A Letter to Janaki

Dear Janaki,

I hope you’re doing well – finally in a place where irrelevant questions of purity and virtue don’t constantly hound you and you are engulfed in your mother’s all enveloping embrace. The people of my world remember you fondly, and you might have heard their prayers to you from the realm above. The last year has been a series of ups and downs for me, a truly memorable one.

I remember the first time I heard about you, the warrior princess from Mithila; an incarnate of the Goddess herself who chose the Sun Prince Rama of Ayodhya to be her beloved. The faint hum of the fan circulating hot air made five-year-old me sprawl on the ancient wooden bed. With my head on my Avva’s lap, I listened intently as she began narrating the tale of a divine prince, an arrogant demon king, and their war for righteousness. I wasn’t necessarily fascinated by you (my deepest apologies). I had other more important questions – how beautiful you were, what clothes you wore and how irresponsible it was of you to walk around in a dangerous forest full of thieves and demons with your royal jewellery (a realisation of the value of shiny things had only recently dawned upon me).

I read Amar Chitra Katha’s version of the Valmiki Ramayana when I was seven. Illustrated in beautiful comics that captured my imagination, the story was told in a sweet, simple way. My imagination of you, however, didn’t change much from my earlier opinion. A couple of years ago, I read Ashok K Banker’s Ramayana series, where he retold the age-old myth in a way like never before – giving the characters complexity and perspective, his writing completely modern yet his rendition remaining true to its origin. Your strength, with the vulnerability of your position, shone through his work. So, dear Sita, began my journey of truly knowing you.

Despite being a goddess in your own right, you led a life of hardship and sorrow. A majority of everyone’s lives is somehow a strange consequence of their own choosing, and yours was too. The happenstances in your life, however, that weren’t of your choice lead to your abduction, humiliation and finally abandonment. You were harassed by a man who didn’t respect the boundaries of consent, made to walk in fire by your own husband to prove your “purity”, humiliated and finally exiled into the forest with children in your womb because of the words of a launderer. You were questioned, despite knowing that you were blameless in a powerless situation – questions that followed you back to Ayodhya, questions that are still asked to women today.

Unfortunately, we still go through the same circumstances as you. We are blamed for overstepping the boundaries of “safety” a woman is supposed to be confined within. Doubts about our “chastity” follow us to our deathbed. Even though one is abused or harassed, she is naturally still blamed and eventually shunned by society as “impure”. While it is slowly, yet surely, changing – we womenfolk still have an incredibly long way to go.

We’re all here to weave our own stories, and to hope that one day our stories change a heart, influence a philosophy and inspire life. Unsurprisingly, our stories aren’t written – they are whispered from one generation of mothers to another – stories of childbirth and marriage, home and hearth, love and loss and in the course of time – yours, like many others, has been lost in the pages of history written by men.

I hope that one day, as I tell my niece this story, which has been inherited from one generation to another, she admires you for who you were, she understands your struggles and circumstances. I hope she understands that the lesser known Sitayana – the story of Sita is equally, if not more,  as important as her counterpart’s story. I wish I grew up in an era where I knew you as Sita – the princess of Mithila, as compared to Sita – the wife of Ram. And while I wish all this, I know that one day, when I sit, as the storyteller, that you’ll be my protagonist – the main focus of a narrative where, traditionally, you have been ignored. This is probably the only thing I can promise you. My story of you will be an ode to you – and to the struggles of womenfolk for centuries. I hope that my sisters and I find the same strength as you to live happily in a world where the odds are stacked against us. Thank you for being the woman that you were.

Love,

A girl in the 21st century

Written by Siri Rajanahally for MTTN

Artwork by Ashirwad Ray

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