Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest book The Forest of Enchantments helps us look at Ramayana from a different gaze, by re-interpreting Sita. In recent times, a lot of authors are going back to ancient Indian texts and mythological stories, giving modern Indians a fresh and differing viewpoint on these tales.
- Many authors today are retelling mythological stories from a feminist perspective.
- Most of us grew up perceiving mythological female characters such as Sita to be weak, whining and helpless.
- Authors today are challenging this perception by projecting these female characters as strong and complex.
- It appeals to the modern readers who feel it easy to associate with these characters via these retelling.
As of yet, we viewed mythology only from the patriarchal gaze, which appreciates chastity and obedience and portrays women as helpless maidens in distress, and project male characters as heroes. Through the current retellings, female characters like Sita or Panchali gain the most because they are shown as strong characters who do not give in to injustice.
Why is it important to humanise these characters? And just why do readers so love to read these fresh takes on mythological women?
During a Twitter chat curated by SheThePeople, Divakaruni said that she wanted to show Sita as deep and strong. Be it Sita or Draupadi or Ahalya or Parvati, writers today refuse to portray these female characters as dainty and demure. Moreover, they also refuse to show them as pious and obedient wives, forever in need of rescuing. But why? Why is it important to humanise these characters? And just why do readers so love to read these fresh takes on mythological women?
A modern and renewed gaze
In their works writers like Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Pattanaik have also offered a similar view of Sita, choosing to portray her a woman of substance, rather than a woman in distress. As someone who has enjoyed reading books like Sita: Warrior of Mithila (Amish) and Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of Ramayana (Pattanaik), I asked myself these questions. Just what was it that I loved about these books, as a reader? The answer is simple. They offered a liberal take on ancient tales which appeased my modern feminist sensibilities. Most of us women have grown up seeing Sita as a whining helpless woman, who was wronged by every one; even her husband and her kingdom. Such is the extent of her sufferings, as told to us, that in many parts of our country elders advise parents to not name their daughters after her, in order to avoid a life full of hardships.
Most of us women have grown up seeing Sita as a whining helpless woman, who was wronged by every one.
But authors today refuse to believe that. They believe that we have failed to see Sita for what she actually is, only focusing on what our patriarchal upbringing conditions us to see. Writers today are attempting is to humanise these characters, so that we can associate with their flaws, their feelings, their decisions and even their hardships. Only then is it possible for us to see Sita not as wronged wife or queen, but as a goddess who is resilient in every situation? To see Draupadi as not the queen gambled away by her husbands and a helpless woman who was nearly disrobed in a full court but as a strong-headed woman, burning with rage and thirsty for revenge.
This shift of gaze is historic because it redefines how we see Indian mythology. We do not have to solely take virtues like obedience and purity from these women anymore. We can take much more. Even showcasing anger and moments of moral conflicts in these women is of importance because it helps us look beyond the exterior aura and see the real women within. Women who are textured, complicated, flawed and thus human like us. They feel pain, love, anger, distress and they have moral dilemmas, just like us.
For the new generation of readers, mythological tales are no longer about the oppression of women, teaching them to behave in a certain way, holding certain values and emulating certain beliefs, mostly approved by patriarchy. But the Sitas and Draupadis of today's stories ask us to stop looking for saviours and reclaim our space in the society.
Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are the author’s own.