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With Bhumika: a story of Sita, Aditya Iyengar presents an alternative history of Sita’s life, offering food for thought about the nature of happiness, the question of choice, and the importance of finding solace in the past.
“The future is a palace. It looks beautiful while we can still look forward to it. The past is a temple. Ultimately, it will be the place we find solace in when the veneer of the future fades… The story we tell ourselves of our past is as important as the story we imagine ourselves in the future.” – Aditya Iyengar, Bhumika.
In my native state of Kerala, Ramayana maasam, or Ramayana month, known as Karkidakam in the Malayali calendar, (which was mid-July to mid-August this year) is observed by Hindu families by listening to the Ramayana being read out, or watched it being performed.
For me, this year, the opportunity to experience The Ramayana came in the form of Bhumika, the story of Sita.
The book begins with Sita watching a performance of the Ramayana by wandering minstrels while at Valmiki’s ashrama, and realizing how this story, which is her story too, has none of her truth contained in it. She is an old woman now. She has sent her sons away with Rama, and refused to go back to the palace.
She has made her choices, but she has doubts – “Was my life as good as it could ever have been? Had I made the right decisions that served my life in the best possible way? Had my decisions given me happiness? Would a different decision have made me happier? Was this all a woman could get? Even one as privileged as a queen?”
When Vishwamitra comes to the ashram, he gives her a chance to find the answers to these questions by showing her what the story of her life could have been, if she had never met Rama. That story is Bhumika’s story.
And it truly is her story, because all the big, brave men we hear about in the epic – Vali, Ravana, Hanuman, and even Rama, appear only briefly. It is her voice and her mind that we listen to; her experiences that we share as readers. It is a jarring experience – one that brings into sharp focus exactly how silenced the women in our epics are, even when they are central to the story. In flipping that, and making us see the men and their stories from her point of view, Aditya Iyengar has achieved a master stroke.
The Bhumika he has created is not one-note. It would have been easy to write a warrior queen as an alternative Sita, and call it a day, but the author has gone beyond. She is a queen, but not without self-doubt. She is not quite a warrior, but she wins wars. She is idealistic, but finds practical solutions. She is a character that I fell in love with, wholeheartedly.
Having sworn off reading Indian mythology-based fiction for the past few years, I was skeptical about picking this up. I haven’t read the author’s previous work, and I was doubtful if I wanted a man to explain Sita, a character I love, to me. My gut however told me this would be a good one, and I am glad I listened. The author credits Volga’s A Liberation of Sita as an inpriration, and the influence shows. The writing doesn’t feel ‘mansplainy’ or preachy, and Bhumika is not simply a man’s idea of a ‘strong woman’.
But is she the ‘right’ Sita? The Sita that should have been? And what of the Sita we know? Is she wrong to have made the choices she did? It is in the resolution of this that the book triumphs. As much as I would love to tell you – no spoilers! Read the book yourself, and find out.
Another aspect of the book that I enjoyed, was its subtle exploration of the political scenario today by pitting Rama and Bhumika against each other. He contrasts Bhumika’s Mithila – a society in a state of flux because of the social reforms that she has been implementing with a ‘Rama Rajya’ that offers peace and prosperity. Is that peace and prosperity worth it, if it means sacrificing individuality and uniqueness, is the question that it makes us ponder. “If Ayodhya stood for obedience and uniformity, Mithila stood for diversity and, therefore, dissent,” he writes.
It is amazing that so much is expressed in so few words. The book is not a huge tome, but a short novella that can be read within a day or two. I would suggest reading it slowly and giving time for the thoughts to coalesce and solidify. Profound thoughts are expressed in a sentence or two, and while the language is simple and easy to understand, the ideas expressed are complex. It behooves the reader to spend time weighing the words before moving on with the story.
Last year, I wrote a heartfelt piece titled An Illuminating (But Very Real) Conversation With Sita That Happened In My Head (not a shameless plug, I promise) for Women’s Web. For me, it was a way to reconcile my admiration for Sita with her popular image as a submissive wife; and my feminism with my ‘unfeminist’ choices. It is a piece that received a lot of praise (and a lot of criticism!) but I have never been fully happy with it. It always felt incomplete, and didn’t convey everything I thought and felt.
In Bhumika I found the missing pieces to that conversation. To hear my thoughts and feelings being reflected, and then being taken forward so beautifully was a wonderfully surreal experience. So this really isn’t a balanced, unbiased review of the book. It is a deeply personal reading experience that I have attempted to put into words.
If you have ever wondered like me, about what Sita is without Rama; about choices and identity, then this is the book for you. I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.
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