Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of The Ramayana
When Valmiki finishes writing his version of the Ramayana,he is informed of the existence of another,a better version. It is Hanumans Ramayana. Valmiki is in tears after he finishes reading it. He realises that while he sought to seek validation for his work through his telling of the story,Hanuman wrote his version simply to remember Ram. Valmiki then tells Hanuman,Just as the flesh distracts us from the mind,so do words distract us from the idea. Now I realise that greater than Ram is the idea of Ram. And with his illustrated retelling of the Ramayana,Devdutt Pattanaik seeks to inform his readers of the idea of Sita,not merely the queen of Ayodhya and Rams wife,but the single-most important woman in Hinduism.
At the outset,a recent retelling of the Ramayana from Sitas perspective comes to mind: American filmmaker Nina Paleys Sita Sings the Blues. But Pattanaiks Sita is unlike her counterpart in Paleys animated feature there is no heartbreak,no lamentation,she is armed with unending patience to understand the idea of Ram. From the time of her wedding to Ram,the 14-year exile in the forest,her abduction and consequent rescue from Lanka,Sita bears witness to the apotheosis of her husband. And as one who narrates it to Ratnakar the thief who later transforms into Valmiki the sage,it is as much her story as it is Rams. Pattanaik succeeds in conveying this much to his readers through the extensive research he embarked on to inform his retelling.
Pattnaiks account is an attempt to bring together as many versions of the Ramayana in India,with a dash of imperial and post-colonial readings of the epic. With footnotes that identify the mythical and regional sources of the various stories of the Ramayana,Pattanaik is working in conjunction with an army of historians and storytellers across states like Bengal,Odisha,Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh which have a rich legacy of retelling the Ramayana; along with narratives from across the sea in Sri Lanka,Thailand and Cambodia. The Ramayana became popular across the Indian subcontinent because through the narrative it made people speculate on the nature of existence, writes Pattanaik in a footnote. In this narrative,Sita speculates on questions of principle,duty,morality as she watches Ram in his various avatars as brahmin,warrior,king and husband. But most importantly,Sita realises that even in the act of storytelling,one must be aware of the measuring scale that created heroes,villains and victims.
It is a laudable attempt to read the Ramayana with all its trappings,perspectives and measuring scales. Pattanaiks illustrations pepper each chapter and are quite lovely in their simplicity. The language,however,now and then,misses a step and is far too casual or too dramatic. But with a story such as the Ramayana,it is easy to see why readers are willing to oversee those tiny flaws and just get on with the story.