Sunday, February 14, 2010

New Age Avatars: Seeta Up Close By Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Aarttee Kaul Dhar

To quote a leading English daily, “Mythology is the new cool, legends are repackaged and retold as online games, comics, books and even movies.” According to Monica Tata, VP and deputy GM of Turner International India’s regional entertainment networks, they became the number one channel of the country when they aired Krishna.

No wonder legends, myths and retellings are being published anew and re-published to entice the readers. Their ever growing demand in the market compels one to wonder: ‘Is the modern reader now culturally aware or does this indicate a newer and broader trend?’

Most of these Indian mythological stories and retellings have been written very imaginatively with their writers augmenting, localizing and contemporizing the tales. There is a vast repertoire of such tales and their writers. Nabaneeta Dev Sen is one of them.

Sen’s ‘Seeta Theke Shuru’ (Beginning from Seeta) is a document that traces three categories of stories inspired by Seeta, the leading female icon of India. The first section is of the Pauranic Tales depicting incidents that might have happened, second is of Matriarchy with a dozen sketches in it and the third is of tales set in the modern times. The chief protagonist is a woman character resembling Seeta. To quote the author “these are not feminist stories but stories about women”.

What is amazing about these stories is that they provide alternative versions of the Seeta story of the age-old Ramayana legend. Each story depicts a picture where the plot can turn any which way. Though in the epics the women characters as Ahilya, Shurpanakha, Tarka and Seeta are eternal sufferers (as if born to suffer) these modern sets of tales paint a different picture altogether with newer and fresher perspectives examining and analyzing characters and the situations they are placed in. In Seeta Theke Shuru the modern woman traces the Indian woman’s journey from Seeta to herself, from the Pauranic times to the modern threshold.

The first story deals with the original Ramayana beginning with ‘Whatever happens is seldom true whatever is written by the epic writer is the eternal truth’.
The writer subtly hints at the probability of manipulation of truth by the epic composers. There are interesting incidents as Hanuman demanding a fresh ID to present as his locus standi to Seeta maiyya when asked to leap across the ocean in search of her as the Kishkindha ID would not hold good in Lanka, a foreign country. When warned not to lose Ram’s ring he replies he is not a lovelorn pregnant forsaken ashram lass (sister in suffering?) suggesting probably Shakuntala or Ram’s treatment of his wife in future. Hanuman then leaps across the ocean and how he deals with the immigration officer of Lanka, known as Lankadevi is not quite clear. Whether he bribes his way through or he slaps her across her face has been deliberately left ambiguous, as the option rests with the reader to decide. To each his own interpretation seems to be the driving thought of the writer.

Hanuman the original epic superman transports Seeta to Kishkindha on his back
Where the monkeys make a palanquin for her and she is reunited with her husband Ram who whispers sweet nothings in her ears and Seeta blushes. God was in his heaven and all seemed to be well in the world again but for the wrath of the epic writer Valmiki. The first object of this unleashing of temper is Ram, hero of his epic, the supposed Maryada Purushottam on his unheroic behaviour. The Rishi also casts some aspersions on Seeta’s character who accepts a free ride on a male monkey’s back without batting an eyelid. This free mode of transport robbed Ram of all the opportunities of becoming a real hero by going to battle, fighting for honour, winning back his wife and becoming eternal in the books. An over smart monkey and a practical realistic woman upset all his plans as well as that of the Holy Trinity, of a Mahasangram or mega battle that humanity had to watch and learn lessons from. How can such a war be aborted from the womb of eternal time? How can Ram now be made great and provide Valmiki a ticket to stardom and eternity?

Seeta is no less a spitfire replying that since Valmiki was originally a bandit his mentality remains the same. She has been a princess and has been on elephant backs in the past and had learnt horse riding too. Moreover Hanuman calls her mother, was of the animal world and was not a human male. She says she’s being called names because she’s an original orphan, beyond womb and no one’s child. She suggests the rishi should walk on fire to purify himself of his filthy thoughts.

Valmiki lost his tongue at this point in the story and now Ram is worried. If a Mahakavi loses his tongue what shall happen to the Adikavya and how shall he be a hero?

Seeta as usual advises Ram that the cosmic order can be restored, by her return in the same manner as she came, stealthily on monkey back. No one would know and Ram must come soon and win her back for glory and greatness. She then darts a glance towards Valmiki. A sharp and intelligent Seeta is most inconvenient for Valmiki’s male ego which is now bruised. The Mahakavi thus decides to fix her in his story; after all he was the one with the pen which is mightier than the sword. He promises himself to settle scores with Seeta later.
All of us know the fate Seeta met with, in the books.

Another story in this book is ‘In the Web of Eternity.’ Seeta is playing dice with Sarma her female guard and is at peace as she knows Ram will win the bloody battle against Ravana. She is then informed that Ram and Lakshman are dead. She cries, laments and wonders whatever happened to the prophecies of the wise old men, saints and gurus that said Ram will be a chakravarti king one day and Seeta will be the Rajrani?

Ram then opens his eyes and sees Laxman in a pathetic, wounded and precarious state. Upset by what he sees he laments and regrets attacking Lanka ‘just for a wife’. What will he do with a wife, just a small petty possession, wonders Ram, if the price is so heavy, a brother? If he was destined to have a wife he would get many but what face has he left to show his mothers Kausalya and Sumitra, and Laxman’s wife Urmila? Why was Seeta not obedient enough to stay back as Urmila? She enjoyed Laxman’s loyal affectionate services to her and her husband as a ‘sewak’ and actually didn’t want to look after his old parents. She is actually a useless beauty, good for nothing, says Ram. “What do I gain even if I get her back? She’s not a good woman so let deceitful Seeta go to hell, who’s actually worse than the Rakshasis of Lanka. I only want Laxman back and will return to Ayodhya once my brother is hale and hearty”.

Ram’s words are unbearable for Trijata who then requests Sita to stay on in Lanka as there was little sense in going back to Ram’s world. Ram was a man with clay feet, says Trijata, whereas Ravana was not weak in character; he was truly in love with Seeta. On one hand was Ravana who sacrificed his family, sons, grandsons, glory and men for Seeta and yet was unrepentant and didn’t step back. On the other hand was the husband who showed his true colours at the first test of a relationship. Does Seeta actually want to return in such a loveless marriage with him?

Seeta refuses to believe this was the real Ram and calls all this Ravana’s Maya. Sarma and Trijata feel sorry for her and her impending fate. They shed tears for Seeta wondering who could avert the fate of a woman entrenched in a loveless ungratifying empty useless disrespectful marriage and who also could not see reason and reality?

They feel sorry for a woman who has implicit trust in a spineless man who will let her down and fail her eventually, disillusioning her completely.

Seeta collapses and when she regains her senses she is ready to jump into the fire when Narada stops her. Narada being an expert manipulator of words convinces Seeta that the actual culprit is Valmiki – the epic composer who in an endeavour to become great made Ram utter all this. Men do it all the time! All men make fun of their wives behind their backs. If wives get wind of it no marriage would sustain, as it is a common male trait. He convinces her to be patient and tolerant if she aspires to be the heroine of a mahakavya or an Epic! The Rajrani or empress to be needs to be patient and thus become eternal in the books. Sita buys it.

After this, Valmiki heaves a sigh of relief saying ‘A woman’s character is complex, had things gone out of hand my Mahakavya would have been ruined, finished before completion, these women!’

Narada expresses his difference of opinion. ‘A woman is not complex Rishiwar. Her life is empty and joyless. Even then she leads such a life for sake of eternity, forever ness deluding herself at every step. Seeta knows Ram does not love her still she could not resist the temptation of being the heroine of his story and bought eternity in art and literature at the expense of her happiness and self-respect.”

Valmiki is convinced and says scratching his beard, “glory and social prestige is man’s biggest enemy in this transient world, for which man pays any lofty price, why to blame Seeta? After all she’s a woman!”

Both stories have been written very imaginatively and the writer is at her creative best. She has consciously raised some issues of possibility of tampering with the facts and manipulation of truth by poets, writers etc. As men have written all the epics of the world such a possibility cannot be ruled out. Ample food for thought has been provided here for womanists too. Nabaneeta has also hinted at man’s inborn trait of having a disdainful attitude towards woman and her intelligence. Valmiki’s words ‘after all she’s a woman’ speaks volumes!

Nabaneeta is successful in planting these questions in the minds of the reader.

Were women, such high born princesses and queens also, silenced at various points of time by various people?
Did they have a role to play in their fate?
Were they responsible for the raw shabby deal life offered them?
Does Karma (action), Niyati (fate) and society build a nexus and conspire against a woman always, at every step of history?
Do women find glory in suffering and justify it however?
Will the world ever offer a woman a fair deal?
Is equality of sexes just a fancy idea?

Substantial Food for thought!

(Aarttee Kaul Dhar writes in English, Urdu and Hindi)

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