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When Women Retell the Ramayan

 Nabaneeta Dev Sen

pic poets the world over are For me it all started in 1989 with an threw a challenge to the Brahmin court
men singing the glory of other accidental re-reading of the text of poets by writing a perfect classical
men—armed men, to be Chandrabati Ramayan. That is where Ramayan. Chandrabati, on the other
precise. In a study I did a couple of I discovered that a women’s Ramayan hand, composed a Ramayan which
years ago, I noticed that out of the tells a different story. Since then, I told only the story of Sita and
thirty-eight basic things upon which have been fascinated by women’s critiqued Ram from a woman’s point
most epic narratives of the world are retellings of the Ram tale. My studies of view. The Brahmins did not allow
based, only nine are associated with on Chandrabati’s, Molla’s and Molla’s work to be read in the royal
women. The ideals of the epic world Ranganayakamma’s Ramayans have court. And critics have rejected
obviously do not have much to share been published. Chandrabati’s as a weak and
with women, nor do the women enjoy Chandrabati and Molla are the very incomplete text. Ranganayakamma
the heroic values. There is little they first women to retell the Ramayan in suffered a great deal of social
can do there—other than get their regional language, and they have ostracisation for her attack on the
abducted or rescued, or pawned, or amazing similarities. Both remained ‘Holy Book’.
molested, or humiliated in some way unmarried out of choice in order to The village women care neither for
or other. So, what happpens when become professional poets, both the court nor for the critic—and they
women choose to retell an epic? There worshipped Shiva, yet wrote a are not out to change the world. They
are many alternatives. Ramayan. But here they took different continue to sing for themselves. I am
1. You could tell it like it is, by routes. Molla, a woman and Shudra, grateful to the late A. K. Ramanujan
borrowing the traditional eyes for his encouragement of this
of the male epic poet, as Molla work. He was vastly enthusi-
does in her 16th century astic after reading my paper
Telugu Ramayan. on Chandrabati Ramayan in
2. You could tell it like it is, February 1991, and told me
looking at it with your own about Professor Narayana
women’s eyes, as Chandrabati Rao’s unpublished work on
does in her 16th century Telugu women’s Ramayan.
Bengali Ramayan. Ramanujan felt that a lot of
3. You could tell it like it is Chandrabati’s perceptions
by borrowing an ideological were shared by these Telugu
viewpoint as Ranganaya- women. Chandrabati also sup-
kamma does in Ramayan ported Ramanujan’s view that
Vishabriksham, rewriting the women’s traditions held an al-
Ram tale from the Marxist ternative perception of Indian
point of view. civilisation. Thus, the connec-
4. You could tell your own tion was made in my mind.
story through the story of Sita, With references from Profes-
as the village women of India sor Rao, I went to Andhra
have been doing for hundreds Pradesh looking for more ma-
of years. terial. Then to Bangladesh and
Illustrations : BADRI NARAYAN, The Ramayana

to Chandrabati’s village. Gradually my flourishes only on the periphery. The west, Telugu in the south and Maithili
interest spread its wings wider. Here I male Sita myth, where she is a “devi” in the northern Hindi belt.
focus on contemporary rural women’s (deity), continues in the mainstream. The favourite episodes of the
Ramayan songs in Bengali, Marathi, In the women’s retelling, Sita is no women singers seem to come mostly
Maithili and Telugu. rebel; she is still the yielding, suffering from the Balakanda and the
Just as the Ram myth has been wife, but she speaks of her sufferings, Uttarkanda, the two so-called
exploited by the patriarchal of injustice, of loneliness and sorrow. spurious books, excluded by strictly
Brahminical system to construct an In the women’s folk tradition in classical Ramayan scholars. The
ideal Hindu male, Sita too has been India, never mind where you are, Balakanda deals with the birth and
built up as an ideal Hindu female, to which century you belong to or what marriage of Sita and what happened
help serve the system. The impact is language you speak, you are all before Ram’s coronation plans were
far-reaching. Several years ago, Sally sisters in sorrow. Though the singers made. And the Uttarkanda tells us
Sutherland showed that for 90 per may live in different parts of the what happened after the war, after
cent of the Indians she interviewed, subcontinent, wear different clothes, Ram-Sita’s return to Ayodhya.
Sita was their favourite (mythical) cook very different food and vote for Uttarkanda is not a flattering book
woman. No one blesses a bride by totally different political parties, when for Ram. The topics that interest men
saying, “Be like Draupadi”. It is they sing the story of Ram, they are do not seem to interest the women.
always Sita and Savitri. They are the astonishingly close to one another. They leave out the details of war,
saviours. Savitri saved her husband In their feelings, their perceptions, Ram’s glory, Brahminical rituals, and
from death, Sita saved him from their expressions, their choices of so on. The women seem to sing
disgrace. Although Sita’s life can events and their responses, they echo mostly of abandonment and injustice,
hardly be called a happy one, she each other. So much so that it took a and of romance, weddings,
remains the ideal woman through good deal of careful screening and pregnancy and childbirth. Naturally,
whom the patriarchal values may be categorising of the songs to keep their the songs centre around Sita, rather
spread far and wide and through identities clearly separated in my mind. than Ram. The areas where Ram
whom women may be taught to bear These work songs and ritual songs usually shines brilliantly, those of
all injustice silently. have opened up a rich world of moral strength (like father
But there are always alternative women’s Ramayans. While weeding worshipping) and of physical
ways of using a myth. If patriarchy or sowing in the field or husking or prowess (like demon killing), do not
has used the Sita myth to silence grinding in the courtyard, or preparing seem to interest the women at all. One
women, the village women have for religious ceremonies, the women area of Ram’s moral judgement does
picked up the Sita myth to give all across the country sing these bother them though—his wife-testing
themselves a voice. They have found songs. These are connected with (agnipariksha) and abandoning of
a suitable mask in the myth of Sita, a different moments of a woman’s life, Sita. Incidentally, the man who seems
persona through which they can and here Sita is the name of the to appear most in the songs is
express themselves, speak of their woman who attains puberty, gets Lakshman, the brother-in-law and
day-to-day problems, and critique married, gets pregnant, is abandoned forest companion of Sita (the other
patriarchy in their own fashion. and gives birth. They call it the slave of Ram). He appears to be the
In the women’s retellings, the Ramayan but it is of Sita that they only man whom the rural women of
Brahminical Ram myth is blasted sing. India and Bangladesh care for, with
automatically though, probably, In their retellings of the Ramayan whom Sita can communicate.
unwittingly. Here, Ram comes through for women naturally to pick and The six major themes in these
as a harsh, uncaring and weak-willed choose their episodes; they are not songs are: Sita’s birth, her wedding
husband, a far cry from the ideal man. interested in the heroic epic cycle, (with a touch of pre-marital romance),
The women do not mind calling him which has no relevance to their lives. her abduction, pregnancy, abandon-
names such as pashanda or papisthi If what they create is fragmentary, it ment, and childbearing.
or directly attacking him by saying, is because their lives are fragmentary. The rural women in India and
“Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash” For them, it is the whole story. It Bangladesh have shared the same
(Ram, you’ve lost your mind). This is reflects a woman’s world in its entirety. historical experience, the same socio-
possible because the women’s songs These are the four language of my economic situations, and their
are outside the canon. Women’s Sita present area of interest: Bengali in the response to an elitist patriarchal text
myth, where Sita is a woman, east (Bangladesh), Marathi in the naturally shows a great deal of

No. 108 19
commonality. Their values are not us that a woman has no social identity Sita the Foundling
very different from each other’s, but of her own, her husband lends her his
Now to consider some songs. We
are very different from those of their identity and defines hers by it. The
begin with the theme of Sita as the
ruling males, which are the concerns Sita songs are the songs through
essential orphan. There is a Marathi
of an epic. Hence, the Ramayan sung which we can hear the voice of the
work song—Sita, in forest exile, is
by the mainstream bards have little in silent majority, whereas the epics sing
talking to the birds and trees as she
common with the women’s songs. the glory of the powerful few. Let us
has no one else to talk to:
Women sing for themselves, the male see how these songs deal with the
“Sitabai says,
bard sings for the public. Their topics we have just indicated.
approaches to the epic and to the act Each language seems to have its ‘What kind of a woman am I?
of singing are totally different. The own special touch while dealing with I was given away to Ram when I was
professional bard sings of Ram. The Sita’s travails. For example, Marathi five years old.
village woman sings of Sita. seems to be the only one of these What sort of mother’s love have I got?
Ten common sub-themes may be four languages which has the detailed ...Dear Plum tree, dear Babul tree,
derived from these songs which are accounts of Sita’s sufferings at the Sita is telling you the story of her life.
highly relevant to women’s lives in hands of the in-laws and the useless Please listen... I was found at the tip
India today, especially rural women: husband who plays into their hands. of a plough
1. Sita, the foundling. The girl child And songs depicting Janak’s How can I have parents?
as the essential orphan. desperation for finding a husband for I was found in a box, in the open
2. The worry of the parents over Sita recur the most in Maithili. The field.’ ”
getting their daughter married. support that Sita receives from all the
One can feel the eagerness of an
3. Child marriage and its concerns. women of the household when she
isolated woman to communicate. This
4. The giving-away songs. is being sent off to the forest is to be
feeling of being utterly alone and
5. The in-laws and the bride, the found only in Telugu songs. The
unloved is echoed in other languages.
nature of domestic abuse. Bengali songs probably use the most
I quote from Chandrabati’s Bengali
6. The golden deer. Blaming the harsh words about Ram, although
poem, where Sita tells Lakshman:
victim. The ‘she asked for it’ practically every woman worth her
mentality. salt in the other languages criticises “I have no father, no mother
7. The woman’s desperate need to him too. In Bengali, he is portrayed I was found at the tip of a plough
bear a son to keep her place in as not only jealous and suspicious, I don’t know who my parents are
patriarchal society and the value but termed ‘stone-hearted’ and a Or who my brother is
of male life. ‘sinner’. Chandrabati calls Ram a Like moss in a stream
8. Pregnancy—the cravings, the deranged wimp, and to make the I float from shore to shore...”
desire to be spoilt a bit. picture clearer, describes him in a way In a contemporary Marathi work
9. Childbirth under dire conditions. that makes him appear closer to a song, Sita echoes her 400-year-old
10. Abandonment. Facing rejection dragon than a king. She also holds Bengali self:
and dispossession of one’s social him responsible for the fall of
identity. Ayodhya. Ironically, this did come “I have no father, no mother
It is not hard to see what purpose true 400 years later in 1992, with the I have lived my life in forests, eating
the Sita myth serves in the life of rural destruction of the Babri Masjid by wild fruits
women. It offers them a persona and Ram-worshipping fanatics. Across I have no sister, no brother
a voice. the country, village women have My soul has become an exile
These themes, obviously, have no incredible identification with Sita, and Living in the wilderness.”
religious significance, and do not though they have affection for Ram And now as we consider this
concern men very much. These are the child, or Ram the lover, they do Munda tribal song from Chhota-
songs that deal with the most difficult see him as a tyrant and an unjust nagpur (very close to Mithila), we hear
or dangerous areas of a woman’s life, husband. Never mind that Ram is a Sita’s sigh again:
the intense moments of insecurity or god and is presently on a comeback
physical risk. They do not complain trail to save the world. In these “On the grassy uplands, the
about hard work or poverty; all the women’s folk songs, he will always ploughmen found me
songs complain about neglect and be less than a perfect man, and a far They took me to the King’s palace...
denial of their rights. The songs show cry from a hero. I grew up like an edible fruit

Though Janak gave me in marriage lifts it with her left hand while naturally bad-tempered Lakshman is
to Ram sweeping with her right. Janak faints most annoyed when he hears this—
I didn’t forget my sufferings... on seeing this as he had never been “Why is she so desperate? Ram will
Never have I known happiness...” able to move it himself. Later, he bursts come in his own sweet time and string
out into a loud lament —“Ab Sita the bow.” Well, Sita obviously didn’t
Why is it that all these women
rahali kumari, yo!” (Now Sita will want to take a chance.
choose to sing of Sita as an orphan,
remain unmarried, woe!). Since a Another Maithili song begins
rather than a princess? The
woman needs a husband stronger without any preliminaries: Sita herself
commonest epithet for Sita in
than her and Sita has such goes to her father and says—“Sunu
Bengali (also found in Maithili) is
extraordinary power, would she ever Baba araji hamari yo, kumari katek
“Janam-dukhini” (born to suffer).
meet her match? Sita’s suitor must be din rakhava? Iho ne uchit vyavahar
In the fundamental insecurity
able to string that bow! A Swayamvar yo!” (Listen father, I have something
underlining life, all of these songs
Sabha is called, and suitors arrive to tell you. How much longer do you
see the universal woman as an
from all over. The same story appears plan to keep me unmarried? This is
essential orphan, as a being
in Maithili, Bengali, Telugu and not right behaviour!”). Thank God,
without an identity, an ever-
Marathi, with variations. In Maithili, Lakshman didn’t get to hear this
alienated self in exile.
Sita plays an active part. This episode conversation. Janak of course reacted
Finding a Groom is not found elsewhere. For example, promptly and got the astrologers over.
Even though these women when one after another, suitors fail to In almost all these songs, Ravan
empathise with Sita as an orphan, string the bow, Sita’s parents are in a comes to the gathering of princes as
they still show great sympathy for panic—“Ab Sita rahala kumari, a suitor, and falls on his face, unable
Sita’s foster parents, who had the dhanusha na tootala he!” (Now Sita to lift the bow. Sita cannot help
responsibility of finding a suitable will remain a spinster, the bow remains laughing, and a humiliated Ravan
match for their girlchild, which to unbroken!). But a broken-hearted Sita takes an oath to get Sita by force some
this day is seen as a terrible burden climbs to the rooftop and shouts: day. The women take great pleasure
all over India. “Unchi jharokhe chadi Siya in describing how the ten-headed
Here is one song about looking for Chahundishi Chitvathi he/Mai he, nai demon failed miserably—in Telugu, in
a groom. koi duniya me bir pita-pran rakhata Marathi, in Bengali, in Maithili, it is
he?” (Oh, mother, is there no one strong the same. As opposed to Ravan, there
“Princess Sita is scrubbing the floor enough in this world who can string is Ram, a tender teenager, tall, dark
Her sari slips off her shoulders, the bow and keep my father’s vow?) A and handsome. Sita is worried that
and her mother the queen tells this lean and dreamy-looking
the father sadhu may never be able to lift
Up, up, King Janak! What are the bow. She even expresses
you doing here? her anger towards her father for
Go, get a groom for Sita. taking such a harsh vow. But
She is ready for a husband. lo and behold! The tender boy
So Janak gets up, puts on a does it. He breaks the bow.
clean dhoti,
ties his pagdi on his head Sita as Child Bride
and takes his peasant’s staff in Now let us come to the theme
his hand of child bride. Getting Sita
and sets out towards Mungher ready for the wedding, getting
and Maghadha.” (No.508). her ready for the in-laws. In
Clearly, here we have a these songs we can hear the
Bihari peasant father, looking heart of the Indian woman. The
for a groom for his daughter, lament for a very young girl,
not preparations for royal not yet ready to start an adult
matchmaking. life, being sent away in
In another song, young Sita, marriage into an alien
while cleaning the courtyard, environment. Take this Telugu
comes across a hefty bow and song:

No. 108 21
“The tiny girl is only as tall as seven “Don’t visit your neighbours after The description gets pretty
jasmine flowers. sunset graphic from time to time:
She can stand neither the heat nor Don’t go to the washerman in the
“Sita was tortured by one and all
the rain... evenings
They fed her only bitter neem leaves
Such a lovely child is being given Never leave your hair open in the
for twelve years
away in marriage, to Ram.” street
They didn’t let her wear Kumkum for
Then, this Bengali song, from Don’t laugh, showing all your teeth
twelve years
Bangladesh: “alpo alpo dhailo re ja Don’t look around when you are in a
Her hair is all tangled up
/ Sitar hoibo sardi jar / gamchha diya crowd
For twelve years they didn’t let her
tuilo kesher jal go” (Little by little Keep your eyes downcast in public
wash it.”
pour the water, let’s dry her hair with Never step upon the rice husks
a towel, or Sita might catch a cold). Strewn on the kitchen floor.” A clear picture of domestic
Sita’s aunts are bathing her—the abuse, both physical and mental. She
And the most important advice of
basic paradox of child marriage is is not allowed to eat, nor to groom
all: “Never offer flowers to any man
exposed in this song. A mere child, herself. She is not allowed sexual
other than your husband.” The song
who is not yet even physically capable pleasure either.
has its place in Andhra weddings
of taking care of herself, is being even today, since the mother’s advice “Sita has been in exile
forced to take up the social is still the same. It reads more like a right inside her bedroom
responsibility of wifehood. book of etiquette for middle-class Ram didn’t share her bed
housewives, than the wedding song For twelve years
The Giving Away of Sita She was locked up behind seven doors
for a future queen.
From the child bride, we move to the Ram is absorbed in his own business
theme of giving away the bride. Here,
Sasurbas Blues
Poor Sita’s youth is wasted away.”
the anxiety of the parents comes out But in spite of all the advice, the
sharply. In a Telugu song, King child bride has a tough time at her Not only does Sita not share her
Janak takes Dasarath, Ram’s father, in-laws. In Marathi, the sasurbas husband’s bed, she is not allowed to
to the wedding hall and shows a songs of Sita give a clear picture of step out and make friends. While her
small child, Sita, sleeping in a huge the torture perpetrated on the bride husband is busy with his kingly
wedding bed. “Look, how helpless by her mother-in-law. Sasurbas is an responsibilities, she leads a life of total
she looks in that flower-bed—she important category of Marathi imprisonment. A very common
is still an innocent child.” There is women’s songs. When the picture, quite a familiar scene, in fact;
a clear hint of the possibility of Ramayan is retold by women, it is only slightly exaggerated. As the
marital rape, and the bride’s father the story of a girl who was born with singer says, “Sita’s exile was right in
is gently trying to make the groom a crooked fateline. “Brahma was in her bedroom.” This kind of torture
aware of the cruelty involved in a hurry/Drawing the line of fate/On may sound unrealistic but it is not
such an act. In all the songs about Sita’s forehead/The line became unknown to Indian women, even in
the child bride, the parental crooked...” the cities today.
tension comes out strongly. Here is a taste of Sita’s sasurbas: Torturing, even killing the wife,
In another Telugu song, Sita’s usually for dowry, is not uncommon
“Ram gave Sita his love among the educated urban middle
mother, Bhudevi, has a woman to On a tiny tamarind leaf
woman talk with Ram’s mother— class. Quite often it is not dowry but
Kaikeyi poured poison in Ram’s ears plain jealousy that leads to the torture
“From today Sitamma is truly your So he chews his paan all alone of the bride by women. As the suffering
daughter. All by himself of the Indian wife at the hands of the
She knows nothing—teach her to While Kaikeyi waits behind the door in-laws is as real as it was centuries
boil milk, to make ghee from butter Like a scorpion.” ago, these songs are not relics but a
...She has not yet been taught the Tamarind leaves are minute— Ram part of women’s condition today. When
household chores.” clearly didn’t have much to offer the women cry for Sita, they cry for
And here is the advice she gives Sita.“Chewing his paan all alone” themselves. Like Sita, they too have
Sita when she leaves—making it clear means Sita doesn’t enjoy Ram’s been conditioned to emulate the ideal
that the time has come for the girl to company even when he is relaxing— Indian woman who suffers in silence
act like a woman : his step-mother doesn’t allow it. and doesn’t complain. Sharing the

pain among friends is the only source
of relief.

Pregnancy Cravings
To come to a lighter note, women
singers pay a great deal of attention
to Sita’s desires during her pregnancy.
They ask a question that neither Sita’s
husband Ram nor the epic poet Valmiki
ever concern themselves with—what
does Sita, the individual, desire for
herself? In this Telugu song, Sita is
three months pregnant. “What does
Sitamma’s heart desire?” Well, it is
nothing less than tiger’s milk, and lamentation? Ram wipes the corner of the chariot has to wait, there are a few
Lakshman, her dear brother-in-law, his eyes with the end of his shawl and errands that she must get done first. She
gets it for her from the forest. “But, wails— tells the maid to pick Ram’s shawl from
brother Lakshman, I have one more “Where can I find a queen like Sita the clothes line, wait on him at his meals,
desire in my heart.” now? gives her a cake of soap to wash Ram’s
Who can sprinkle the floor with clothes with, orders the grocer what to
“What is it now?”—“In the middle
water as well as she can? send, tells the water carrier to fill Ram’s
of the blue ocean lies a distant
Who will give me my dhotis? bathtub daily, asks the oilman to fill
And who can serve me good meals as Ram’s lamp with oil every day, and just
In the middle of the sandbank
Sita can? before the chariot leaves, she turns back
Stands a single teakwood tree.
Sita is in exile, who will make a fine and checks once more— “Are my Ram’s
From that teakwood tree hangs a
royal bed for me now? fresh clothes kept in his bathroom?”
special honeycomb.
And make the sandal paste? Before we get too exasperated with Sita’s
With that honey I wish to eat sada
Brother Lakshman, let us shut down obsession with her wifely duties, we
the pleasure palace.” consider the end of this long song. The
Sita’s exotic taste doesn’t please singer turns around and tells us, her
her mother-in- law. She comments: And he stands his cot up on its women companions:
side with his foot while tears gush
“Hmph! I too was pregnant once, and “Sita is going to the forest.
down his cheek “like water from rain
delivered Ram and Lakshman all right. She is pouring out her heart
water pipes”. Now that Sita has been
But did I ever ask for such outlandish only to you and me (saying),
driven out, Ram has lost a maid, a
stuff? ‘Ram has no compassion
cook, a bedmaker, a housekeeper, and
All I craved for was green mangoes I am five months pregnant.’
a pleasure-giver. A terrible loss, no
and coconut...” Sita is leaving home.
doubt. In a wish-fulfilling Bangladeshi
In a Marathi song, Sita craves for song, Ram’s lament reaches the point She is sharing her sorrow with you
various fruits and vegetables, where he repents for sending Sita into and me (saying),
including something very exotic, viz, exile and begs Lakshman to bring her ‘No one felt any pity for me here.
carrots, for which Ram has to go to the back as she is the breath of his life. I am carrying a little baby in my belly’.”
market. Clearly, these are wish-fulfilling “Sita amar jaaner jaan/Sita amar We can hear the voice of disench-
songs. Lakshman appears frequently praner pran/Sita bina banche na antment and criticism, which only the
in these songs but Ram rarely does. jiban/Bhaire Lakshman, paye pari women can share with Sita, or Sita
Sita aina de/Ki kariya dilam with the women.
Sita’s Exile bisarjan”. (Sita is the life of my life; I
What happened to Ram after he sent cannot live without Sita. I fell at your The Golden Deer
his wife away to the forest? Women feet brother Lakshman, bring back There are many variations in the story
have their answers. In this Marathi Sita. Oh, how could I send her off?) of the golden deer and the abduction
song, we find Ram lamenting for Sita Let us now examine how Sita of Sita. In Bengali, Sita wants the
after he has exiled her. But what is his prepares for the exile. In a Marathi song, beautiful animal as a pet to keep her

No. 108 23
company in the desolate forest. In persecution also leads to frequent sadhu, is considered greater than her
Marathi, Sita wants a golden blouse suicides. The rate of female infanticide own life by Sita. Women provide many
made of the golden deer’s skin. In a after birth, and now even before, with reasons for Sita’s transgression but the
tribal song, Sita wants to cook the help of amniocentesis, is general consensus is against her.
venison for a change, after long years alarmingly high. It is not surprising, Because Sita broke the codes of
of fruit and roots. In a Telugu song, then, that Sita took the risk. behaviour—she had asked for the deer
Sita has been taking care of a small An alternative reasoning is found against her husband’s advice, stepped
plant that a deer comes and chews up in a Bengali women’s song. Ravan across the line, sent her guardian away,
every day. She wants the deer caught blackmails Sita into crossing the laughed publicly at a man—she was
and the plant saved. Whatever the Lakshmanrekha, by threatening to kill punished. This is what I call the “she
reason, Sita wanted her husband to himself at Sita’s door if she does not deserved it” mentality that surfaces in
chase the golden deer, and sent her come forward and hand him some food society when a woman is molested. She
brother-in-law after her husband, and water. Sita is afraid—Purush- had engineered her abduction.
although he had been specifically hatya maha paap—of the great sin Similarly, she had deserved her
requested by Ram not to leave Sita of taking a male life. So she steps abandonment. The fact that Sita was
alone. So she breaks the female code across the line to save a male life at in fact not raped is a mere technicality.
of behaviour more than once. One, at the risk of her own. It shows how In the eyes of society, she has lost
the Swayamvar Sabha, when she had male life is valued and female life her honour. As it happens all over the
laughed at Ravan—a strict ‘no, no’ is not, as seen in the practice of world to this day, the victim is blamed
for a woman; two, again by forcing female infanticide. and the injustice is thus doubled. The
her brother-in-law to disobey his elder In both cases, the value of a male rape victim must suffer not only the
brother; and three, when she crosses life, be it a son, seven sons, or a begging pain and humiliation of violation but
the magic circles, the boundary line
drawn by Lakshman on the ground
(not to be found in Valmiki, like the
vow of Ravan).
In most songs, Sita steps out in
order to give alms to the monk-
mendicant as it is sinful to refuse a
sadhu his alms. In Bengali, it is just a
single line, while in Telugu and Marathi
it involves crossing three or seven
protective circles. In this Telugu song
that women sing while sowing seeds,
Sita asks Lakshman what will happen if
she steps out of the magic circles. “You
will be abducted,” he says. When
Ravan comes in the disguise of a sadhu
and asks her to step out, she puts the
same question to him. Ravan says: “If
you cross one circle, you get one son,
if you cross two, you get two sons, if
you cross three...,” and so forth. Sita
takes no chances and greedily crosses
all seven circles. Because she wants
sons. But she also knows of the
abduction. So, What do we make of it?
In India, producing a ‘son’ is an
essential duty of the wife. Failing that,
women suffer tremendous physical
and mental abuse and, most often,
abandonment. The social and familial

the pain of social and even She has no one else to call her
familial rejection. In India, this own.
may sometimes lead to Sita says, ‘I have lived a life of
suicide; so too in the case of rejection.’
Sita. Forced to undergo the All her life she has been
chastity test a second time, an neglected by Ram,
exasperated Sita decides to Yes, all her life.”
disappear from the earth This is how women sing
forever, and does so. themselves into their Ramayan.
It is a lone struggle for the The wretched condition in
woman. Even her nearest which women in rural India give
ones choose to remain outside birth to their babies, the
her painful experience, as insecurities, the lack of help,
expressed so well in this lack of comfort, lack of a
Marathi song: healthy environment, all come
“How did they do it?? out in Sita’s birthing songs.
It melts our blood into tears... The only sign of any care is in
Who is fighting so bravely in the heating of the water, found
the forest? in Telugu, Marathi and Maithili.
Who is all alone? The infant mortality rate, and
Ram is reading about Sita’s the death rate of mothers at
exile Alas! if only Ram would understand!” childbirth in India is still quite
In a book...” This song brings out the terrible alarming. Eighty eight per cent of
The alienation of Ram’s reality from loneliness of a pregnant woman pregnant women are anaemic. Post-
Sita’s hits us directly. Ram is totally who has no one to help her in a partum care is very poor. Even today
detached from Sita’s suffering. He moment of distress, thrown out of her 67 per cent of women in India give
reads about it in a book. He is not part secure home. birth by themselves, without the help
of the book but outside it, when The loneliness of a woman giving of a doctor or nurse. The maternal
women sing the Ramayan. birth alone in the jungle haunts mortality rate is 570 per 100,000 live
women’s folk Ramayans. Let’s take births. Is it surprising then that these
Child Birth in Exile another example, this one from village women sing about
The exile songs are probably the ones Marathi: the pain and fear of a lonely
which touch the very core of a childbirth? About the lack of
“Where is the smoke coming from, in nourishment of the mother? Sita is
woman’s heart, as the Marathi and
the dense forest? their voice, for they like Sita have
Telugu songs seem to indicate. In
In the dense forest, Sitabai has given been programmed not to rebel.
Maithili, exile is mentioned as a part
of the birth songs. Take this one: “For twelve years she has been alone
Water is being boiled
“Sita leaves the palace, opening the Sitabai has given birth. in the forest.
golden gates. Where will Sitabai find a bed? Sita is hunting for roots.
Sita walks to her forest exile Dark beauty Sitabai, She must eat something.
Girls, exile is written for Sita. You better make a bed of rocks She has given birth.
Sita goes one mile, she goes two And sleep on it. For five days Sitabai has had
miles, girls, Sitabai has given birth nothing to eat.”(Marathi)
In the third mile the pain arises. Where will Sita find nourishment? No one to brew a tonic, no one to
Now life wishes to be born, girls, There is no one to cook her a meal. cook special confinement food for her.
Call the midwife, quick! Sita is in exile, there is no cradle for
“Ram has given me this gift of exile
The tree came out of the forest. her babies.
Like a sudden gust of wind...”
So, you are my friend, my well- Sita made a bed of flowers
wisher? And placed her twins in it.
You take my golden bangle then, Sitabai has given birth. Sita complains to the trees and the
And cut the cord of the baby... The hills and the forests are rejoicing. birds and then asks the crucial

No. 108 25
question about the kingdom of Ram, (papishthi) himself, goes that The forest for Sita—or the desert
(Ramrajya): “Where is my Ram unbelievable step further. for Sarah—serve the same purpose.
reigning now?” We must note the Wilderness is the opposite of society,
juxtaposition of Ram’s public Voss of Identity exile is the annihilation of all social
responsibilities with his familial In a Marathi song too, Sita looks back relations. For Sarah, as for Sita, it
responsibilities. “Ram, how could you at every step as she leaves home. She shows the fragility of woman’s status.
do this to me?” Sita exclaims in the keeps stopping Lakshman for things In epics, exile and abandonment are
next line. she has left behind. Wait! her blouse not exactly the same thing. There can
The blackberry bush does have an is on Ram’s bed. And oh, her saree is be heroism and dignity in exile—it can
answer for Sita’s question. In another there too. Then her box of sindoor. be a male experience. Ram himself is
Marathi song: Finally, she says: “I have forgotten sent into exile, but there is no
my face on Ram’s bed.” Presumably, question, of course, of his being
“Sita is nine months pregnant and
the ‘face’ is her mirror. And most abandoned. For Sita, as for Sarah, exile
in forest exile.
certainly it is her identity that she has equals abandonment. Not just being
Because Sita is a woman
left behind. For in Indian society, even dispossessed, but being rejected and
She had to face such rejection, such
today, it is believed that the wife’s driven out of home forever. There is
identity is derived from her husband. nothing heroic in being abandoned;
And so much pain,
And when he throws her out, she it can only bring shame. Abandonment
Because Sita is a woman...
does have reason for existential crisis. happens to women, to those who are
Ram, just because some wild people
That a woman’s identity is defined weak. Deserted wives are a common
by her husband is beautifully stated concepts but how often do we hear
You have sent virtuous Sita into the
in a Telugu song: Sita walks into Ram’s of a deserted husband? A man’s
bedroom and finds a lovely girl. identity belongs to himself, but a
The wilderness’ sympathies are She is shocked and hurt and woman’s identity is lent to her by a
with Sita, the child of nature. In complains to Ram till he comes up and man—with abandonment that identity
Bengali too, the exile songs are embraces her. Sita sees the pretty girl is snatched away from her.
heart-rending, but not necessarily in Ram’s embrace now, and It is a humiliation experienced by
softly worded. Bengali women recognises herself in the mirror. all women.
freely use very harsh words, She is a woman without an identity
“Sita’s exile,
including expletives in Sanskrit, for till Ram affixes it for her. To send her
Let us share it among ourselves.
Ram. Example: “Panchamasher into exile, away from her husband, is
Sita’s exile,
garbha Sitar Chhilo Rajdhame/ to deprive her of that borrowed
How many times will it happen?
Pashanda hoiya Ram Sita dilo identity. What remains is the
Sita’s exile,
bane!” (Five months pregnant, Sita foundling. From the Mahabharata to
Is happening every moment,
was in the royal palace, a heartless Moby Dick, exile has always been a
Ram sent her off to the forest!). In symbol of disempowerment—of
When leaving for the forest
another song, we find princess Sita dispossession of rights, of exclusion
Sita distributed it amongst us all
going off into exile like a ‘golden from society.
Bit by bit.”
idol immersed before its time’.
“Kichhu kichhu jayre Sita, pichhu In this Marathi song, women see
pichhu chay/Tathaapi papishthi Sita as a symbol of the suffering that
Ramer/Puri dekha jayre puri dekha is inextricably linked with
jay!” (Sita takes a few steps and womanhood. Sita, for them, is the
looks back a few times/But oh! the universal woman. Through her songs,
palace of that sinner Ram still rises the women sketch out the stark reality
high). To call someone who is of their own lives.
commonly known as karunasindhu
or the ocean of kindness, The Good Housewife
‘ruthless’(pashanda), takes a great Sita, then, offers a voice to the
deal of accumulated anger. But to silenced women of the subcontinent.
brand the patitapavan, one who Through her, women express fears
redeems the sinners, as a sinner and sorrows, their hopes and wishes.

Sita is just any other hardworking happens, however, to the hero Aeneas, for her just as they expect others to
woman, ill-treated by in-laws, who abandoned her. He fulfils his speak up for them. So even in
neglected by her husband, with mission to start his own dynasty and Chandrabati’s poem, where Ram is
nobody to fall back on, punished for build his own city. The anger of Amata severely criticised, Sita remains a
no fault of hers. But till the end, Sita is looked upon as madness, and docile wife while Chandrabati, the
remains a good housewife. Take this derided. In Nibelungenlied Part I, narrator, lashes her whip under her
Telugu song: the war is over, Ravan Kriemhild is clearly the prey. But in Part name. Sita is the one with infinite
is dead and Sita has just been rescued II, a revengeful Kriemhild is portrayed forbearance and thus a winner even
and is being gently led to Ram. On as a near demon and her whole family when she loses. She lends dignity
the way she points to a stone lying is wiped out, just as Draupadi’s is. Sita to suffering, makes forbearance a
half-buried in the ground and says remains a prey, and her sons live to heroic quality. This is what makes her
shyly to Hanuman: “What a lovely become heroes. a role model for Indian women. For, in
grinding stone that will make! I would Draupadi is too dramatic to be a spite of the sweeping changes across
like to take it back to Ayodhya.” So role model for the weak and the the subcontinent in the last decades,
Hanuman starts digging. But then exploited. Women cannot identify for the silent majority of Indian
Jambuban finds out and quickly stops with Draupadi, with all her five women, justice remains a dream,
Operation Grindstone, since such husbands, and with Lord Krishna for equality an absurdity and suffering
greed was below the dignity of a a personal friend. With her an everyday reality.
queen. An embarrassed Sita hangs unconventional lifestyle and thirst for When women retell the Ramayan,
her head in shame. It’s a song in which vengeance, Draupadi inspires awe. Sita is the name they give themselves:
women laugh at themselves. Sita is a figure closer home, the girl the homeless female, the foundling,
Whether it s a comic greed for next door, a person they know too well, unloved, rejected and insecure. 
domestic appliances or the fear and a woman whose pain they can share.
agony of giving birth alone and She is not part of the elite, and she The author is a professer in the
unattended, the women’s songs never rebels. Sita symbolises department of English literature at
reveal genuine concerns. sacrifice, a woman’s greatest virtue Jadavpur University, Calcutta. This
One can understand why Sita is the according to patriarchal traditions. paper was presented at The Sita
favourite mythical woman in India, the She laments but does not challenge Symposium, Columbia University,
ideal woman. Sita has lent dignity, Ram in the songs. Other women speak New York.
even glamour, to suffering. When
there is no escape from suffering, one
prefers to accept it with grace. Sita
helps one do just that. She is a victim
The Dilemma
who suffers in grandeur, without
being vengeful. She is a prey who
and Other Stories
never turns into a predator. Usually
in epics, preys turn into predators and
By Vijaydan Detha
vice versa. And when a woman turns Translator: Ruth Vanita
from prey to predator, out of anger or
vengeance, she doesn’t win. Even if Editor: Madhu Kishwar
she does on the surface, her victory
leads to total disaster. Those who Vijaydan Detha’s stories provide a scintillating glimpse of the
remained victims, like Andromache or rich repertoire of folk tales of Rajasthan — stories in which
Helen, pose no threat. Draupadi, a women challenge and subvert male defined institutions and
victim who turns aggressive and norms without losing their dignity and feminity. This
urges her five husbands to avenge collection stands outs for affirming the joy of living and its
her humiliation, wins the battle of vision of a more egalitarian and mutually satisfying man-
nerves but loses all her five sons. woman relationship.
No, a revengeful woman cannot
win. An angry Dido killed herself in the 169 pages  Paperback  Price: Rs 150(India), US$ 15(Abroad)
Aeneid, leaving her dream city of First Edition: Manushi Prakashan, New Delhi, 1997
Carthage incomplete. Nothing

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