Mallika Sengupta’s Sitayana (1996) is a novel on the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana with Sita as its protagonist. The novel writes the last part of the Ramayana focussing on the killing of Shambuka and Sita’s life in exile in Valmiki’s ashram. However, in course of the novel, Mallika re-examines the well-known incidents of the great Indian epic from a feminist and what now we can identify as an Adivasi perspective. It strongly argues in favour of women’s rights and the rights of the Adivasis on land, forest, and water.
The storyline of Sitayana, however, does not deviate much from the well-known story of Valmiki’s Ramayana. The novel begins with Lakshamana leaving Sita all alone close to Valmiki’s ashram and ends with Sita disappearing from the Earth in a mysterious chariot. Sita of Mallika, however, is different from Sita of Valmiki.
Mallika’s Sita is clam, confident, eloquent and a voice of dissent. She speaks for the shudras and her gender. In the beginning of the novel, she rebukes Lakshamana for threatening the non-Aryan boatman for riding the boat a little roughly, which Lakshaman thinks might harm pregnant Sita. Sita tells Lakshmana that he and Rama should not be unnecessarily violent to the non-Aryans as it damages the inherent peace of nature. When Lakshamana tells her that Rama has asked him not to leave Sita amidst the non-Aryan Adivasis in the forest but to escort her to Valimiki’s tapoban, she even tells Lakshmana that she does not consider the non-Aryans dangerous and that the cause of her tragedy was the uncalled-for violence that Rama and Lakshamana perpetrated on the non-Aryans. She points out that Ravana took revenge upon them as during their conjugal life in exile in the forest, Rama repeatedly assaulted the non-Aryans, killed one thousand raskshasas, envied the Adivasis because of his pride in his race and as Lakshamana too physically assaulted Surpanakha.
Sita tries to correct Lakshamana’s impression about the non-Aryans by saying that she has seen them closely during her stay in Lanka and she knows that they too are normal human beings like the Aryans. In fact, Sita blames Rama entirely for her tragedy.
“Each step in the staircase that has led me to this catastrophe was built by none other than Koushalya’s son by his own hands,” says Rama.
Sita also cannot tolerate the assault of Surpankha by Lakshamana and loses her sense. In contrast, Mallika writes, Rama was enjoying the ‘spectacle’ of Surpanakha’s harassment with a pleasant smile. Sita’s repeated references to the injustice done to Surpanakha in the novel actually suggest her awareness of what today’s feminists call ‘universal sisterhood,’ a bond built between women across religion, class, race and caste. Her recurrent claim that violence is not needed to deal with the non-Aryans also proves her to be fighting for disarmament and a strong propagator of peace-making.
Sita in the novel strongly speaks for the rights of the Adivasis, the shudras and the women. She dares to ask someone as powerful as sage Agastya, “Why don’t you allow women and the shudras to practise religion independently?”
Strongly protesting against this discrimination, Sita pleads that the shudras as human beings must have the right to practise religion on their own and that women should not be kept any more simply as partners to their husbands’ observations of religious rituals. When she highlights the presence of violence in Rama’s character, Valmiki tells her that the kshatriyas need to be violent to the non-Aryans as if they do not use violence to destroy the non-Aryans, the forest could not be the abode of the Brahmin rishis. Sita does not agree with Valimiki and points out that the non-Aryans have been living in the forest for thousands of years depending on its resources. The resources of the forest became inadequate for them when the Brahmin rishis started leaving habitable provinces and occupying the forest. This movement of the Brahmin rishis created a shortage of food for the non-Aryans, the Adivasis of the jungle. So, they should not be blamed if they want to register their claim on the land, water, and forest by attacking the Aryans, who are actually foreigners to these jungles.
Such an analysis of the violence that the non-Aryans perpetrate upon the Brahmin rishis also foregrounds Sita of Mallika as an environmental activist, someone who is blaming the upper caste for deforestation and fighting for what today is known as environmental justice.
Mallika’s Koushalya is also another voice of dissent. She cannot approve of her husband’s polygamy and even rebukes Rama twice for disrespecting and punishing Sita.
She tells Rama, “Rama, you were known to be not greedy. How could you, instead of clearing the doubts in the minds of your subjects about Sita, encourage them for your greed for the throne?”
When Rama says that he has abandoned Sita as the head of the state and that he cannot afford to destroy their dynasty for a common woman like Sita, she again tells Rama that the entire tragedy has happened because Rama gave priority to Dasharatha’s words over her in refusing to protest against Kaikaeyi’s evil plan. She even tells Rama that the common people of the state do not have any right to decide on the future of Rama’s personal relationship with his wife. When Rama tells his mother that by abandoning Sita, he too is suffering a lot like her, Koushalya corrects Rama by saying that he should not compare himself with Sita as she is pregnant and all alone in a forest unlike Rama who, as the head of the state, is not deprived of any pleasures and material needs other than the company of his wife.
Mallika’s Koushalaya, in fact, strongly aligns herself with Sita from the beginning to the end of the novel to prove again that mothers-in-law do not always act as the agents of patriarchy. They can indeed fight against patriarchy for the empowerment of daughters-in-law. Koushalya of Mallika treats her daughter-in-law not as one placed under her in the familial hierarchy but as her equal in terms of dignity and rights of a woman.
Mallika’s Rama, though, is not at all an ideal king and looks a patriarch, is a complex character. He is not an avatar, but a human being who suffers and can even repent for his errors. He, however, is conscious of his image as a king to whom the priority is the state and its maintenance as a Rama Rajya over his conjugal life. He tries to justify the use of violence by him giving the logic of the need for maintaining peace in Rama Rajya. Sita’s analysis of Rama’s character, which actually seems to be Mallika’s take on Rama, is highly interesting in this context. She tells Valmiki that Rama had a habit of uttering cruel words for her and Lakshmana during their stay in Valmiki’s ashram.
She argues, “In order to be good to the public, the anger and the cruelty of his body that got suppressed within, were vented out onto us and the non-Aryans.”
This is, of course, a psychoanalytical study of Rama’s character by Sita, a study which seems to be hardly wrong. Rama of Sitayana, however, is fully aware of the functioning of the state and its exploitative nature. When Koushalya tells him that how could the subjects of a state question the righteousness of the act of a king as they are absolutely dependent upon the King, he corrects her saying that the subjects are not dependent on the King; rather it is the king who is dependent on them.
He tells his mother, “They put in labour and we enjoy the fruits of it.”
The entire novel critically examines the place that state as an exploitative structure fixes a woman to for positioning her as the second sex and perpetuating her subjugation by patriarchy.
Mallika’s representation of the non-Aryan Adivasis also deserves attention. Ravana, in the novel, questions the notion of ethicality. He points out that what is ethical for the Aryans might not be ethical for the non-Aryans. Ravana, thus, points out that the Aryans tweak ‘ethics’ as per their want and need. Mallika also shows how the Adivasis unite and decide to fight guerrilla war against the Aryans to protect the rights over land, water and forest under the leadership of Shambuka.
Mallika creates a character Mitra, Shambuka’s beloved, to highlight the contrast between two value systems: the Aryan and non-Aryan. Mitra is given an important role by Shambuka in the guerrilla war against the Aryans. She is not at all a passive spectator of the war but becomes an active participant in it. Mitra, too, asks a very important question about the identity of a shudra, “Who is called a shudra? If a black son is born in an Aryan family, is he also called a shudra?”
In fact, Mallika attacks the myth of Ram Rajya as a golden rule by highlighting the fact that in this ideal state a shudra like Shambuka could be beheaded by the head of the state for engaging himself in tapasya, which was not considered the right of a shudra.
The most interesting part of this rewriting, however, seems to be the way Mallika describes Valmiki’s decision of making Rama a bit soft and portraying Sita as a passive sufferer as such portraits, he thinks, would appeal to the readers.
Mallika writes, “After long contemplation, Valmiki decides that his duty would be to dilute the faults of Rama. His Ramayana is not only the life story of Rama. It is rather poetry written to support the newly created structure of the state, it will give direction towards the duties of the state over the years and for ages will keep the kings respectful to the Brahmins.”
So, Mallika’s Sitayana argues that despite knowing the truth, Valmiki penned the Ramayana as a pro-Rama tale for vested interests.
Mallika’s Sitayana, thus, looks at the writing entirely as a political act and itself produces one such politically charged version of the Ramayana by taking side with the women and the Adivasis. It will also be remembered for ages as an important contribution to protest literature.
(Angshuman Kar is a writer and researcher. He is a Professor at Department of English and Culture Studies and the Director of Centre for Australian Studies at The University of Burdwan. All excerpts of the novel are translated by Kar. All views are personal.)