There are many books that attempt to retell the Ramayana through the perspective of Sita, especially in times that urgently seek inclusive, feminist viewpoints. Popular amongst these have been Samhita Arni’s graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana, Devdutt Patnaik’s Sita, an Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana, and Volga’s The Liberation of Sita. Yet, all of them essentially continue to flip the tale within the boundaries of Sita as victim. Sita as choiceless. Sita, as snatching empowerment within the frame of fixed circumstances she finds herself in. An entire body of works seek Sita’s perspective, but are essentially an apologetic justification of the perceived wrongs inflicted on her.
In Amish Tripathi’s Sita, Warrior of Mithila, for the first time, we get a Sita we deserve. Sita is creator and destroyer. She is the shaper of destinies, not merely of her own, but of those around her and of tribes, here the Malayaputra, that depend on and worship her, and of Lord Ram, Scion of Ishvaku’s himself. Without giving away too much of the plot, Amish’s Sita is a stick-wielding, skull-bashing, knife-throwing, fiery tempered military strategist afraid of very little and with the skills and training to be counted among India’s finest statesman and leaders. It is only when Amish erases the existing frame within which we know Sita and redraws it do we realise how much there is to fill in the gap: Her birth, her origins, her relationship with her adoptive parents, her friendships, her own politics and her society. Who is Sita, where is she from, how does her mind work and what shaped it? Who has she been, as a young woman, before she became spouse? And what in the making of her defines the kind of partner that she will be?
The book achieves what few feminist tomes are able to – it gives Sita an identity of her own – you do not really confront Lord Ram till the concluding quarter of the book, and there he is more a supportive partner to Sita’s primary fate. Sita comes alone, riding her steed of consequence. She may have been born to circumstance but she wields it as her weapon. The company of women she cultivates are not sighing surrender. Sita here is Bhoomi, the disciple of Rishi Shvetaketu and the favourite of Rajguru Vishwamitra, daughter of the spiritually inclined Janak and the pragmatic Sunaina. Deeply visual, the book takes you along as Sita arrives at a hesitant blossming towards her responsibilities – towards a kingdom that blames its economic decline on her unthinking offence to her uncle Kushadwaj, towards controlling her temper, by which a young boy in the slums is greviously injured, to the tribe that worships her, to a fragile sister and father dependent on her, and to the husband that acts to protect her. She learns that there are consequences to all actions and laws and breaking and abiding by them too is strategic. She is no demure bride to be of a prince who would be Lord, but a woman who picks a strategic alliance most suited to her mission. She owns her mistakes, crafts her collaborations, and maps her betrayals. There is great ownership of karma in Sita.
Amish achieves this by asking the unasked questions and joining the dots on mythological lineages and connections. Why would the crown prince of Ayodhya, a greater kingdom even in decline, seek an alliance with the puny non strategic Mithila? What is the basis of the blood feud between Raavan and Ram, and is Sita really merely a pawn in the process? Was Jatayu's connection really merely that of a passing samaritan? What was the relationship between the preceptors, Vishwamitra and Vasishta, and what is their end game with Raavan? Why was Raavan, the king of a tiny kingdom so far South from Ayodhya, worthy of a battle with Ram? What lends him his edge? Surely, Amish seems to say, our greatest scriptural text must have greater basis than a mere squabble between disgruntled and ambitious wives? He does that process of inquiry, and with it, the women involved in the narrative, due credit.
Thankfully not shaped by banal saas bahu machinations that offer a far too simplistic view of material and spiritual kingdoms lost and found, Amish’s feminism is that he rescues the Ramayana from the pettiness of womanly jealousy and empowers even the most villanous of women with substantial motive. Manthara is a powerful businesswoman seeking a revenge none could hold against her. Queen mother Sunaina sets the agenda for Mithila. The man-hating Samichi, Sita’s attendant, rises through the ranks to be chief of a largely male police force and then prime minister. And Kaikeyi is a side note.
The book operates at multiple layers. The traditional one, contextualising the Ramayana itself, and the contemporary one, contextualising modern day India. The gangrape of Jyothi Singh and the letting off the juvenile offender, the beautiful hidden power of Annapurna Devi’s voice, and the lurking threat of ISIS, even Jallikattu, all make their appearance on the socio-political stage laid out here. Most beautiful are his descriptions of warfare, the human body in combat, and strategic springing to action. Caste remains a recurring exploration through the book. Of unknown origins herself, Amish’s Sita proffers a Platonic view of the relationship between children and the State as a solution. There are ruminations on the role of soldiers and righteous violence and what happens to a society that becomes incapable of defending itself.
Sita Warrior of Mithila then is not so much a book about a spouse of a Lord past, as much as an inquiry into the feminine principle of statesmanship. As a political leader herself who must operate within a world of royally egotistical men, how does Sita view alliance, collaboration and balance? One of the most fascinating conversations in the book occurs between Bharat and Sita on the masculine and the feminine principles of society, the authoritarian and freedom in governance. Rescued from flailing about in an assigned destiny, Amish’s Sita must counterbalance the multiple influences on her, and shape her own politics.
Tightly graphic and fluid in flow, the book is not without its flaws, but the story more than compensates for them. It is a coming of age for Amish Tripathi whose wildly successful Mehlua trilogy has in itself been an interesting capitulation of what constitutes the Great Indian Bestseller. It would be a crying shame to dismiss this as just another work of mythological fiction. It is transformatively so much more.