"Do women exist only to be used by men to settle their scores?"
"It's an Arya-Dravidian clash
Women too became pawns."
If I could essentially explain the problem I have with these two lines, I could perhaps surmise the 'problematics' with Volga's The Liberation of Sita. But clearly there is no easy way to do this.
The idea of body politics is not a new one. The fact that every epic ever can be essentially undone by body politics is also not a new area of thought. It's all been conceived and 2016 is a tad too late to 'liberate' Sita. It is a decade too late, perhaps.
And it is precisely the reason why The Liberation of Sita makes me very angry.
Dear, Volga (Popuri Lalitha Kumari), noted feminist writer in Telugu, pray tell, why is your Sita so late? And is there nothing else except resignation to peace all that there is for a woman who wants to 'liberate' herself?
"Volga's voice - strong, clear and fearless - pierces through these translations and reminds us that women have always read the Ramayana differently from men, finding their own friends, their own truths and their own inspirations in the story," reads the blurb on the red cover.
Besides the obvious issue with the word 'always', what Volga does is that she makes these women get back into the Ramayana, in a bit of a to and fro that she deems best fit for us to understand how Sita learned and liberated herself in the scope of the epic. Volga also chooses the women she can call friends.
The map of liberation starts with Surpanakha.
Disfigured by Rama and Lakshmana, Surpanakha has learned to look beyond her beauty and love her real self as she created a stunning garden in the middle of the forest. Nature taught her patience and love and a different kind of beauty.
'"I struggled a lot to grasp that there is no difference between beauty and ugliness in nature..." Surpanakha tells Sita.
"Surpanakha unravelled before Sita the beauty and truth of her life's journey.
"How beautiful you are, Surpanakha! How does it matter whether any man appreciates your beauty or not," Sita's voice choked.'
So far so good. But then this happens -
"'Why? Don't men have eyes? Don't they have a heart? I'm not talking about men who only know how to disfigure and to hate the disfigured...your guess is correct, Sita. I have found the companionship of a man...I've realized that the meaning of success for a woman does not only lie in her relationship with a man. Only after that realization, did I find a man's companionship.'"
If Volga's idea behind two rivals-in-love meeting and bonding as sisters was to give stage to the idea that beauty is more than a Dravidian or an Aryan nose, why is Surpanakha's life considered 'really complete' only when she mentions her 'male' companion - even if her male companion is an 'evolved' man who doesn't disfigure women?
"I will certainly come, Surpanakha," Sita tells her new friend, adding, "After my children leave me and go to the city, I will become the daughter of Mother Earth...I shall create create a new meaning for my life..."
A woman, for Volga, so far is only free to be 'liberated' once her duties are done.
The story then shifts to Ahalya, Maharishi Gautama's wife who was seduced by Indra. "Ahalya mistook him for her husband and satiated his desire..." writes Volga.
His desire and not his, a wife essentially has no desire except for the one where she must satiate her husband - that's at least how Volga chooses to word it.
"Aren't many women in this world wrongly accused, Sita?" Ahalya asks.
The strength of a character like Ahalya fluctuates between extremes, while on one hand she says that it is her husband's loss that he disowned her and the fact that she has not given him any authority over her, she nonetheless spent years in isolation, thinking about her 'identity in this universe'.
Why the isolation if Ahalya is indeed a women who has given neither the society, nor her husband, the authority to decide whether she is right or wrong? Or is isolation the only place for such epic subversions?
"Never agree to a trial, Sita. Don't bow down to authority," Ahalya declares. Both the women have their trials none the less. One in isolation, the other through fire and then some. The attempt to raise these women to the sublime on the strength of their stoicism, their almost martyrish acceptance of all the male wrong, falters.
Both the women went on trial. When Sita chose to refuse, perhaps the only real moment of strength for her, is when she had to return to Mother Earth. The only real act of rebellion.
Lessons from unliberated
Through Renuka Devi (Parasurama's mother) Sita is taught that paativratyam is like a pot made of sand, every woman must have one. At this juncture it would also help to know that making a sand pot needs immense practice and concentration. Also that a woman's life, trials and tribulations are tied to the husband and the sons - that is how it shall be even if you learn to make the most beautiful pieces of art - but in removed isolation of course, far away from the men who almost killed you.
Urmila, Lakshmana's wife teaches Sita to assume authority and give up power. Give up the relation-identities with husband and sons, and perhaps a few people more who selfishly chose not to ask you for your opinion before leaving for 14 years. Close yourself away and attain your real identity in solitude and more questions.
At the end of it all - we are left with Rama. A Rama who is torn between pining for his beloved Sita and society. He lost her through the trials he imposed on her, not for his faith or belief of course, but because...you know...society?
Rama must be king and he must put his sons and crown before the woman he calls his protective charm.
Oh the burden of the king! Would the world ever understand? He too must find solace in his straight-faced isolation.
At this point - I can't even... can't even.
Obsession with isolation
Volga seems to be making one point pretty clear - the ultimate act of liberation and rebellion is isolation of various sorts - it is the nirvana attained through the banvaas of the soul, the relationships with the people you love, but who are far too self-involved and punch drunk on power to wholesomely and truly love you back.
Or perhaps that it just me still ruing the fact that this almost-an-epic-feminist-manifesto could not possibly have been more contrived. Or more painful.
Women were always pawns. Their bodies was always disfigured and called collateral war damage. And perhaps isolation is the only solution to this terrible story.
This isn't liberation - it is just acceptance. Again.