Sunday, April 06, 2008

Her Demon Lover

[Space Bar points me to a Ramanujan essay about the different 'tellings' of the Ram story, which has become the latest excuse to rabble rouse - based, apparently, on Ramanujan's passing reference to a Santal version of the story where Sita is seduced by both Ravan and Lakshman [1]. I'm going to resist making the obvious jokes about Sita and the oral tradition, except to point out that if you're with a man who has ten heads it does seem a shame not to put them to use. Instead, I give you this.]

In the days that followed, she often found herself thinking of Ravan. Of the way he would come to her in those final weeks, wearing resignation like armor; coming to see her not because there was anything left to say between them, but as an act of propriety, a routine, content to sit unspeaking in a corner of her presence, as the sun sank and the world darkened around him. The walls of his city were on fire, his kinsmen were dying, his people were in revolt, and every day Death, like a jealous wife, drew him deeper into her clutches. Yet he never spoke to her of these things, asked her only if she was well, if there was anything she needed. If there was a question that lurked beneath these courtesies - and there was, they could both feel it - it was left unspoken. He was never rough with her, never demanding, even when the price he was paying was visible for all to see. Rather, it was as though the destruction of Lanka made words unnecessary, as though the carnage around them expressed the turmoil in his heart better than any speech he could make.

He never spoke to her of these things, and sometimes she wished he would. It would have eased her conscience to be accused, to be blamed. For she did feel guilt - it frightened her to see what she had done to him, what he had, for her sake, done to himself. It made her feel selfish by comparison. "You must hate me for what I'm doing to you" she said to him once, when it became clear that Lanka would not survive. He said nothing to that, only looked at her with the bewilderment of one who is asked a question in a language he does not speak. There was a dignity to his disappointment, and a sense, not of forgiveness, but of understanding. Like the feelings of a man who sees his starving dog turn to bite.

He never spoke to her of these things, and she wished now that he had. Thinking back, she can see how the catastrophe of those last days brought them closer than they had been before. She had denied him every intimacy, but she could not deny the bond that hopelessness forged between them; the constant distance that became, in time, a kind of connection; the ancient sympathy between victim and murderer, kidnapper and hostage.

But which of them was the hostage? It was a question she could not bring herself to ask. She remembered the way he had looked at her, even there, right at the end, when even the idea of love making would have seemed a sacrilege against the sacrifice being made. A look of bottomless yearning, like the ache of embers in a fire that waits to be fed. No, even the ash of defeat had not destroyed his longing for her, even the insults she had raked him with, even the cold water of her husband's triumph thrown in his face. Was it that he understood what she did not: that release, when it came, would prove hollow; that in allowing her escape (for who protected her from him if not he himself?) he was becoming part of it, ensuring that she would take him with her? Or was it just that he loved her with a constancy that not even the certainty of defeat could erase?

For he did love her - more than Ram, perhaps; yes, certainly more than Ram. But then, had Ram really loved her at all? Oh, he had been proud of her, anxious to protect her, solicitous of her wishes in his prim, husbandly way. But there was always, with him, the sense of a life lived by the rules, of a concern with what was right that overwhelmed anything so irrelevantly human as appetite or desire. If he loved her at all, it was because that was the proper thing to do, what was expected of him, what he expected of himself. While Ravan had loved her (she sees this now) for who she really was, despite the impropriety of it, perhaps even because it was improper.

She dare not say this to anyone, of course. Not even to her own children. No, especially not to them. They would think her ungrateful, accuse her of cheapening their father's heroism, his bravery in coming to her rescue. Yet rescue from what? And for what? This hut in the woods? What had Ram really done - except fight a war with a stranger, defeat him in battle, win glory for himself? Wasn't that what the war was really about - not her, but the insult to him?

When they speak of his heroism she thinks of the day, early in the siege, when a mob of the townspeople had come to her quarters, demanding that she be killed or handed over to the enemy, so that Lanka could be saved. How Ravan had stood up to them then - his own people - some of them related to him by blood. How he had reminded them of the wars he had fought in their name, of the glory he had brought to their land, of the riches he had won for the state, keeping nothing back for himself, of his years of selfless and exacting service. Would they turn against him now? Would they not trust him to lead them into this final battle, the greatest and most glorious of them all, victory in which would make Lanka the mightiest land in all the world? What a fine figure of a man he made, standing before them, one man against a mob, one lighthouse against a snarling sea. And how the mob first soothed, then shamed, then inspired, had responded to his words, had dispersed back to their homes to prepare for the fight.

Had he really believed that he could win? Or had he simply known that her return would achieve nothing, that what Ram wanted back was not his wife but his honor, and that he would keep fighting until he had extracted his compensation in blood? Or was it simply that he could not bear to part with her, was willing to give up everything - his own people, his own life - for the sake of keeping her by him, aloof and distant as she was, for a few more weeks?

No, she cannot bring herself to believe that.

But why had she been so aloof, so distant? Why had she not given this man, who had loved her more purely and more desperately than any other, what he so clearly desired? It had seemed, at the time, a matter of principle, but she cannot remember, now, what the principle was, or why it had seemed important. Thinking back to that time, she realizes that what she regrets most is not the loss of Ayodhya, but those sunset visits, the two of them standing alone in the Lankan garden, saying nothing. Even now, long after the war that destroyed him and set her free, there is an absence in her evenings that she cannot fill, the weight of it growing inside her like a sorrow ten years in the making, waiting to be born.

When she thinks of him now - and increasingly she thinks only of him - it is with a sense of missed opportunity, of a chance offered but not taken. Like the fire she could have given herself to, that day of the test, if only she had been brave enough.


[1] The sentence reads: "The Santals, a tribe known for their extensive oral traditions, even conceive of Sita as unfaithful—to the shock and horror of any Hindu bred on Valmiki or Kampan, she is seduced both by Ravana and by Laksmana." Emphasis mine.

32 comments:

gaganjain said...

Superb and refreshing.
My favorite part:
"But then, had Ram really loved her at all? Oh, he had been proud of her, anxious to protect her, solicitous of her wishes in his prim, husbandly way. But there was always, with him, the sense of a life lived by the rules, of a concern with what was right that overwhelmed anything so irrelevantly human as appetite or desire."
Maybe he (Ram) had started believing in his own purported divinity? :)
Cheers!

Anonymous said...

:)

Wasn't Ravan supposed to be the self-obsessed ego maniac ? He could not accept that another man, albeit an incarnation of the very gods he prayed to, be more powerful than him. Interesting twist to make him a hapless romantic and Ram the egotistic vengeance seeker.

On a side note : at the end of the day, wasn't Sita really just the tool to achieve the greater story in the Ramayan ? Good triumphing over Evil. Something had to make the two sides collide and what better than kidnapping the wife ?

Cheshire Cat said...

See, that's the problem with modernism and giving characters interiority - even Sita, most virtuous of all women, invariably begins to think sacrilegious thoughts.

Something similar happens in the Julie Taymor-esque Indonesian movie "Opera Jawa". Fascinating stuff, though it doesn't really work as a movie.

Mujib said...

Excellent. I could even relate and identify. Damn.

Space Bar said...

Cheshire Cat: What's wrong with thinking sacrilegious thoughts?

Falstaff: Nice.

dipali said...

This was lovely. I have always had too many issues with the Ramayana.
Snehlata Reddy's Sitayana has a similar theme.

supremus said...

Nice angle!! Loved your take on it.

DufusMaximus said...

A blow-away piece from you after quite some time ... thanks!

Yashita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
neha vish said...

Given that I am somehow obsessing with the epics currently, this comes at a good time!

I love the other version of the Ramayana, where Sita is considered to be Ravana's daughter. Apparently Mandodari hid Sita away to save Ravana. (And that, opens up a whole new can of epic worms.)

Sunita said...

Refreshingly different.
So real, its a women's feelings after all.

Unmana said...

Beautiful! Could you rewrite the whole story, please?

Diviya said...

Brilliant! Ram is a character that isn't among my favorites. But then didn't Ravan abduct Sita because Ram resisted his sister's advances?

Anonymous said...

This is so beautiful, so moving, so real.

ano

??! said...

Been a while since you wrote one of these long stories, hasn't it? Verrry nice.

Anonymous said...

Too much praise for you..especially from womenfolk...Reputation on the brink of ruins...Nevertheless all in all a nice spin you gave.

supratik said...

:) If it was modern day you could alternately say Sita is having a Stockholm Syndrome.

Anonymous said...

Makes Ramayana seem much more real, much more human and not merely a myth.

Wonderful job.

Chronicus Skepticus said...

Falstaff, this is awesome.

frissko said...

I've always had a problem with Rama's brand of righteousness. Nicely done. Plus a refreshing change from the frivolous tone in which most 'different' takes on Ramayan are done.

Space Bar said...

those are some pretty hilarious comments you're getting on an old post. :D

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

That is really interesting- I am going to have to visit more often. Thanks for a refreshing perspective.

Cheshire Cat said...

Space, I'm not against sacrilegious thoughts in reality, just the idea of it.

Anonymous said...

Fashion of the day : - Throw mud on ram ..on some pretext. U have dont it in your own way.

Anonymous said...

well honestly nice take on it!

and to this
dipali said...

This was lovely. I have always had too many issues with the Ramayana.

Have you ever really read the whole of [original]Ramayana??!!if yes have you really understood it??

Subhangi said...

Right on!

Subhangi said...

Anonymous, nobody knows how many versions of the Ramayana are there, let alone which is the "original" one.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Brilliant stuff, F. Anybody can do the thinking. You got the mood as well.

Though you might have pitched it stronger. Rama always struck me as such a humourless self-righteous twit.

J.A.P.

Jai_Choorakkot said...

Interesting piece. Am an occasional reader. What was more remarkable to me, was the comment thread NOT touching:

- Sita's yearning for a person who forcibly abducted her against her free will and held her captive.

- the absolute recognition of power-play over her body that her integrity was protected only because Ravan wished it so.

- Fitting out the kidnap victim with a guilt complex. "... she did feel guilt what she had done to him, what he had, for her sake, done to himself.... "You must hate me for what I'm doing to you"

I was a bit surprised that so many commenters passed all this by and apparently had no issue with any of it (maybe because of greater excitement and anticipation at offence taken by the Hindutva crowd). I am probably not reading it in the correct tone.

regards,
Jai

Swaratmika said...

Like most women, Sita is pretty trivial and superficial. All that pother, all that sparring because the lady wanted a deer. Sigh.

Vidya said...

The dignity of Ravana's disappointment.As the last but one commenter pointed out, I somehow find this Beauty and the Beast archetype quite tiresome for more or less the same set of reasons the only thing that differs is the shifting of focus from a prince to a beast(of the rough exterior and soft interior kind )

Chitty Cat said...

arent most wars over women? rather women being used as a tool for war? be it helen of troy or sita, or even miranda from the tempest

the woman is always seen as something to conquer, to fight for. she represents the body while the man represents the head. strange that john mayer might be unconciously representing the same sentiments in his song about a woman's body being a wonderland

i dont know..but clearly..some things have not changed. women are just tools. kinda sad.