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“Why did you follow your husband to the forest? … Why did you set this impossible standard for all women? Why make such submissiveness a badge of pride?”
She looks radiant. It has been a while since I’ve seen her. She has always been here, of course, lingering silently in the pooja room. But it is after a long time that I’ve given her any attention. Does she resent me for it? I search her face for signs of bitterness. But she is calm and unmoved. She has divined my intentions however, and she addresses them.
“I am not angry.”
“How did you know I was thinking that?” I ask, surprised.
“I know you,” she replies.
She doesn’t expand on that. It makes me distinctly uncomfortable.
“I’m glad we’re talking,” she smiles. “I had a feeling we would.”
The words are stuck in my throat, but I manage to dislodge them. “You did, huh?”
“Yeah! The choices you’ve made; the recent shift in your point of view. I’ve noticed. I know you have questions for me. Let’s talk. We both need it!”
Her acknowledging that she too needs to talk relaxes me a little. I take a deep breath.
“Why did you marry Rama? You barely knew him.” The question is out of my mouth before I can fully process the thoughts. I wince. I hope I haven’t offended her.
She laughs –a hearty, throaty laugh. I’ve never seen her like this before.
“Look who’s asking!” she quips. “You had an arranged marriage yourself, didn’t you?”
“Well…yes,” I stammer. “But I met my husband before we got married and made an informed decision. I really liked him then, and time has proven that we are quite compatible. We have a great relationship, my husband and I.”
She has got me on the defensive. And she hasn’t answered the question I asked. Just as I am about to remind her, she starts talking.
“I could lift that bow myself, even as a child. Among all the people in my father’s court and household, only I, a small girl could do it. That is why it was the challenge at my swayamvara. I couldn’t love or marry someone who was not my equal in ability. Rama and I were well-matched. As long as husband and wife are equal; as long as they love and respect each other, how does it matter if their marriage was arranged or if it was a love marriage? I will also remind you, that in my rebirth as Rukmini, I was the one who proposed, I was the one who made arrangements for the elopement and I was the one who drove the chariot away from my maternal home. Neither an arranged marriage, nor a love marriage is good or bad by default. It all depends on what one makes of it.”
“That makes sense, but did Rama respect or love you?”
“He did. I truly believe that he did, at least at first. I know why you are asking this question, but there is time for me to answer that. Go chronologically. We’ll get there.”
“Did you hate Kaikeyi? Did you hate Kausalya and Sumitra for not speaking up?”
She sighs deeply before she counters, “Do you hate your mother-in-law?”
“Well, we have differences of opinion, but that’s because we are from different generations and have disparate upbringings. That does not make her a bad person and I don’t hate her for it!”
“Then why are you asking me that inane question? Do I believe that what happened was wrong? Yes! But I do not blame Mother Kaikeyi for it. Or mothers Kausalya and Sumitra. They were all reacting the way society had conditioned them to. It is sad, but not unforgiveable. Not every mother-in-law or daughter-in-law is inherently evil. The world would be a better place if we tried to empathize with each other.”
“Why did you follow your husband to the forest? Kaikeyi didn’t ask you to leave, and neither did Rama demand that you accompany him. Why did you set this impossible standard for all women? Why make such submissiveness a badge of pride?”
She rolls her eyes.
“Again, why did you submissively follow your husband to the US? Did you not set a standard for other women like yourself?”
“I wasn’t trying to,” I defend myself. “I mean to say, I was making a decision for myself. I do not expect every woman to give up her career and follow her husband wherever he goes. I missed my husband a lot. He too, was struggling alone in a foreign land. I wanted to support him and be there for him –that was my personal choice. But it wasn’t an easy choice. I wish had an identity here, which did not depend on him. I’ve volunteered, I’m writing –I’m doing everything I can within the limitations placed on me. I know women whose husbands are here, but the wives are back home in India. That isn’t an easy choice for them either. It is the system here that does not allow women on H4 visa, basic independence, which is to blame. It is the system that forces these so-called choices on us.”
“Similarly, I wasn’t trying to set any standards for anyone. I loved my husband and I wanted to be with him. And politically, a show of support for him was the most sensible decision. Lakshman also came to the forest. He too was devoted to Rama. Why do you not call him submissive? Why that tag only for me? Only because I am a woman? And Urmila –staying back in the palace wasn’t an easy decision for her either. Unless you have full understanding of why a woman made a choice, do not judge her for it. And even then, judge and attempt to fix the society and the circumstances that led her to that choice. Do not criticize her.”
“Point taken,” I concede. “Soorpanakha –why did you not speak up when she was mistreated?”
She looks wistful. “I did, you know. I did speak up for her. But I was not the one who wrote the epic. I wish I had. I wish any woman had. A woman would know that I did chide my husband and brother-in-law. I couldn’t believe that they behaved like that. Soorpanakha had her faults, but she deserves kindness. I mean, Ravana kidnapped me, and people praise him for not raping me! Really? Is it that low a bar that men have to live up to, that they get praise for not raping a woman?”
She shakes her head sadly.
“You could have escaped from Ravan on your own though. You were powerful—The Adbhuta Ramayana is proof enough. You could at least have gone back with Hanuman when he came looking for you.”
“I don’t deny that. I could have reduced him and his Lanka to ashes on my own. Or I could have taken Hanuman’s help. But consider the era I lived in, and what those choices would entail. The society that placed restrictions on me also placed restrictions on my husband. Men are as much a victim of patriarchal norms as we are. They must be macho protectors and providers, whether or not they want to be, and whether or not the woman needs protection. And my husband was not an ordinary man. He was to be king. Do you think his people would have respected him, if they felt that he could not even rescue his wife? I am not saying that they are right in thinking like that, but given that they do think like that, I made what I thought was a politically wise decision. I am a Queen. I grew up as a king’s daughter. I understand politics and act accordingly. To assume that I cannot or should not do so, just because I am a woman or because it does not fit your mental image of me, is wrong.”
I don’t reply. I’m not entirely convinced, and she can see that. But we’ve made good progress, and I have more to ask her.
“The agnipariksha. Why go through with it? Why go back to Rama after he doubted you?”
“Same reasons. Purely political. I interpreted his doubt as his hinting to me that irrespective of the fact that he knew I was faithful to him, the society we lived in would question me. We were to be the future king and queen. We could not effectively lead a populace that doubted us. Our position made it such that our trust for each other was not enough. We had to be politically astute too.”
“Hmm. But they still doubted you. You still had to leave. While you were pregnant, no less.”
She sighs deeply. “We women just can’t win sometimes, can we?” she says. “But you remember that I was called back, and I chose not to return. At some point one has to choose oneself over responsibility and duty. One has to choose to respect oneself and walk away from a situation that is harmful. One has to walk away from people who take oneself and one’s love and loyalty for granted. Forgiveness is bound by terms and conditions. When they were violated again, I knew it was time to leave. I chose myself. I wish I had an ending that was not self-annihilation, but you have to admit you were pleased I did not just go back!”
I smile. “Yes, I admit. I’m glad you did not go back.”
“So what have we learnt?” she asks me.
“To not judge women,” I answer. “Women have many reasons to do what they do, and not all of them are good reasons or good decisions, but to shame them for it is unfair. They are just fallible humans. We are all doing the best we can in an unjust system. We are all struggling to make things better. We make some compromises, because no one has the energy to fight every battle and everyone fights in a different way. But we are all fighting. Feminism is about fighting the unjust systems together, not fighting with each other.”
“Well done!” she claps.
We laugh together, but there are tiny tears in the corners of both our eyes. We have made an uneasy peace with each other. Mythily, the princess of Mithila; and Mythily, aka Vijayalakshmi.
Author’s Note: Mythily is my nickname. As a child, I grew up watching Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and relating to Sita –the only main character who was also a girl. Later in life, I felt disconnected from the “ideal” she represents. People looking at my life now, see only my “non-feminist” decisions, and judge me for them, even though I am sure about myself. I identify as a feminist, but I recently read an article about how some women, who make traditional choices, do not call themselves feminists, even though they believe in equality, because they felt that feminists judged them for their choices. Moreover, I have recently been considering how even the women in history, including women in epics, are written from a male POV. How do we know that they accurately represent the voices of the women of that time? These two things –my own life journey, and my questioning of the lack of female perspectives, have eventually led to me to renegotiate my understanding of Sita. Why assume that she did everything she did because she believed in the idea of “pati parmeshwar?” She may have been a woman who considered herself an equal of her husband; who made questionable decisions on political/practical grounds, as female leaders, or even many of us, do today. This write-up is a thought experiment resulting from this shift in my POV and is a fictional piece.
Header image is a still from Sita Sings The Blues
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This is such a well conceived article. I really liked the arguments and and yes how do we know what was her POV? Judging women is wrong at every level.Great writing indeed!
Thank you, Meha! Yes, judging women for their choices –be they conventional or not does not help to solve the deeper structural issues.
An excellent and nuanced post as usual, Vijayalakshmi! I so agree with the arguments made, and yes, so much of it still rings so true for wives who chuck up everything to follow their husbands even today, doesn’t it?
Do check out this article of mine – I feel you’ll find it interesting. Of course, you will probably know much of all this. http://www.womensweb.in/2014/08/shaping-women-through-mythology-women-of-the-ramayana/
Thank you, Sandhya! It means a lot coming from a wonderful writer like you. I have read that article of yours and I think it’s brilliant 🙂
I’m glad you did! Thank you!
Very nice.A different perspective
Thank you so much!
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