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Writer and scholar Nabaneeta Dev Sen died in November before her translation of a 16th-century retelling of the Ramayan by a Bengali woman poet could be published. Chandrabati’s Ramayan, as the work is known, was composed by the eponymous Chandrabati, a balladeer who lived in Mymensingh district, now in Bangladesh. Her retelling of the epic from Sita’s perspective recently appeared in English from Zubaan Books, along with footnotes and essays that locate the text in its historical context.

In spite of the 400-odd years that separate Chandrabati’s Ramayan from us, the text feels urgent and modern. Keenly sensitive to the cadences of the original, Dev Sen conveyed the rural flavour of Chandrabati’s language with remarkable fidelity, especially her use of idioms and turns of phrases, which persist in the Bengali spoken to this day in villages on both sides of the border. Chandrabati’s earthy realism also feels intensely contemporary, for instance in her description of the queens of Ayodhya “munching upon pieces of toasted pottery" in fits of craving during their pregnancy.

Chandrabati’s Sita is Everywoman, forced to suffer the indignity of repeated trials by her suspicious husband, whose mind, in turn, is poisoned by society. Across the gulf of centuries, her story retains its resonance in contemporary south Asia, where women’s ‘honour’ is still used as pawn to settle scores. As with the other 16th-century woman poet Molla, who retold Sita’s story in Telugu, Chandrabati is as a precursor of a long line of women retelling the Ramayan—not only to redeem Sita’s reputation as an unblemished queen but also to reclaim her centrality to the narrative. One recent example of such a revisionist take is The Forest Of Enchantment, a beautifully imagined novel about Sita in exile by the Indian-American writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Chandrabati’s Ramayan is a curious text in that it doesn’t signal any explicit affiliations with epic conventions. Dev Sen appends a short bhanita, a kind of prologue, where the poet invokes the blessings of the gods (a standard trope in epics), but this section is lifted from another poem called Sundari Molua that Chandrabati wrote. Dev Sen’s editorial gesture of giving Chandrabati’s text a sense of epic roundedness is of a piece with her feminist politics. Her mother, Radharani Dev, was the first feminist poet in Bengal. In her own writing, Dev Sen drew extensively on her lived experience as a woman and from the lives of other women around her. She founded, for instance, a writers’ collective called Soi, a safe space where women writers could gather to speak about their lives and work. It's not surprising that she would be attracted to a defiant voice like Chandrabati’s.

'Chandrabati's Ramayan', Zubaan Books, 120 pages, Rs395
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'Chandrabati's Ramayan', Zubaan Books, 120 pages, Rs395

An individual with a mind of her own, Chandrabati begins her narrative not in Ayodhya but at Ravan’s palace, described as a site of ethereal beauty created by Vishwakarma, the divine architect. Like the irascible Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, she dismisses tradition and reclaims authority to rewrite the stories of yore from the point of view of a woman. Chandrabati's story of Sita's origins is borrowed from the Adbhuta Ramayan, where Sita is believed to be born to Mandodari, Ravan’s queen, through the intervention of the gods. But Chandrabati also describes Sita as janamdukhini—"a girl born to suffer"—and elsewhere as “the luckless one", an epithet she also uses to refer to herself.

Yet, even as Chandrabati feels an affinity with Sita, she doesn’t wallow in self-pity for being cursed to bear the burden of ill fortune. She calmly accepts her destiny, as does Sita, who admits that it was because of her that “Golden Lanka was devastated": “I have heard the heart-rending cries of thousands of women/ Thousands of desolate women without their sons and/ husbands/ Have cursed me from the depths of their aggrieved hearts."

Sita’s acceptance of her exile, as she is sent away by Ram, seems, in large part, like a penance for the grief she has caused to millions of women by igniting the feud between Ram and Ravan. But she refuses to apologize or be sorry for the aspersions that are cast on her. Indeed, as Sita is exiled to the forest, Ayodhya’s luck also leaves along with her. Chandrabati squarely puts the blame for this misfortune on Ram’s grave error of judgment: “poor Ram," she chastises the great king intrepidly, “you have totally lost your mind".

Chandrabati’s text ends with these words, but later poets, presumably male, gave her poem an extended conclusion, which Dev Sen includes in her version. The blame for Sita's tragedy is put on karma by them, instead of on Ram, as Chandrabati does. Kukuya, Manthara’s daughter, whose conspiracy provokes Ram to banish Sita to the forests, is meted out with just deserts. The good are rewarded and the evil punished.

Yet, both these endings, by Chandrabati and her successors, don’t diverge on one fact: that it is Sita who was the ultimate destroyer of Ravan, Ram merely was the instrument of his downfall. It’s this bold statement that rings through the text, and endures four centuries later, making seemingly folksy rhymes like Chandrabati's unique and iconoclastic.

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