We may be heading towards cultural myopia, but the great Indian epics were radical and irreverent. The many interpretations of the Ramayana, which continue to this day, are a testimony to this. At the session Uttara Kand: Searching Sita, Telugu writer Volga and author-translator Arshia Sattar spoke about their respective work and perspectives with storyteller-writer Vayu Naidu.
Talking about her book, The Liberation of Sita, P Lalitha Kumari, who writes under the pseudonym Volga, said her feminist retelling of the stories of the women in the Ramayana belongs to a long tradition in Telugu literature.
“In 1890, Tripuraneni Ramaswamy Chowdhury questioned Rama’s slaying of the shudra Shambuka for performing penance in Shambuka Vadha. In Sita Agneepravesha, Chalam’s Sita thinks Ravana loves her more for he staked everything for her. She leaves Rama to enter Ravana’s funeral pyre. Telugu literature was very radical,” she said.
Arshia Sattar said not many people have read Valmiki’s Ramayana in the original and the seeds of radicalism present in the original text are what open the ancient text to anti-Brahmin, anti-Kshatriya and feminist interpretations. Admitting that the text was misogynistic, Sattar read out an excerpt from her recent translation of Uttara Kand, where Rama and Lakshman deceive a pregnant Sita and take her to the forest on the pretext of visiting her friends: the wives of sages.
The women in Volga’s novella (originally published as Vimukta Kada Samputi in 2010) — Surpanakha, Renuka, Ahalya, Urmila — help Sita on her journey to self realisation and breaking free of her attachment to Rama. All these women, Sattar pointed out where punished for their perceived sexual transgressions.
“In feminism, sisterhood is an important concept,” said Volga. “I wanted to explore this sisterhood between women. So I took Sita’s story as the connecting thread with these four women helping her on the path of liberation through their struggles and experiences.”
Volga said not much has changed from Ahalya to Nirbhaya, and even today the woman is blamed for the violence meted to her. “Where did this power to discipline and punish women come from? The context is as old and as new as Nirbhaya,” she said.
Watch: Telugu writer Volga on her book The Liberation of Sita
Ahalya was the wife of Sage Gautama who was tricked into bed by Indra who approached her disguised as her husband. Volga read out an excerpt from her book where Ahalya meets Sita and tells her it doesn’t matter whether her husband believed in her innocence. His property has been polluted.
“What does conducting an enquiry mean, Sita? Distrust, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be better, instead, to believe in either your innocence or guilt? … All men are the same, Sita.
All in all, a session that made the audience think deeply about issues that are at once eternal and contemporary.
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