Book Review | The Missing Queen

Stylish speculative fiction that pushes the limits but falls flat in its execution
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First Published: Sat, Feb 23 2013. 12 18 AM IST
Epic characters get a modern makeover in Arni’s novel.
Epic characters get a modern makeover in Arni’s novel.
The Missing Queen | Samhita Arni
Sita’s secret
A.K. Ramanujan asked the infamous question, “How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand?”, in 1991, the same year in which Tim Berners-Lee introduced the first Web browser to the world. Fast-forward 20 years, and the number of Ramayans must by now have topped 30 million.
The Web has proliferated a genre amateur both by definition and as a point of pride. Fan fiction fills in the narrative lacunae left by commercial publishing—it tells the stories we want to hear. It elaborates and digresses much like the oral tradition did in its day. Promisingly, it is unabashed by convention. No longer need a would-be Valmiki tailor his manuscript to a publisher’s tastes; he can let his freak flag fly. Less promising, it often lacks concern for its characters’ depth or subtlety, propped up as it is by a master narrative. We already own the action figures.
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The Missing Queen: Penguin/Zubaan, 184 Pages, Rs399.
Samhita Arni is no amateur; since the age of 8, when she began keeping notebooks that her mother scooped up and had published as The Mahabharatha: A Child’s View (Vol. I, 1996; Vol. 2, 2002), she has demonstrated fluency in the telling and retelling of myths.
One telling from the oral tradition—among those counted by Ramanujan—comes from West Bengal’s Patua singers and scribes. It receives a handsome exposition in a graphic novel titled Sita’s Ramayana (2011), co-authored by Arni with Moyna Chitrakar. The story goes that when Arni showed up one year at the Jaipur Literature Festival brandishing pages from an unfinished political thriller based on the Ramayan, her publisher recognized her as ideal to pen the story from Sita’s point of view.
“War, in some ways, is merciful to men,” Arni wrote in Sita’s Ramayana. “It makes them heroes if they are the victors. If they are the vanquished—they do not live to see their homes taken, their wives widowed. But if you are a woman—you must live through defeat.”
Her thriller finally complete, Arni has breathed a different sort of life into this insight. The Missing Queen brings the familiar story up to the present day. The states of Ayodhya and Lanka fought their great war just a decade ago. But the official account set down by the journalist, Valmiki, doesn’t add up. Ram fought a war over Sita—so where is she?
In Ayodhya, another journalist asking unwelcome questions finds herself pursued by agents of Ram’s absolutist regime. She flees across a series of richly allegorical landscapes. We glimpse an “Ayodhya Shining” that resembles our booming metropolitan India, and encounter the brute facts of its hegemony over the countryside. Those it did not conquer by sword, it subjugates through the more insidious forces of cultural and economic imperialism. Our journalist exhibits uncommon bravery in her willingness to raise questions that, even to this day, the “powers that be” would rather go unasked.
For all its arresting violence and torment, The Missing Queen feels underdeveloped. Its zeal for exploration fails to relieve the flatness of its execution. Its plot, like its narrator, is held hostage to an inevitable conclusion. Its dialogue often mimics the stiltedness of film noir—a common vice of fan fiction—as its one-dimensional characters parade before the tape recorder. Our journalist, who bears no description and no evident motive but curiosity, relates events in a naïve first-person. She’s a classic young-adult (YA) protagonist, a cipher for whom an adolescent reader can easily substitute herself.
And it is packaged for children. The Missing Queen comes labelled as “a speculative thriller”, a reference to a genre blurring the boundaries of what might once have been labelled sci-fi or fantasy. Speculative fiction, however, doesn’t content itself with superficial characterization; that’s the realm of fan fiction.
It could have been otherwise. One can’t help but wonder if it’s not only Arni’s bibliography but her gender that has publishers steering her to the YA pile rather than bestowing upon her the blockbuster treatment accorded to her male counterparts.
Arni is no pushover. She espouses a muscular feminism, redressing age-old wrongs. In addition to reconsidering Sita, Arni recasts the vilified Kaikeyi, whose son Bharat was a contender for the throne assumed by Ram, as a hard-nosed political insider. Surpanakha, the literally demonized sister of Ravan—maimed by Lakshman in the first act of war—becomes a freedom fighter from the Lankan Liberation Front.
The Missing Queen explodes the edifice of mythical history as a tale told by the victors. But what we get in its place is less lifelike than the myth.
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First Published: Sat, Feb 23 2013. 12 18 AM IST
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