Book Review : The Forest of Enchantments

Posted: October 5, 2019

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Since childhood, I have never been a big fan of Goddess Sita as a mythological character. Somehow she always seemed too much of a Miss Goody-Two-Shoes (Bhakts, don’t run to kill me yet! Read the review first!). The fiery Draupadi and the fierce Parvati who stood their own always seemed more attractive as Goddesses to idolise. This is probably the reason why even though I had loved ‘The Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra B Divakaruni, it took me 8 months after I brought home the book ‘The Forest of Enchantments’ to read it. I treasured it dearly, of course. It was a signed copy from one of my favourite authors, and the day had been really special as a long standing dream of meeting her in person had been fulfilled.

She is even better in person than I imagined – warm, gracious and with an aura of quiet intelligence around her. But back to the book – it was proudly displayed on my bookshelf and stared at me every time I passed it. But I still did not get around to reading it.

Time and again, you face situations in life where sometimes real life characters and sometimes mythological ones inspire you. Many a times, when faced with a tough situation, I have found myself picking up ‘Illusions’ by Richard Bach, and finding my answers in it (yup, I am ‘that’ big a book nerd :p Totally confess it!). So there were times when I found Sitayan calling out to me. Was I growing older (read: milder)? The fiery feminist in me was found wondering what a woman like Sita would do in such a situation.

When I finally got around to picking the book last week, I couldn’t put it down until I finished it (when an ever exhausted mommy of two reads a book into wee hours of night, the book is most certainly a must read!).

Chitraji retells one of the most heard stories of our childhood is utmost poetic manner. The flow is the language is so beautiful, it almost transports you to an era bygone. Sitayan begins in the most unique way where Sita starts narrating her version of the events in Ramayan. You see her as a woman who is exceptionally beautiful, intelligent, moralistic and a gifted healer. She knows she is different since childhood due to the visions she gets when she goes near the Shiva’s bow. I am one of those weird people who believe in rebirth, soul connections and healing, so yes, this resonated with me. The rest of the story goes on to recount how she met Ram, her initial days as a newly wedded wife in a huge palace, how she played her part as a near perfect wife, daughter-in-law, and sister. But she also goes on to describe how she was faced with tough situations and how ultimately, we are all human. Whether it was her failure to protect Surpanakha when her husband and her brother-in-law were mocking her or it was her immense craving for a child in the Panchvati forest which ultimately led her into forcing Ram to capture the golden-eyed deer which she sensed was magical, she made mistakes. Mistakes which she dearly paid for, if you see it in a worldly sense. Or you could call it all a play of Karma and the Universe in order to destroy the evil in the world.

The best part is that none of the characters is shown as good or evil in entirety in the story- even Raavan. He is also shown as someone who was in love with Sita since years and ultimately, he avenged his sister’s humiliation in the only way he knew – by use of trickery and force. He still did respect her boundaries and did not force himself on her even though he very easily could. Love sometimes makes people do unimaginable things. Wrong for the world maybe, but is there a right or wrong of anything? Isn’t it just our perception?

Ram, of course, always kept his duty as a son or a king above his duty as a husband or a father causing of a lot of suffering for Sita and their sons. But a person is shaped by his upbringing, Ram’s taught him to be a righteous and dutiful king. He too has been shown to be racked by sadness and depression due to his actions even though he does them out of his understanding of duty.

Sitayan explores many aspects of love and how people’s actions can be shaped by it. Whether it was a mother’s love which motivated Kunti to take an unforgivable action, a father’s love which ultimately led to his death, a husband’s love which made him fight all odds for his wife, a wife’s love which made her forget her husband’s follies and forgive him or a devotees love which made him move mountains (literally) for the person whom he idolised as God.

The book also shows the strength and resilience of Sita as a woman. Yes, she followed her husband into the forest. Yes, she forgave him when he asked her for Agnipariksha after staying in Lanka. Yes, she was ready to forgive him again for abandoning her and their unborn children only on basis of idle gossip. But no, she is finally shown as not giving in to his last demand of passing through Agnipariksha in the end. She preferred Mother Earth devouring her than proving her chastity again and again. At this point, I cried. Cried not just for Sita but for many a Sitas who even today need to prove they are worthy of love, care and respect. Cried for the fact that even in her death, she forgives Ram. That is what makes her a Goddess.

Of course, the eternal question of why Ram doesn’t need to prove his chastity will continue to haunt me forever. He was alone in the forest too right? And later in a palace full of women? Why do we call a man who drove his wife to suicide a God (yes, saying it as I see it!)? For how many centuries? I guess these questions will remain ever unanswered…

First published here.

The image has been provided by the author

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