The broad plot of the Ramayana and author Amish’s fantastical worlds converge in this second novel of a trilogy: Sita, Warrior of Mithila. The narrative takes us from Sita’s adoption by the king and queen of Mithila to her kidnapping by Ravana, focusing mainly on her development as a warrior and leader.
Rivalry between the sages Vishwamitra and Vashishtha sets up the separate training of their protégés, Rama and Sita — each as a “propagator of Good” called “the Vishnu”.
Instead of competing, Rama and Sita become husband and wife, and before they can fulfill their plan as partners, they are interrupted by the pressures of the stock-plot: a 14-year exile and Sita’s kidnapping.
Amish identifies essential characteristics of Rama and Sita: Rama is a one-woman man and such a stickler for the law that he does not exempt even himself, and Sita is an adopted child and gutsy woman who tends to “cross the line”.
Unorthodox Sita offers to help Rama win the Svayamvara contest and, of course, Rama declines. We get fresh explanations for some of Ramayana’s standard troubling moments—Rama is exiled because he uses a forbidden biological weapon (though his father stipulates the exile also), and Shurpanaka cuts off her nose accidentally (while Lakshmana gets the blame).
Amish also withholds information, which helps engage the reader.
Sita’s portrayal as a warrior to whom her husband Rama bows, and as a pragmatic leader, refreshes the old idea of her as a demure victim. Additionally, the story is made relevant through the contexts and concerns of today.
There are rich and poor sections of society, delinquent youth and unsafe spaces for women. The juvenile rapist of Manthara’s daughter escapes the death penalty under Rama’s governance. When Sita disobeys her foster mother to venture into the slums of Mithila, she has to defend herself violently against attackers and later gets extra-curricular lessons in impulse-control and non-violence.
While polemic is absent, this is clearly a book with a message, even a nationalist message. Rama and Bharat have a “desire to serve Mother India” (181) and Amish even succumbs to the phrase “make India great again.”
Caste rigidity and excessive non-violence that emasculated the warrior spirit are discussed as the reasons for the downfall of Bharat. A conversation between Sita and Bharat compares the masculine and feminine ways exemplified by Rama
When Bharat says that Rama’s method lacks freedom, Sita insists that it is effective—when the leader follows the law, it electrifies the youth.
Information sprinkled throughout the novel—whether about the ekamukhi rudraksha or Charvaka philosophy, and numerous Indian terms glossed using italics—teach about Indian heritage.
The writing is replete with stock-phrases—“His smouldering eyes gave the reply” (5), or “her eyes flashed fire” (46)—but occasionally, a fresh and relevant usage impresses, “like banging your head against an anthill” (56).
Descriptions of the Agastyakootam landscape where Sita journeys are striking. Mythological fantasy + convention + fight scenes + spectacle + India = success. No car chases, but there’s a chariot race, and Sita escapes by doing the Silambam jump.