where will Sita find nourishment?
there is no one to cook her a meal
...there is no cradle for her babies
...Sitabai has given birth
the hills and the forests are rejoicing
She has no one else to call her own....
Sita's story is our own. More than 60 per cent of women in India give birth by themselves without medical attention and almost 90 per cent of pregnant women are severely anaemic. The death rate of mothers at childbirth is alarming, as is the infant mortality rate. Medical care is what they need. All women want is love and care.
While weeding, sowing, grinding or putting the baby to sleep, this is how women weave their wants into their songs. This Marathi song says it all:
it is happening every moment, everywhere
when leaving for the forest
Sita distributed it bit by bit/ amongst us all.
(The author is an eminent Bengali poet and a scholar of the epics.)