Stories from the Ramayana are part of the staple diet of every Indian kid. We grow up listening to the trials and triumphs of the Raghu Kul dynasty. The Forest of Enchantments turns out to be a suitable title for the narration as it is in the forest that the story unfolds, it is here that the people undergo transformations at a deeper level. And the most interesting part about the book is some of the quotes that resonate with sense and are downright relatable even in today’s world.
Of all the characters in this epic, Sita is the most versatile and dynamic. She displays layers of personality, and her strength peeps out from behind the layers of patriarchal boundaries. The Forest of Enchantments offers another look at this amazingly underplayed woman who comes into her own as she goes through the difficulties in life. This book is all about Sita and also the other women who got pushed to the sidelines to enable the men to continue the story. Mandodari, queen of the most powerful king yet so helpless as to watch the dance of destruction from afar. Sunaina, Sita’s mother and Janak’s wife, was the force behind the throne yet she had to hide her intelligence to not upset her husband.
Chitra Banerjee DIvakaruni’s Sita is anything but the meek, submissive, feeble woman who lets the men in the family decide her fate. She refuses to play the puppet. In The Forest of Enchantments, she undergoes tests at various stages of her life and faces them with ingenuity, be it in her marital home or at her family home. In Sita – Warrior of Mithila, Amish has described Sita as a warrior princess. These different yet similar portrayals of Sita make me wonder if all along we have been fed a distorted or biased version of her character, something which fell in step with the stereotypical image of what a woman should be?
Some things haven’t changed, not for the women at least. An interesting thing is her ‘career choice’ – she decides to continue helping people with her medicinal knowledge even after she moves to Ayodhya much to the surprise of her in-laws! Doesn’t it sound somewhat familiar? I mean isn’t the woman in contemporary society also still fighting the same mindset? Rama is proud of his wife because she’s helping people and she had won her in-laws over. What would he have said if he had discovered her martial skills? Such parallels in the story make Sita a relatable character.
These lines have haunted me ever since I read them. Our actions, attitudes, carriage, all come together to present us in a particular manner. Hence how others perceive us depends on how we conduct ourselves, and more importantly how we perceive ourselves. The story is the same, but this time the narrative in The Forest of Enchantments is from Sita’s perspective and that makes it more engaging. The ordeals of their time in the forest are well known, but we never think about the troubles Sita would have gone through as a woman in the forest. Sita maintains her dignity even when in captivity, making her oppressors more frustrated to see their efforts to make her feel helpless go in vain.
I don’t want to give away spoilers but what I enjoyed most about The Forest of Enchantments are the uncomfortable questions Sita asks Rama. She doesn’t ask for justifications for his decisions even though she’s the one who bears the consequences. Instead in her own way, she has expressed her thoughts through what she had taught her sons – to see an issue from different perspectives and not arrive at a myopic or self-serving decision. The lessons may be for her sons but it applies to us all. Especially now when the work from home has diluted the lines between home and office, have we understood how to strike a balance between work and home, personal and professional hours?
The Forest of Enchantments is an enjoyable book doesn’t matter the perspective, and believe me, it has one too many! It’s an ancient epic with strong contemporary overtones. It brings to light issues which are very relevant even in today’s society – the status of women, both at home and in society, the strong grip of patriarchal values, the lopsided legalities. Yet it resonates with hope – hope for the mythical Ramarajya.
There are several such gems embedded in the story. I’m sure the quotes would have given you an idea of what awaits you between the pages. Do share what you liked about the book. And which other books of Chitra Banerjee DIvakaruni did you read and liked?