Centuries ago, the God-turned-prince Rama married Sita, a princess who was an incarnation of the soil. They lived happily, until one day the prince had to go into exile — in view of the larger good. The princess followed him, out of sheer love. The hardships of the forest notwithstanding, they lived happily together, until the princess was abducted — again, for the larger good.
The prince fought a tough battle and won her back. Following taunts from the public about his wife’s chastity, however, the prince decided that the young bride had to go through an agni pariksha, or fire test. Though her chastity was proved, the prince would not accept her – again, in view of the larger picture – and she found herself headed for yet another exile, this time alone. Everyone praised the righteous prince and he lived in prosperity ever after.
That, very broadly, is the story of the Ramayana, as commonly narrated everywhere in India, where the concepts of “righteousness” and “greater good” have been purveyed through the generations, often overriding the many alternative voices.
Now, centuries later, comes Breaking the Bow, a set of 24 essays that question the received wisdom, such as Rama’s act of doubting his wife and subjecting her to a test of chastity and self-exile. It is, in effect, a carefully woven set of commentaries on the “other” view of the Ramayana that highlights the insensitivity of a so-called God in testing an innocent woman to satisfy a few dissenting voices.
Beautifully told – some of these stories recreate Rama’s ancient legend by equating it with characters in the modern world – Breaking the Bow is truly a work of speculative fiction as the subtitle promises.
It is not just Sita’s pain that you hear about, but assessments of femininity as seen from other perspectives. For instance, Surpanakha and Mandodari also suffered for being related to Ravana, evil personified in the conventional version of the epic. In the story “Fragments from the Book of Beauty” by Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Mandodari tries to coax Sita to forego her pride and accept Ravana. “What is your chastity worth, Sita?” she asks. “Heed my words and you can avert our shared tragedy… Need women be trophies of war, fought over for honour? Do you need to be rescued? Can’t you rescue yourself?”
This is not the story of the Ramayana as we know it but of other voices and views. “Day of the Deer” by Lavanya Karthik presents Sita, as well as the goodness of the gods, in a different light. Kaikeyi recounts the story of samudra manthan, the great churning of the ocean to draw forth divine nectar. “It was supposed to have been shared by their gods and ours, as a symbol of their equality. But, again — trickery. Our people were turned away, cheated of what rightfully was ours,” Kaikeyi tells Sita. The writer speculates whether Kaikeyi and Sita were descedents of the rakashasas.
Though Rama is not necessarily the hero in these stories, he is not treated unsympathetically in at least two of them. “Great disobedience” by Abirami Velliangiri says a lot about Rama’s plight, and so does “Weak Heart” by Tabish Khair. Both stories present the dilemma of being a God in human form. Rama gets to tell the reader that many of his actions were influenced by his divinity. He desperately wanted to act like a human, he says, but was forced to proceed on a path cut out for him, like an actor who has to follow a script. “Some might claim that I was born with a hardened heart. That is what Surpanakha screamed as she fled, trailing blood and curses… Now they call me God. Not just a god… But a God with capital G,” he says in “Weak Heart”.
These, however, are only some of the alternative tellings of the Ramayana. Breaking the Bow brings together authors from different parts of the world, from the UK to Sri Lanka. They speculate in science fiction, the real world and different time zones. Thus, Rama is not restricted to Ayodhya; Sita does not meet the same fate in different spaces as she does on earth. Lakshman is not the ever-obedient brother; he, too, has his shades of grey. Hanuman shows the occasional inclination to defy his lord. Ravana, as we are told and retold, is not an age-old villain; he is the kindest, the wisest and a most learned king. Surpanakha is not an ugly and clumsy woman, as in Tulsidas’ portrayal or in Valmiki’s original script. She, too, is endowed with her share of beauty and grace, and is mutilated for being upfront, the greatest virtue of a rakshasa.
Not only does Breaking the Bow entertain its readers, it also offers a new perspective on conventional notions and deep-rooted judgements. You get to learn and unlearn a lot, even as these re-tellings are as entertaining as the original.
BREAKING THE BOW
Speculative Fiction inspired by the Ramayana
338 pages; Rs 395