The ‘Forest of Enchantments’ is a work of grace and kindness, of pluralities and possibilities. It is an experiment that makes us grateful to be living in this era of multiple truths and interpretations. This is the Sitayan we will give to our daughters, that they may imbibe Sita’s strength, and even more proudly to our sons, who will learn how a woman is to be treated, and how exactly not.

I have read, seen and heard a dozen odd versions of the Ramayana. But the simplicity with which Chitra Banerjee’s latest “The Forest of Enchantments” lays it out, completely won me over. The book is by far one of the best versions of the Ramayana I have come across. ‘The Forest of Enchantments’ is the retelling of Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. It is Sitayana where Sita narrates her story. 

The Ramayana is not a new story. We all know it from the stories we heard as a child – the marriage of Ram and Sita, their banishment to the forest, Surpanakha’s infatuation with Ram, the battle that follows and the final victory of good over evil. Yet, reading the retelling evokes an element of interest, keeping you hooked page after page.

This retelling not only portrays the elements of honor, love and duty the story represents, it also brings out the inherent sexism that has prevailed in our culture from a bygone era of the great epics. 

She is considered to be the immortal one. Abandoned at birth and found and raised by King Janak, Sita the Princess of Mithila is blessed with powers to heal. Thus, she is revered as the Goddess, though she considers herself a mere mortal like the others. The story told in her own voice charts the course of her life- her love at first sight with Ram, their subsequent marriage, her life in her new home in Ayodhya, her feelings and desire for motherhood, her anguish in captivity, and finally the sorrow that arises out of Ram’s suspicion on her character. The book is enchanting in every way, with an almost lyrical prose that’s a pleasure to read.

This rebranding of Sita is not a unique effort. It has been attempted hundreds of times earlier, in books, movies and the arts. Indeed, a novel by Mallika Sengupta is titled Sitayan; Devdutt Pattanaik titled his reinterpretation The Girl Who Chose; and Amish Tripathi went further with his Sita: Warrior of Mithila. This repetition and overuse of Sita as a misjudged heroine might disinterest some readers.

But those who stick with Divakaruni’s rendition are in for a mellifluous treat. For the novel doesn’t only retell Sita’s story but also gives space and time to other women characters the tradition has chosen to overlook. We learn of Suanina, a wise and able leader who was Sita’s mother; Urmila, Laxman’s long-suffering wife; Mandodari, Ravan’s wife, brushed off as a demon; Surpanakha, Ravan’s sister, wronged by two men. Even Kaikeyi, Ram’s stepmother, almost always portrayed as a villain, gets her due interpretation as an accomplished charioteer.

“Write our story, too,” the women characters say in the novel. “For always we’ve been pushed into corners, trivialised, misunderstood, blamed, forgotten – or maligned and used as cautionary tales.” In Divakaruni’s retelling of the folk epic, minor women characters come to life, claiming their own lores, redesigning and rephrasing them. The author delves deep into their selves and lays their beauty out.

If this representation of women characters is satisfying, the men are treated with equal thoughtfulness. Over the years, we have been trained to gradually dislike Ram, to question his ethics, blame him for everything that goes wrong with our protagonist. Conversely, there has also been an awakening of fondness for Ravan, his wisdom and respect for Sita.

The author works gently to cleanse and remove such prejudices and biases. No one is entirely right or entirely wrong, she reminds us. For we are all human, with our quirks and fallacies, just like Ram and Sita and their clan. No one is to be blindly revered or reviled. We live as per our ideals, and they are only as correct or misguided as our eyes train us to be.

No wonder, then, that readers can only absorb the novel in the way that their own experiences and worldview have shaped them. Men and women, puritans and naysayers, seekers and the enlightened – there are traces of all perspectives, an attempt to examine the story from multiple angles, explanations and observations that are both compelling and riveting.

The author creates a beautiful tapestry of Sita’s life and we follow her journey right from the time she was a young princess at Mithila to the time she is married to Ram, the tough life she leads there and her banishment by Ram. The story is told from the first person perspective. The author has handled the story with innate simplicity with no exaggeration or downplaying of events for which due credit should be given to the author. 

The feeling of love in all its beauty, as well as turmoil, is a core theme of the book. There are many proses on the nature of love interwoven across the book. These sections were the ones that you need to highlight as they really make you think and contemplate. 

Apart from the stylistic flair, one of her major strengths is her unravelling of multiple dimensions of characters. Sita comes across as a fierce conservationist, dutiful daughter, protective sister, loving yet wilful wife, perfect helpmate, sensual lover, courageous fighter, skilled healer, learned counselor, strong mother, kind yet firm daughter-in-law, nurturer and adventurer. She revels in her own being, is mindful of pleasure and grief, of empathy and understanding, and is brimming with dignity for herself and for everyone else. She is the original feminist.

When Ram says, “In my kingdom, every man will have a voice, no matter how humble he is,” Sita wants to ask, “What about the women?” Another time, Sita debates in her mind, “Not all women are weak and helpless like you think.” In these subtle expressions, Divakaruni exposes the toxic masculinity that not only bothers Sita but also harms Ram.

Agitated at the unfair treatment of a woman, Sita asks, “Why should you be made to suffer for his sin? For being a victim? It was unfair.” This is a direct, necessary parallel with survivors of abuse and discrimination. To some, it will be as if the novelist is trying too hard to be politically correct and diplomatic. Be that as it may, Divakaruni’s rendition rightly raises pertinent questions on racism, sexism, inequality, casteism, and also on post-traumatic stress disorder, animal rights and so on.

Agitated at the unfair treatment of a woman, Sita asks, “Why should you be made to suffer for his sin? For being a victim? It was unfair.” This is a direct, necessary parallel with survivors of abuse and discrimination. To some, it will be as if the novelist is trying too hard to be politically correct and diplomatic. Be that as it may, Divakaruni’s rendition rightly raises pertinent questions on racism, sexism, inequality, casteism, and also on post-traumatic stress disorder, animal rights and so on.

While the myths and dreams, symbols and forebodings are right up the author’s forte, there is at times a sense of excess. Several incidents and thoughts, though well-formed and admirable, are not always precise or even necessary. The first meeting between Ram and Sita, or Sita’s entrapment in Ravan’s gardens, take up entire pages, sounding repetitive and superfluous. This languorous style, though relaxing, has the danger of slipping into the lethargic.

Even then, Divakaruni maintains an air of mystery in the story, peppering it with tiny shocks here and there. The abduction of Sita, for example, is very well-devised and chilling; so is Ravan’s death. The sustained and controlled fervour of her storytelling keeps even the most skeptical among us hooked.

The ‘Forest of Enchantments’ is a work of grace and kindness, of pluralities and possibilities. It is an experiment that makes us grateful to be living in this era of multiple truths and interpretations. This is the Sitayan we will give to our daughters, that they may imbibe Sita’s strength, and even more proudly to our sons, who will learn how a woman is to be treated, and how exactly not.