Model wife or the woman who did not return to her husband? “Uttam Purush” or the man who abandoned his wife? Paradoxes. Indian mythology is full of them. Perhaps, that is why Devdutt Pattanaik, author of the phenomenally successfully Jaya, an illustrated re-telling of the Mahabharata, is fascinated with it.
With his adaptation of the Ramayana, titled Sita, out in bookstores, the mythology author tells The New Sunday Express Magazine that the book is not from Sita’s perspective. “It is Ramayana by placing Sita in the foreground and seeing her as the goddess she is traditionally and not the victim that many writers want her to be,” he says.
That portrayal of Sita as a victim annoys him no end, he adds in the same breath. “We create victims to indulge our saviour complex. We like to construct victims in our mind and feel sorry for ourselves and others. It helps establish villains we can blame and heroes we can admire,” he says.
Different adaptations of the Ramayana deal with the idea of Sita, her abduction and her subsequent abandonment differently. Samhita Arni’s Missing Queen skips the important parts altogether and talks about where Sita went after her sons returned to Rama’s court. Pattanaik’s book talks about both. “One cannot be seen without the other. In one, she is taken away and in the other she is sent away. In one, Lanka desires her. In another, Ayodhya rejects her. Thus a tension is created which is the hallmark of sacred Hindu stories, a conflict that makes us wonder about the human condition,” he says.
If Sita is a layered character which the author wishes to reveal one by one, Rama is the other. For thousands of years, Rama has been seen as the “Uttam Purush”, one who is devoted to his wife, but he also abandons the very same wife he is devoted to, to the forest to fend for herself, while she is pregnant no less. “He is an unusual character. No other god had just one wife. People love to talk about how he abandoned his Sita, but they do not talk about his refusal to remarry for the latter detail upsets the ideological apple cart. It makes you question his motives. The author of the epic has created a puzzle for us. They’re not prescribing, they’re communicating an idea,” he says.
And what would that idea be? “Well, the scriptures never say Rama is right. They’re saying, this is Rama. This is his character. Why are we asking you to worship him when he is not perfect? They’re trying to provoke you to think,” Pattanaik says instantly.
That kind of paradox and the different layers to both Rama and Sita is something Pattanaik seems to be smitten by. In that sense, Sita is very similar to Jaya, right down to the hand-drawn illustrations that are, perhaps, one of the reasons why his books are so popular with the urban elite. But it is that very same urban elite who tries to box the characters into neat little labels—Rama as the king who abandoned his wife, or Sita as the “model wife” or a feminist, a modern-day interpretation.
Pattanaik is annoyed by that too. “Why should Sita be a feminist or masculinist? She is who she is. And we have to see her as she is rather than as belonging to a category that we value,” he says. And Rama? “It has become fashionable to look down upon Rama, to prop ourselves as caring liberals,” says Pattanaik.
“Many people have equated abused women of India with Sita; by doing that they equate the abuser with Rama. That is not fair at all and rather outrageous.”
Outrageous or not, Pattanaik seems to be a rather happy man with nearly 20 books, most about mythology, under his belt.
We ask about his next book and he only says cryptically, “All in good time.”
Until then, we have Sita for company.