Vimuktha (Kathalu) by Volga. Hyderabad, Swechha Prachuranalu. Third printing 2015. Pages 104, Rs.75/-.Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2015.
Writers who use epic characters and episodes to tell what they want to, have been in Telugu literature for long, says Volga in her foreword to Vimuktha (8), citing Tripuraneni Ramaswamy Chaudhary and Chalam. Not only in Telugu, they are there in many more languages: over three hundred versions of the Ramayana exist, not to mention lyrics, plays, stories, novels, with specific themes, narratives or personae from the epic, besides scholarly studies and interpretations. The epic has been recast from Sita’s perspective too, for instance Sitayana, a twentieth century English verse rendering by veteran K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, in 686 pages. Sahitya Akademi has published A Critical Inventory of Ramayana Studies in the World: basic bibliographical information alone runs into a thousand pages.
Like Narla Venkateswara Rao, whose play Sita Josyam had won the 1981 Sahitya Akademi Award, Volga too finds the epic battle of Rama and Ravana as the outcome of the Aryan expansionism over Dravidians. While Narla injects caste politics into a weak dramatic conflict between war mongering food producers and peace loving food gatherers, Volga focuses on women being used as pawns in the war games of patriarchal order, with Sita and Surpanakha as prime examples. From her five stories in Vimuktha, emerge five epic women, in refreshing new light. Volga delves deep into the minds of her heroines, and comes up with plausible answers to baffling questions.
In his Sita Josyam, Narla claims he has scrupulously stuck to the Valmiki Ramayana; but his portrayal of Sita wades into Uttara Kanda, not Valmiki’s but a later appendage, as widely held by renowned scholars. Wisely, Volga makes no such claims; she takes her characters from the wide Ramayana lore; if others have their versions, why not Volga? Moreover, she raises issues, which rise above racial, economic wars, and deal with gender concerns in male dominated societies, thus gaining universal appeal. While a few women are able to overcome insinuations, insults, accusations and even violence by men, many are still mired in them. Who will save us? Asks the saint poet, Thyagayya. We ourselves, these stories show, hopes Volga (10).
In ‘Samagam’, Volga gets two princesses, one Aryan, the other Dravidian, both in love with Rama, to meet again after eighteen years of vicissitudes. Now in Valmiki Ashram, Sita comes to know of a beautiful garden discovered by her two little sons, who tell her the bower belongs to a woman as ugly as her flowers are lovely: the owner does not have her nose and ears. Sita is certain the garden belongs to Surpanakha and visits her. Both realize they have been used in the war games of Rama and Ravana and wonder at the transformation in each other: one, rejected, disfigured, shamed, shuns palace pleasures for forest life, discovers a teacher in nature, tends flowers as children; the other, twice spurned, queen abandoned, occupies herself raising heirs to the kingdom. Talking of Sita’s children, Surpanakha muses, forest dwellers may have to move and make room for the development of cities. Volga makes the encounter of the two regal women, credible and admirable.
In ‘Mrinmayanadam’, Ahalya, denounced by her husband, is living in the jungle. Sita meets with her and commiserates at the injustice. Ahalya raises fundamental questions of trust and truth. Many people debate whether she was aware or ignorant of Indra’s deception. But for her husband, Gautama, it did not matter: his property had changed hands, even for a while; and that was enough for him to discard her: men are all alike. Sita does not agree, her Rama will never do a thing like that: he will consider what’s right and what’s wrong. Ahalya counters, doesn’t the word ‘consider’ itself imply doubt, lack of trust? To Sita’s persistent questioning about the truth in Ahalya’s case, she replies, ‘Whatever gives you peace of mind, is the truth.’ ‘Truth is not static, it keeps changing all the time,’ is what Ahalya has learned during her own quest for truth. Agitated Sita asserts there is one unchanging truth, her love for Rama and Rama’s love for her. With eerie prescience, Ahalya advises her, ‘Never agree to probing. Never bend before might.’ … Years later in Asokavana, Sita is eager to see the victorious Rama. Instead, sheepish Lakshmana appears, tells her that Rama desires her chastity tested. Ahalya’s words reverberate: truth, each to his own… Once again deserted, Sita begins to grasp the truth of Ahalya, in Valmiki Ashram. As Sita says all that she has done is for the sake of Rama, Ahalya counsels her to search for her own identity. Sita does, realizes she is the daughter of Mother Earth, and doesn’t need anyone, not even Rama. Even as Rama tastes his first defeat, Sita experiences her first victory, over her self, as she rejects all external power over her. Volga portrays Sita and Ahalya in ways that will haunt the reader for long.
In ‘Saikata Kumbham’, the exquisite sand-pot becomes a multi-layered metaphor for feminine chastity and vulnerability, as also for masculine pride and power: a delicate, sensitive, and brittle figure of speech, which works both ways. Once broken, it can never be put together again. Sita finds young women filling clay pots with sand on the riverbank, with an older and graceful lady: Renuka gets to know Sita as the wife of Rama, who has pledged to extend the Arya dharma even to the tribes in wild jungles; Sita defends her husband: he has come to forests, to obey his father. Renuka points out that too is part of the Arya dharma, blindly to bow before father, right or wrong. Her own son had done so. Who knows more about husbands and sons than herself? She shows her sculptures, and presents Sita with a pot made of sand; says people think it is made with the power of her chastity; but it is not so; it requires intense concentration; but focus could be disturbed for any reason; once in her case, the cause was a man; that was enough for her husband to conclude that she had lost her chastity, and ordered his son Parasurama to cut off her head. The son obeyed the father. But miraculously her head was not fully severed; for months, her life hung in balance; ashram ladies and forest women helped her heal; she moved into forests, away from the bonds of husband and sons; taught herself sculpting, and teaches it to her disciples. Women think of no other world than their husbands’; some day, the husband has no place for her in his world: what then? There are instances where children ask their mother who their father is; or husbands question wives as to who fathered the children. Think of the plight of women in such situations. Sita is unconvinced. Renuka says, truth is learned from experience; what one learns is what one teaches. Sita gets up in a huff, and the sand-pot lying at her foot shatters… Years later, Renuka’s words return to Sita in Valmiki ashram: her twins ask her who their father is. Ahalya, Renuka and Sita– all the three stand accused, all the three are humiliated!
In ‘Vimukta’, Urmila is the only one not to join the ardent Ayodhya welcome to Sita, Rama and Lakshmana. Sita is dazed to hear that, for fourteen years Urmila has shut her door to all but her maids. Sita rushes to Urmila’s bower. It was in anger she had shut herself up, Urmila admits; ire at her husband who had ignored her and gone away with his brother; everyone was grieving at the departure of Sita, Rama and Lakshmana; nobody had thought of her; helpless pique led her to satyagraha; she opted for solitude; she mulled: what was it that turned love into indignation? Is there any difference between jealousy, hatred, love and respect? Or only difference in degree? How does light disperse shade, or a shadow fall over light? What’s illumination? What’s darkness? Each question roused her to battle. She tells Sita that she heard their husbands had been fighting demons in jungles. She doesn’t know whether their campaigns have resulted in peace or not, but the war she has carried on with her questions has given her peace and bliss. She has realized the root cause of grief is power. She won’t give in to anyone’s rights over her; nor will she claim any privileges over others. That’s when she has felt herself unbound, experienced joy, peace, love and pity. She thought of sharing her findings with all, but would those who took her fourteen-year search for truth as sleep, get it? She urges her elder sister to take charge of her self and stop worrying of others; then only will she be what she really is… Urmila’s words resound in Sita’s years in Valmiki Ashram. Sita is well versed in martial arts, but never fought a battle. Now she has to wage a war with herself. She hears of Rama’s intended Aswamedha Yajna and worries how he can perform it without her. Urmila points out: it is not Sita’s problem. She tells her elder sister to turn inward, battle with forces that make her restless. And Sita does, till the turbulent ocean within turns into a calm sea. Like Urmila, Sita too breaks free of bonds, and asks Valmiki, with a smile, whether it is really necessary for her to declare in open court her guiltlessness to be accepted by Rama. Sita Unbound is ready to return to, from where she has come, Mother Earth.
After four stories about Sita’s encounters with four epic women, Volga turns to the hero Rama in ‘Bandhitudu’, and demonstrates rulers rarely are really free. The only happy time of Rama’s life is his forest spell with Sita, an unintended gift from Kaikeyi! But, even in forests, he gets orders from Ayodhya for the expansion of Aryan empire, the need to make friends with Sugriva and pick up fight with Ravana. Opportunity comes his way when Surpanakha falls for him. Rama thinks if he insults Surphanakha, her brother Ravana will come to fight him. But Ravana is no fool: why would he cross the seas with his armies and come to the forests to fight Rama? Instead, he would abduct Rama’s wife, and Rama would come to Lanka to fight him, and that would give him territorial advantage. After Ravana is killed, rises the doubt whether the Arya Dharma allows tainted Sita’s return to Ayodhya. Rama thinks fire test will settle the issue. Even as things are falling into a groove after his coronation and Rama is enjoying the prospect of paternity, he has to face lasting separation from his wife. Not all the people in Ayodhya are satisfied with the fire test of Sita’s purity in distant Lanka. Royal duties have deprived Rama of power over his personal life. Kingdom is not his to give away, he is bound to it; Sita is his, he can give her up. Sita has put up with all the indignities for the love of Rama and the honor of his heritage. The final affront to Sita, the last straw, comes when the Arya Dharma Sabha of Ayodhya accepts her sons as Rama’s, and heirs to the throne, but wants Sita to declare her ‘guiltlessness’ in open court to return as the Queen. Rama knows Sita won’t bend again; she has gone through fire ordeal, put up with banishment, given heirs to the kingdom, and is now free of her duties. Rama is the one still bound. Volga makes a valiant effort to protect Rama from the onslaught of modern-day feminists, but her portrayal of the hero does not sound half as convincing as her delineation of the much-slandered epic women.
Efforts to sew the Uttarakanda to the Valmiki Ramayana are dicey. They disturb the inner logic of the core epic. It is not easy to digest that Rama, who has embraced the low caste boatman Guha as his fourth brother, will slash the head of a sudra, Sambuka, merely for doing sacred tapas in a far-flung jungle. Or, after the fire ordeal, Rama will abandon Sita on a washerman’s wild tiff with his wife. Academia has firmly established that Valmiki Ramayana ends with Rama’s coronation, and cites the reading rewards, phalasthuti, at the end of the Yuddhakanda, as the ultimate evidence for the conclusion of the epic. But vested interests play upon popular imagination and extend the story line, like the soap operas of modern-day cable television.
Volga, however, negotiates multiple tellings of the epic lore, breathes fresh life into the characters of Ahalya, Renuka, Urmila and Surphanakha, and creates a tenable bildungsroman of the Sita narrative. She gets Sita to learn from her mistakes, as also from other women’s empirical resilience, strength and wisdom. Sita is an expert in warfare, equal to her husband. On her own, she could have vanquished Ravana, but for the promise she had made to Rama that if ever she were in distress she wouldn’t do anything to rescue herself but wait for Rama to do so. Thus she too contributes to the tragic turn of events, like the redoubtable Bhishma of the Mahabharata, whose vow to his father renders him virtually impotent before a blind king pushing him into a pyrrhic war.
Volga’s inventive instinct in psychoanalytical portrayal of the epic heroine from an adored child to a trusting teen with girly certitudes, to a young woman, fiercely defensive of her husband, to a dishonored wife, and a disillusioned mother fulfilling her duty, is an outstanding contribution to the Sita studies in Telugu.
Together the five epic women in Volga’s stories show the power of self-realization. Mahatma Gandhi has paid the highest tribute to women: from them, he has learned non-violent non-cooperation. (In South Africa, 1914, he said to Mrs. Polak: ‘I have learned of passive resistance, as a weapon of war, more from Indian women than anyone else.’) If one frail man could use it as a weapon to win freedom for India from the British rule, women, who had taught him, can win their own independence, if only they will.