A feminist take on Sita’s story

Book: Bhumika: A story of Sita

Author: Aditya Iyengar

Publisher: Hachette India

Pages: 191

Price: Rs 350

The Ramayana and Mahabharata, India’s two defining stories, have understandably triggered countless narratives projecting different perspectives, interpretations and versions of the original epic. Writer Aditya Iyengar spins off yet another tale, Bhumika, a feminist take on Sita’s story. He imagines a discontented aged Sita, living out her twilight years in Valmiki’s ashram (her sons Luv and Kush reunited with Rama and entrenched in Ayodhya) envisioning what her life would have been had she not married Rama.  

Iyengar depicts an alternate Sita — a hard-core feminist, named Bhumika, vested with all the typical traits of feminists — chiefly rebellious against the patriarchal system of society and passionate about achieving gender parity. Predictably, princess Bhumika remains unmarried as all suiters are intimidated by her physical prowess and mental attitude. She assumes the reins of Mithila from her father Janak, and transforms the kingdom after her convictions, encouraging women to storm into male bastions like the army and pursue activities of their choice.

While this portrayal runs along expected lines, what surprises is Iyengar’s depiction of Ram Rajya. While he projects it as a land where everyone is happy, so that people of all kingdoms want to be part of Ram Rajya, he finds  an issue with people’s happiness itself and questions Rama’s norms as a ruler. By some strange twist of logic, Bhumika deduces, ‘Ram Rajya stands for uniformity.’ It does not occur to her that if people are happy, it could be that the norms established by Rama were enabling them to lead beautiful lives. The politics of the writer Aditya Iyengar shines through Bhumika’s thought process and actions.

Essentially, in the novel, Iyengar creates and juxtaposes two women stereotypes — Sita, the quiet, sacrificing, albeit strong woman, who loves her husband deeply and chooses to accompany him on a 14-year exile, and later to retire to the forest to honour his commitment to his ideals. And Bhumika, the defiant, assertive and strong woman, who chooses the joy of managing a kingdom and realising her dreams of gender equality, to marrying a man and living in line with his wishes. The reader is left to decide which is a more appealing way of living. The book itself validates both as worthwhile, with both Sita and Bhumika commending each other at the end, when they meet.

What’s engaging about the book is that it throws up some important questions about the man-woman psychological divide and churns out important truths. Like when Sita vocalises in a moment of epiphany, “I could not blame Rama for his decisions, and I could not blame him for not loving me as much as he loved his ideal of Ram Rajya. He was chained to his ideal, just as I was to mine — of loving him.”

This underlines a general disposition of the sexes — women are more programmed to prioritise love, and men their social commitments. An easy read, the book provides fodder for some heated discussions on issues that remain relevant to date.