The Liberation of Sita
Collection of Short Stores
Translated from Telugu by: T Vijay Kumar & C Vijayasree
Harper Perennial. 2016
Pp 127 | PB 199
A Tale of Female Solidarity and Liberation
Noted Telugu feminist writer Volga's The Liberation of Sita, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award 2015 and recently translated into English, is a book with a strong impact. It is a slim collection of five stories, which are interconnected in tracing the journey of Sita, one of the central characters of the Ramayana, towards self-realisation and liberation. Though there have been retellings of the aforesaid Indian epic from a feminist standpoint, the idea of Sita learning from the experiences of the marginal female characters and forming a personal bond with each of them breaks new ground.
Here, Surpanakha, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila are all shown to have meaningful encounters with Sita at various points of her life. As sufferers and victims of patriarchy, these characters share their stories with Sita. But instead of overtly dwelling on the injustice, the stories describe how these characters, relegated to the periphery in the Ramayana, overcame strife and discord to attain lasting peace of mind. They ultimately aid Sita to come to terms with herself and free her mind from social obligations and expectations, thereby embracing liberation.
The characterisation is vivid. Sita is shown to be blindly loyal to Rama at first but later compelled to question his actions and attitude towards her. The transformation is gradual and convincing. Though Rama appears to be loving and protective towards his wife, the intonation of authority in his voice when he speaks to her is unmistakable. Rather than treating her as an equal, Rama infantilises her. This is not surprising, given the social milieu of the ancient age. The authoress, however, does not villainise Rama. In the last story titled “The Shackled,” which reads like an extended interior monologue of Rama, Volga depicts him as a man torn between his filial duty, obligations as a king and unmitigated love for Sita. As Rama thinks to himself, "They could sing the saga of Rama. But what did they know of the saga of Rama bound by the shackles of power? Knowing nothing about it, what could they sing?" Surpanakha, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila are portrayed as strong women, but they are all characteristically calm and withdrawn from the world. There is no female character who exhibits spunkiness or vivacity, thrusting her non-conformist voice against the odds. Though this is somewhat disappointing, it is in tandem with the particular age where the existence of outspoken women was as unimaginable as it was unrealistic.
The narrative moves back and forth in time and focuses on Sita at crucial junctures. The avoidance of a linear sequence of events makes the reading interesting, but it also demands a thorough acquaintance with the events of the Ramayana on the reader's part. The authoress also innovatively uses subtle symbols to forebode Sita’s tragedy. For instance, when Kausalya leads the newly married Sita towards the cage of a talking parrot to divert her mind from more weighty issues, the bird unexpectedly prattles, “’Sita-fate,’ ‘Sita-destiny.’” This unsettles both the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and ushers a sense of doom. Later, during her exile in the forest with Rama, Sita visits Renuka's shrine of sculptures. Renuka gifts Sita a sand pot and hints that like the delicate pot, the social construct of women’s fidelity is fragile and can be shattered on the slightest pretext. Soon after, Sita accidentally breaks the pot, which terrifies her and fills Renuka with anxiety as well. It ominously indicates how Sita's loyalty and therefore, character would be put to question after she is rescued from Lanka, compelling her to undergo the trial by fire.
Volga also offers an insight into the entrenched patriarchy through the stories of the minor female characters as well as Sita’s trajectory in life. At times, the same incident is viewed differently by men and women. For instance, Rama denounces Ahalya for lacking character while his mother; Kausalya, opines that Ahalya has a “noble character befitting her beauty.” However, it is important to remember that not all women share an attitude of empathy towards their stigmatised counterparts just as all men are not prejudiced against women.
Expressions of profound philosophy permeate the book. These are seen in Ahalya’s comments on truth, “Each one to their own truth. Does anyone in this world have the power to decide between truth and untruth?” The authoress’ own observation on human life is also pertinent. As she says, “Human laws change. Human beings change them. Unable to cope with the change, they get perturbed. Slowly they get used to the change. Once the change stabilizes, they desire change again.” Volga’s turn at phrases evoking vivid images is also commendable. For instance, Rama’s reminiscence is described thus, “As he was reminded of the past, memories of his life in the forest entered Rama’s thoughts like peacocks with their tails spread out.”
The language is simple and lucid. This is an advantage as it can enable the work to reach out and connect to one and all.
There are notes on the book by Volga at the end. An in-depth analysis is also provided by the translators, T Vijay Kumar and C Vijayasree, along with an extensive interview of Volga by T Vijay Kumar. All of these serve to explain the concept and content in painstaking detail. This text deserves to be included in the syllabi of Women’s Studies as well as the optional Gender and Literature paper of English Literature in the Indian universities.
However, there are a couple of drawbacks. On the cover page, we see the words, “Translated from the Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree” and at the end of the notes “Translated from the Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar.” The use of the article “the” before a language, in this case Telugu, is a gross grammatical error that appears to be jarring. One also feels that more details could have been divulged on the behaviour of Surpanakha’s male companion, Sudhira. This could have helped highlight the particular man’s love for a disfigured and stigmatised woman more appropriately.
On the whole, The Liberation of Sita is a remarkable revisionist text that opens up new perspectives. It not only fosters the spirit of female solidarity among the various characters in the Ramayana but also extends it to women in general. As Volga writes in her notes, “With these stories I have made five dear friends: Sita, Surpanakha, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila. I am confident that these friends of mine will give my fellow women strength, courage and wisdom.”