The Missing Queen by Samhita Arni begins with the question of Sita’s absence from Ayodhya, but goes far beyond the Ramayana.
Review by Aparna Vedapuri Singh
Obedient wife whose world rested on her husband’s words or strong-minded queen who accompanied her husband to the forest on her own insistence? Self-sacrificing woman who stepped through the fire meekly or raging goddess who withdrew from the world in anger? The traditional good Indian woman may be modeled on Sita, but that hasn’t stopped others from claiming a piece of her story as their own.
Sita’s story presents itself as fertile ground for endless re-imagining, centuries after the original was sung. Here is a great love story, a story in which a man climbs mountains, allies with monkeys, fords the mighty ocean, devastates an army and almost loses his own life and that of his brother for the sake of the woman he loves, and yet, at the end, there is no happily ever after. This is the tale of a love where one of the two lovers goes missing at the end. The reader may be forgiven for asking, what kind of a love story is this?
Generations of Indians have continued to ask and answer that question in their own way, from folk ballads that tell the anguish of Sita to Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen, which goes into speculative fiction mode to ask, but where is Sita?
The Missing Queen is set in a very creatively imagined Ayodhya where Rama is King-Autocrat, a tortured soul imprisoned by his determination to uphold Dharma, and Sita has become she-who-is-not-named. In this Ayodhya, it is commonly believed that Sita was banished to soothe doubts about her chastity in the public mind. A newbie journalist’s quest for Sita becomes an investigation not only into the present whereabouts of Sita but into many of the hallowed incidents of the Ramayana.
Did Surpanakha really deserve to have her nose and ears chopped off? How many men is it justifiable to kill in the quest for one woman? Is Vibhishana the embodiment of the ethical man or did a desire to become King play a part in his abandoning his brother for the enemy? What really happened to Lanka after the defeat?
Other novels, plays, songs and poetry have asked these questions, but The Missing Queen situates them brilliantly in a contemporary Ayodhya with media, opinion polls, concerns over one’s image among the public and – a secret service run by the Washerman. (Remember the washerman who casts doubts on Sita and leads to her being expelled from the city?)
For the most part, Sita permeates the story by her absence than by a positive statement of her life, her motives or her intentions. In this Ramayana, Surpanakha and Kaikeyi are more vivid characters. In exploring Sita’s absence though, the novel examines many themes of relevance to the modern state and government such as the morality of using force and stealth, the manipulation of citizens for ‘good ends’, the centralization of power in a benign centre and the question of ownership of resources.
In her previous work Sita’s Ramayana, Samhita Arni collaborated with artist Moyna Chitrakar to bring us a highly sympathetic, emotional and instinctive account of Sita. The Missing Queen is not Sita’s story, but Sita’s absence as the loose end, pulling at which uncovers one possible scandal after another.
It does not tug at your heartstrings, but is no less enjoyable for it. Using the most well known of Indian epics as its starting point, it gives you an entirely new story with questions of its own that relate to the world we live in.
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