Mythology, as we have always known, is pre-dominantly patriarchal. Not only have men hogged the limelight, they have also suppressed and subdued the voices of women and their presence throughout the mythological narrative.
When I first thought of writing Dashavatar-Stories of Lord Vishnu, I was confident of my intentions to augment the voices of the female characters, especially the ones who did not find much prominence in earlier narrations. Imagine my shock when I first discovered that not only was it that the women’s voices were subdued but also that they were hardly even present in the stories. Entire incidents and stories are told with not as much as a mention of a woman, who would otherwise have been a central character in the story. Women were seen, not heard. They were somewhere in background, if mentioned at all.
I not only rejected these stories, but also decided that I didn’t want to be even associated with them. After all, it was in direct conflict with not just my style of story-telling but also who I was as an individual. After writing stories of strong female characters as I had in Just Another Day, there was no way I would take a step back as a feminist writer. There was no chance of me going against the grain. I was writing to effect some change in society, not to reinforce stereotypes and regressive ideals. It was then that I strongly doubted my own capabilities to write these stories at all. I was already contemplating shelving the whole idea when it dawned on me that this is how the biases had propagated. Because feminist writers like me, instead of embracing the opportunity to rewrite these stories, were shying away from our responsibilities of amplifying the female voices.
How could I tell these stories without altering the events and yet, without compromising on my notions of gender equality? I knew then the challenge that lay in front of me.
My decision to tell these stories as close to the original versions as possible had to immediately be amended to telling these stories as I believed them to be true. This would prove to be quite a task, I figured, especially since I had the added challenge of staying within the confines of the popular versions as told over the centuries. I questioned, doubted, analysed, and even refuted the stories as they emerged in my research. Whatever I did not agree with or found believable was scrutinised in depth until I could come up with a plausible explanation that satisfied the strong-headed feminist in me.
Hence, in the story of Rama avatar, while popular version portrays Sita as one who is a victim of her circumstances, for me, it is not so. Sure, as per popular belief, she had accepted the demands of the public and their king, Rama, but who was to say that she did not speak out. Sita, as per my version in the story, is someone who exercises her right to speak, instead of the submissive docile woman she is made out to be. She does not accept willingly the outcome that she is awarded. Nor does she grovel for her husband to accept her. She does not even consider the idea of pleading to the public to give her another chance. For me, Sita is as strong-headed as she was gracious. Her dignity is not in her silence but in her demeanour. She is not stoic or weak, but brave enough to show her tears. Despite the challenges and obstacles that have come her way, she has the faith and confidence to forge her own path ahead, charting the course of her life as per her wishes.
My decision to tell these stories as close to the original versions as possible had to immediately be amended to telling these stories as I believed them to be true.
Similarly, in the same story, the woman who was wrongly doubted by her suspicious husband, is not one who is sobbing quietly in a corner. She is one who is wailing, screaming, kicking, and creates a huge ruckus when the royal court is in session. It was all against the diktats of what good women are supposed to be like.
Another such incident is when Parshurama’s mother, Renuka, is alone at home when the royal hunting party drops in unannounced. Instead of cowering behind closed doors, she speaks to them, welcomes them home and treats them to a lavish lunch. She not only interacts with the soldiers actively but also vehemently opposes the King when the royal party proposes to take the cow, Kamdhenu, away. Even as they are leading the cow away, Renuka does not accept the turn of events, and opposes them to the point that they cannot ignore her protestations.
There are several such incidents throughout the book where I’ve been able to marry my feminism with the mythological narrative to make the stories more contemporary and believable, despite being the very same stories that we have heard from time immemorial. The events and incidents may be the same, and not much has changed, including how the women were marginalised. But in my version, they are angry, and they dare to speak up. They do not shy away from shouting, speaking, screaming. They are, in addition to being seen, heard loud and clear.
As a feminist, I am proud of each of these stories; for the women exercise agency and choice, even when it seems that none may be available. It is a lesson not just for me, as a consumer of these stories, but also as a writer who would like to reclaim the mythological stories in line with my idea of feminism.
Piyusha Vir is an award-winning writer and blogger, CELTA-certified English Language and Creative Writing Coach. She quit her high-profile hotel sales career and turned to writing in 2015. She has authored two books – Just Another Day-a collection of thriller short stories, and Dashavatar-Stories of Lord Vishnu. The views expressed are the author’s own.