When Ravanan helped Sitai escape from Raman

What happens when leading ladies from Indian mythologies tell their side of the stories? There are twists in the tales. An excerpt from Anita Sivakumaran’s book, The Birth of Kali

Sitai
For many months I come to the river. Raman leaves, returns, leaves again. The strange southern woman becomes my soul sister, my confessor. My own sisters and cousins and ladies-in-waiting and even my dead mother – they wouldn’t understand me as she understands me. She sees me clear-eyed and without pity. She refuses to indulge my feeling of helplessness, which has grown over the years into a monstrous lethargy. My marriage, I confess to myself, and to her, for the first time in years, is a cage that keeps me.

‘It isn’t a cage you are in because there are no iron bars,’ she says. ‘You are free to come and go. You are free to leave.’

‘Where will I go? My father will not welcome me with open arms. And in any case, the life I left behind at my paternal home was only a little diff erent from this. Moreover, what about the laws of marriage, the natural laws, Manu’s laws?’

‘Laws that bind one kind of people, one culture, do not bind another. To escape a law, one simply has to move home.’

‘It cannot be so straightforward. Imagine the hurt I will cause my people if I left for some other place.’

‘It is true that it isn’t always possible to be straightforward. You could be devious. You could arrange it so that everyone thinks you are dead. You will need a small pig and a sharp knife.’

‘I will never kill an animal in my stead.’

‘If you are sensitive to gore, you could pretend someone abducted you. I could help.’

I laugh. It is like a child’s game. But she is serious. I begin to covet the release from my prison more strongly. I wonder, ‘What if?’ Raman is so busy, slaying demons and thugs. His absence haunts me. His presence oppresses me. Lakshmanan broods over his fate and grows a beard. He detests me. Surpanakai sometimes roasts a rabbit at the riverbank and gives me a piece to take to Lakshmanan, but he turns his nose away.

I begin to seriously consider the idea of fake abduction.

‘If we get caught,’ I tell Surpanakai, ‘it would be your death. Also, where will my feet take me? They will search the length and breadth of these southern lands. I daresay even King Barathan will lend a hand, and Raman’s other brothers, their whole army. They will bring horses. What corner can I hide in? How far can I get?’

‘Then there’s nothing to do but cross the black waters,’ she says.

‘They will find me before I reach the edge of the forest.’

‘Oh, not on foot, but on wings,’ she says, completely mystifying me.

Surpanakai
My brother Ravanan is called the ten-headed. His one head equals ten others, ten other men. He is the ruler of the richest kingdom on earth. His playing of the veenai rivals Goddess Saraswati’s. In his devotion to Sivan, he is firmer than Parvati. His strength can lift Mount Parvatham. He is the chosen mate of Mandodari, the kind. He has weapons and boons obtained from Sivan and Bramman. He has great appetites – sexual, artistic and gastronomic. He possesses the only flying chariot in the world. On and on, the list goes.

He hears me and comes to where I am.

A great man such as he grants one’s humblest wish. Or in his dear sister’s case, even an unreasonable one.

‘This Sitai,’ he says, ‘for her to remain blameless, you would have me made a monster.’

‘Yes,’ I tell him. ‘Reputation cannot kill a man in our kingdom, but it can kill a woman in hers.’

‘To spare that Raman the pain of rejection and abandonment, she would have this whole charade of abduction?’

‘Yes.’

‘And what does she want later?’

‘To be free. An unattached woman. Not daughter, not wife, not mother. And this you can give her, in your kingdom.’

‘And this I can give her. But what will she give me?’

‘Nothing at all.’

Ravanan laughs. ‘I can live with that,’ he says.

Sitai
Lakshmanan leaves, already certain his dear brother is dead. I let him think that. If he thinks Raman is dead, he wouldn’t hurry. I will have more time to prepare myself. I stand within the blazing circle of propriety, of Manu’s law, of all that is certain and right and lasting, and force myself to confront what I am stepping out into. Outside Lakshmanan’s circle is disillusionment. Uncertain, speculative, and possibly dangerous. I am about to flee my entire life and all that I know to a foreign country.

A country where I will be a novelty, surely. People will point at me in the streets and laugh. But Surpanakai says I needn’t live in the bustling palace, constantly chafed by people’s glances. I can live in a grove, if I wanted. Similar to the habitat I’m leaving now, except it would be all mine, there wouldn’t be a husband to sacrifice my meals for and defer my opinions to. There would not be a brother-in-law to keep a watchful eye over my most private of actions. There would not be a circle drawn to limit my straying. I may cross the river if I wanted. I may swim naked. I may kill and eat.

Surpanakai
I tell Sitai she will be treated as my special guest in Elangai. She will be left alone, and she may stay as long as she likes. I have a feeling she will want to think about things for a while, lick her wounds, rebuild herself piece by piece, regain her sense of herself separate from all the men she is attached to. Born of an absent mother, she will have to cut the string of the doting father of her childhood, then the string of her splendid husband whom no one can fault, which is perhaps the problem, for she will always be a fading star in his evanescent sky. And finally, she needs to cut the string of the obsessive Lakshmanan who dogs her every step out of an ill-conceived sense of duty.

In Elangai, she will even escape her imagined future, which appears to her like a recurring nightmare – her husband dying and her brother-in-law marrying her, never mind his own abandoned wife. She will be free of all that, free as a bird given wings by gentle Ravanan’s flying chariot.

Sitai
When Ravanan steps into the hut, I say, ‘I have been expecting you,’ and step out of the circle so easily, so casually.

‘I’m your servant,’ says this stranger, and I follow him, going against my culture, defying the laws of my father’s kingdom, my husband’s kingdom. I search myself for the fear of the horrible fate that surely awaits me. But I do not fear Ravanan. He has kind eyes.

This strange southern king in his simple crown and costume ascends fi rst. I shudder and step into the small iron carriage without a horse, instead with silver wings like those of a falcon. He crowds me in the small chariot, and I have to hold my breath so I do not accidentally touch him. My mind blazes, all thought perishing in panic. I cannot believe myself. Surely, I should be turning back, saying, ‘Forgive me, I have changed my mind.’

The chariot whooshes into the sky.

I feel as though a space is opening between his skin and my skin, and I breathe again. The slim silver of the chariot’s wings seems to vanish, and it is as though I am a bird. But something heavy still weighs on me. I glance down at myself and know what it is. Tokens of my old attachments, symbols of my indenture. I have to discard them.

Taking my time, savouring it almost, I shed first the betrothal ring, then the wedding pendant, then the carved ivory combs, then the conjugal toe rings, and with them I shed, bit by bit, my marriage to Raman.

(Published from Anita Sivakumaran's The Birth of Kali with permission from Juggernaut Books)

‘Vajpayee, the bachelor prime minister, had a demanding family life’
‘As soon as the door opened, the children ceased work. Some held their needle poised in mid air’
What does the Lord of Sabarimala have to do with desire?
Editor’s Pick More