Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana | Devdutt Pattanaik

Out of the body

Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana joins an increasing tribe of books of Indian epics retold. Devdutt Pattanaik, the author of many books on Indian myth (Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata; Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology; The Pregnant King), here seems to be making a contribution to two growing sub-genres: the graphic book, and the retelling through women’s eyes. But unlike Amruta Patil’s brilliant, jewel-like Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, or the striking images of Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana, Pattanaik doesn’t seem invested in the visual. And while ostensibly structured around Sita’s life, it is stuffed with too much else to feel consistently like her story: Hanuman often seems more of a presence.

Pattanaik does offer more detail about women’s worlds than most versions of the Ramayan: the child Sita entering the kitchen, or Sita and her sisters as newly-arrived brides in Ayodhya spending “all day and all night listening to tales of the sons told by their adoring mothers". He tries to bring relationships between women to the fore: Anasuya welcoming Sita into womanhood with a garland, a garment and a pot of cream—symbols of shringara (adornment), or Mandodari barring Ravana’s way, taunting him to wait for Sita to come to him willingly. “Only Sita understood what Mandodari had done; she had protected her own station in the palace while ensuring another woman’s freedom".

Sita—An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayan: Penguin, 328 pages, Rs499
Sita—An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayan: Penguin, 328 pages, Rs499

It is a hope we have all nurtured: to cease to be identified only with our bodies. But Pattanaik’s insistence on Sita’s status as goddess (“I cannot be abandoned by anyone") elides the fact that neither Sita’s world—nor, sadly, our own—is prepared to do women any such favours. Throughout the Ramayan, the married woman’s embrace of another man is heavily punished even when unintentional (the classic case being Ahilya’s of Indra, who has taken the form of Ahilya’s husband Gautama). And anyway, as the supremely tragic example of Sita shows, being “pure of thought and body" cannot protect any woman from having her reputation besmirched. Reputation is everything, and it is not in a woman’s hands. Ram declares that he has fought a war, but only to restore the honour of his family name; Sita is nothing but “grit in [his] eye", for she has chosen to live under another man’s roof rather than kill herself. There, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of patriarchy: to keep “honour" alive, women must die. Men, meanwhile, are expected to acquire the wives of the men they slay, and considered honourable when they “accept" them as wives, rather than take them by force.

But while Pattanaik points to the killing of Tadaka by Ram as signalling the epic’s “acceptance of male violence against women", he seems not to acknowledge the violence done to Sita by Ram’s spurning of her. In allowing Ram the privilege of splitting into the man who loves his wife, and the king who must reject his queen, Pattanaik allows “honour" in by the back door.

Eventually, if the Ramayan has been “criticized by feminists" and “deconstructed by academicians", there are real reasons for it. In any case, Pattanaik’s categories seem sweeping and not useful. When he refers to the “Ram of academics" versus “Ram of devotees", or “Western thought" versus “traditional Indian thought", he means a certain kind of rationalist who-what-where history, while ignoring reams of philosophy, anthropology and religious studies, much of it “Western", that has been crucial to studying Indian myth. Oddly, Pattanaik’s own book is strewn with distracting factoid “boxes" that draw on this work—providing alternative folk recensions and narrative variations of the sort that Paula Richman has spent a career gathering, mythic analysis of the Wendy Doniger variety. One is left wondering why he feels the need to diss the bricks of which his house is built. Pattanaik sees the richness and complexity thrown up by the living text, and then places it disdainfully in his supplementary narrative, as if he fears causing offence to some imaginary unquestioning devotee.

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