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Arshia Sattar’s Lost Loves, delves into the key characters of the Ramayana beyond their divinity, to examine the complexity of dharma and moral choices.
Review by Chitra Iyer
Arshia Sattar establishes Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish as a critical study of Rama and other key characters in the Ramayana as literary figures rather than religious or mythical/ divine figures. Her sincere effort will help readers delve deep into the psyche of these characters and get behind their true motivations, feelings and beliefs without the boundaries imposed when they are studied as divine or spiritual beings. For me, the book was very successful in drawing out new questions, thoughts and ideas behind very complex concepts like dharma, righteousness and moral choices.
Sattar approaches this effort as a series of seven essays which can be read both separately and as a continuum of inter-related concepts. She never strays too far from the core storyline milestones: Rama’s exile (with Sita and Lakshmana), Sita’s abduction and her rescue and subsequent rejection by Rama.
While acknowledging the temptation to take a feminist approach to the story, in this attempt Sattar aims, instead, to genuinely understand Rama’s motivations for his cruelty to Sita and other acts that could be interpreted as anti-dharma. Still, at first it took some willpower to steer clear of the obvious indignant conclusions and join Sattar in her endeavour. While it may be helpful to have already read Arshia Sattar’s translation of the Ramayana (the seven Kandas), it is not essential to understanding this book.
Sattar sets the tone with a study of the psychological impact Dasharatha’s choices have on Rama and the choices he makes over his lifetime, especially those which involve women. Still, in the essay ‘Presence of the Past’, she idolizes and justifies his choices in a way I really couldn’t connect with, perhaps because it comes too early in the book.
As you get more familiar with Rama’s approach to dharma based on his various roles (son, King, Kshatriya, ascetic, husband, brother etc.) you begin to see why he may have made the choices he did, in spite of himself. Rama’s conflict (between upholding his personal dharma and public dharma; or between his kshtariya and ascetic dharma) wouldn’t seem too unfamiliar to many of us, who struggle even today between what the ‘world expects’ and what we really want deep down inside.
I really enjoyed the essay ‘A tale of 3 cities and a search for Dharma’ for the way the author has skilfully used the 3 key cities in the Ramayana as metaphors of 3 states of being (Ayodhya as the state of calm/intellectual pleasures, Kishkinda more given to visceral pleasures and Lanka – the opulent state offering excesses and sensory pleasures). Further, she uses the women in each ‘state’ to define these cities, just as Sita’s virtue defines Rama’s righteousness. She even adds a fourth dimension- the forest- as the flexible space where roles, dharma and relationship dynamics can be chosen and are not pre-defined.
The titular essay ‘Lost Loves’ is perhaps the least esoteric and the most relevant to readers who may not be scholars but understand and have experienced relationship dynamics of a similar kind in their own lives. It is the easiest chapter if you want to begin examining Rama’s life and choices as a mortal.
For me, the last two essays – ‘Inside-Outside’ and ‘Remembering the Ramayana’ seemed to be intellectual indulgences with no real appeal for the non-academic reader. I also found the detailed enquiry into Valmiki’s role (‘Inside-Outside’) in the Ramayana distracting to the objective of the book – i.e. to examine its central characters as literary figures.
In all, Arshia Sattar’s Lost Loves is a very satisfying read. With her command over the great Indian epic, Sattar successfully manages to take some risks and chart new directions with this set of essays.
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