Books: Sita’s Ascent
Author: Vayu Naidu
Books: Seeing Like A Feminist
Author: Nivedita Menon
Publisher: Zubaan, Penguin
The Ramayana is familiar to most of us in one form or the other. The epic has had many retellings, from folk tales to televised serials, but the barebones of the story stay the same — the hero of the epic is a man, usually Rama (there are some versions in which Ravana is the protagonist). Only in a few modern versions does Sita get top billing.
Sita’s Ascent is one that tries to privilege Sita. Author Vayu Naidu shuttles back and forth in time to tell stories — many of them from folk retellings — that piece together the Ramayana. It opens with Rama as king of Ayodhya, having returned after vanquishing Ravana. When Rama overhears a civilian sneer about his decision to accept Sita as queen despite her time in Lanka, Rama orders Lakshmana to abandon the heavily pregnant Sita at Valmiki’s ashram. Lakshmana’s remorse at having to carry out this command pushes him to crash his chariot. Urmilla, Lakshmana’s wife and Sita’s sister, sneaks out of the palace and joins Sita in the ashram where Rama’s heirs, Lava and Kush, are born. Naidu tries to give Sita a happy ending by ending with Lava and Kush all grown up, Rama chanting Sita’s name in hope of a reconciliation and Sita thinking, “All would be well for a while.”
Naidu’s novella attempts to cast Sita as the star of the Ramayana. It’s the kind of reorientation that leads to the assumption that Sita’s Ascent must be a feminist retelling. But as Nivedita Menon explains in Seeing Like A Feminist, patriarchy is sneaky business. There are numerous occasions when women are apparently valourised by projects that actually strengthen the mechanisms that keep them disadvantaged.
Menon defines feminism as a perspective that notices the power dynamics that are the foundation of an unequal society. “When one ‘sees’ the world like a feminist,” writes Menon, “it’s rather like activating the ‘Reveal Formatting’ function in Microsoft Word. It reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete.” In a little more than 200 pages, Menon presents the concepts that underpin feminism without either simplifying them or getting entangled in academic language.
She analyses social structures like the family and the idea of gender to show how many of our widely-held norms are oppressive. Their effect is not just to disempower women, but also to systematically erase the diversity of Indian society. There’s only space for north Indian patriarchy. All other systems, particularly those which even nominally favour women (like matriliny), are to be weeded out. Menon also explores complicated issues like sexual violence against women, prostitution and the problems of labelling someone a “victim”. Intelligent, lucid and engaging, Seeing Like A Feminist should be essential reading for everyone. If not for anything else, then to understand how synthetic most of the notions we consider “natural” actually are.
Significantly, Menon shows that feminism isn’t a rabid, bra-burning, man-hating programme. It’s about being aware of a skewed power dynamic that marginalises people on the basis of gender. Rather than wanting to muscle men out of society, feminism seeks to include those who are being sidelined unfairly. Which means a man who opposes oppressive, gender-insensitive systems may be a feminist and a woman who upholds the same — most of us do, consciously or unconsciously — could be patriarchal.
It’s interesting to consider Sita’s Ascent with Menon’s insightful treatise in mind. Seen through the feminist lens, it becomes clear that the novella shackles Sita as much as the traditional versions. Naidu may have placed Sita at the centre of her narrative, but her characterisation doesn’t unsettle the idea of the Ramayana as a story skewed in favour of the patriarchal world order.
Sita in Sita’s Ascent is very much the victim. She is first seen as a grief-struck, abandoned woman who swoons because her husband rejected her. In flashbacks, she is the good wife whose fidelity doesn’t waver even when she is mistreated by her husband and this is what makes her virtuous. Then she is given the halo of motherhood and as a mother, her aim is to raise her sons to be worthy heirs.
Naidu doesn’t point out that Rama’s obsession with Sita’s fidelity establishes her not as an equal partner in a relationship, but a sexual object upon which Rama wants an exclusive claim. Not just that, Naidu suggests Lakshmana could empathise with Sita. Why? Because just as Sita’s captivity was wrongly interpreted by many, Lakshmana was misunderstood by Sita when she accused him of coveting her (while Rama went after the golden deer). That’s perilously close to trivialising Sita’s trauma.
In her author’s note to Sita’s Ascent, Naidu explains she wanted to write yet another retelling of the Ramayana to explore “the psychological dimension that reveals Sita’s human condition.” Naidu goes on to say that Sita’s Ascent “allows identification and empathy with Sita, instead of viewing her as a victim. Had Sita been a victim she would not have survived.” On the contrary, victims do survive. After all, Indian women, victimised by patriarchy for generations in varying degrees, have managed. Menon’s real-life examples show many “victims” have wrestled with the system and found happy endings that don’t subscribe to a misogynist world order, which is more than Naidu’s Sita manages.