Books · Performance & Arts

War is kind to men

Sita's RamayanaSita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For a thousand years the Dandaka forest slept.

And then Sita arrives with her tale, and the solemn-eyed flowers listen. Beginning here, in a plea for shelter and help, I hold my breath, and feel the forest embrace me with the beautiful queen of Ayodha, my fellow daughter of the earth.

The forest – not this one in particular, but, The Forest as archetype – has many functions and many grades of presence and consciousness only hinted at in this short work, but the hints are so evocative I am lost, I am watching the action between leaves with arboreal stillness and distant music in my ears. Similarly, the world of gods, only touched in the book, expands endlessly beyond the edges of the frames.

I want Moyna Chitrakar’s paintings around me at all times; I don’t want to leave her forests of curves and stripes, people like monuments wrapped in pools of colour gathered by lines radiating energy. Her marks sing the world into being without losing the memory of her hands coaxing the paint, of her mind coaxing the hands. It’s landscape and portrait as felt, as spoken between poet and listener. When she paints the ocean there is only hard hostile serried squiggles, the sea’s treacherous meaning.

It’s obviously a hand-rubbing delight to have a woman re-oriented version of a classic ‘love’ story. Sita as both actor and thinker of the Ramayana puts the story in a light that’s very unflattering to Rama himself – what a jerk. Actually, my own acquaintance with the Ramayana goes back to high school, when, in religious studies class at age 14, I worked with a small group to produce a dramatic retelling of the story. I wrote the script, and played both Hanuman and Ravana. The story was presented to us then, and in my version, as a European style fairy tale in which the prince rescues the princess from the forces of evil and they live happily ever after. This is such a violent act of vandalism that I think I ought to make reparations to the gods of literature! The world of demons is here no more ‘evil’ than its earthly counterpart, in fact the entire episode is precipitated by a needless act of violence on the part of Rama’s brother Lakshmana (who never gets come-uppance for this or other culpable acts). Ravana imprisons Sita out of desire for her, and his family, fellow demons, try to set him straight. Some befriend Sita and help her. This place is no hell.

I loved the animal characters. Hanuman was by far the most heroic and impressive person in the book, mischievous, clever though uneducated, with inexplicable and inconsistent super powers. The beautifully painted birds Jatayu and Garuda, and the gorgeous creatures of the sea, all shaped the narrative and adorned the pages. I will read this again and again.

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