Sita: Warrior of Mithila is a delightful edit of the patriarchal Ramayana
Growing up, some of us had dutifully read through Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Not because we were made to by some 'higher' power, but because, well, we needed the marks.
And let's be honest, we have always wondered why the female characters in the epics did not have as much agency as the males.
While Draupadi had her sparks of fire, something that Peter Brook brought to life through the powerful Mallika Sarabhai on screen, Ravi Chopra did no such favours for the fiery princess.
Sita, on the other hand, had luck abandon her faster than you could say swayamvar.
Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana that you grew up watching on Doordarshan, and every other adaptation after that, maintained the Mithila princess as an insipid character.
A pious, dutiful woman who followed her husband through his travails, and did not utter a squeak of protest when he asked her for the agnipariksha. She played the good wife, the good mother and finally, when she (probably) realised she had enough, she decided to go back to Mother Earth, where she came from.
Wholly problematic and excruciatingly frustrating.
The epics had their women, palaces full of them. Women who started the great wars. Women who made the Bechdel Test crash and burn. Their lives and story narratives revolved around the men, and you wished, they had other things to talk about. Other narratives.
New Indian mythology pop-star Amish has a solution that would make us feminists smile, at least a little. And it comes as his latest book – Sita: Warrior of Mithila.
Fight like a girl
The first thing that catches your eye in the second book of Amish's Ram Chandra series is the cover that shows Sita leaping at Lankan soldiers with a lathi in hand (we will eventually learn that the lathi is one of her favourite weapons).
Like the rest of Amish's books, you don't get to see Sita's face. With his books being adapted as Bollywood movies or TV series, this could be seen as a great strategy to hint at on-screen adaptations but not pick a face (it all depends on the actors' schedules after all).
However, this is the first of Amish's books to have a woman on the cover and the list of things that have been done right with this book begins with this.
The book begins with Raavan and Kumbhakarna attacking the Malayputra soldiers as they try to find Sita. Ram and Lakshman are away hunting. Sita puts up a brave fight but she surrenders to save Jatayu. She is drugged and taken away in Raavan's Pushpak Viman.
The Scion of Ishvaku, the first book in the series, ends at this very juncture where Ram and Lakshman watch in helpless rage as the viman flies off into the sky.
Like The Scion traces Ram's story right from birth, Sita: Warrior of Mithila does the same for the princess. Adopted by King Janak and Queen Sunaina of Mithila, Sita grows up as a rebellious, hot-headed child who loves a good adventure and a fight.
Amish makes this Sita a warrior. There are innumerable mentions of her training with various weapons.
From being a simple princess awaiting her prince charming, Amish creates a woman who is the prime minister of Mithila. Her marriage with Ram is more strategic – something that she decides – than it is romantic. But of course, a pure, true love finds its place in their equation.
In moments with Ram, Sita becomes a woman who is completely devoted to her husband, a woman who has followed her 'partner' to exile.
But, she follows him not because it is her 'duty' but because she feels equally responsible for the 'crime' he is exiled for – the firing of a daivi astra to save Mithila from Raavan's attack. She never forgets that she is a warrior and that she is a ruler.
But the biggest win for Sita: Warrior is that Sita is much closer to becoming a Vishnu than Ram is.
(RTC: Vishnu mentioned in both Scion and Sita is about the next avatars of Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation. Vishnu is said to descend in form of an avatar to restore cosmic order.)
And the Bechdel Test?
That's a win too.
It is wholly refreshing to see strong female characters like Sita, Sunaina, Samichi and even Manthara not talking about men, more about strategies, life lessons and royal duties equivalent to those of the men.
Twist in the tale
Those who have read Amish's works before, especially the Scion, will know that he adds his own twists and narratives to the story.
This is not the Ramayana you have grown up with, as the author has taken very interesting liberties with the book. And that is perhaps one of the things that will make us wait for the last of the series which will be about Raavan.
Also, we really want to find out who the Vishnu is, or if there are two of them for that epoch.
The only problem we have and have had with Amish's writing is the language. The author uses colloquial language of today in dialogues, and it is a little jarring. For example in this book:
“Ram cleaned his hand with a napkin as he waited for the salt. 'I'm sorry to trouble you.'
Sita frowned and took her seat. 'I am your wife, Ram. It's my duty to take care of you.'
He's so awkward...and cute...”
“Sita's eyes moistened in happiness. Her sister had found a mother once again.
Kaushalya picked a grape and dropped it into Urmila's open mouth.
'Mmm,' said Urmila, 'It is awesome, Maa!'”
True, it is unfair to expect 'high' language in an adaptation of the epic, however, this sudden jarring shift from 'normal' English to something out of a teen-lit is a little disturbing.
Also, the fact that Amish has chosen to base three of his books on three different characters and has called it the Ram Chandra series nonetheless, is a little problematic. Despite all the twists and turns, the author doesn't seem to be able to move beyond Ram being the central character in it all.
Should you read this book? If you have read
If you have read Scion of Ishvaku you absolutely have to. Even if you have not, this will not be a bad pick, especially because something tells us that the last book might be better than Ram and Sita's stories put together.