Ramayana reimagined: The novel that sees Surpanakha a happy woman

Telugu writer Volga’s ‘The Liberation of Sita’ is definitely not the standard version of the epic.

“How did you come out of such sorrow, Surpanakha?”

“It was hard. It was hard finding the real meaning of beauty. I was so proud of my beauty. You don’t know how much I adored my nose. The sharp noses of you, Aryans, looked strange to me. There’s beauty in strangeness, too, of course. My nose was neither sharp nor flat. It was, I thought, exactly how Eshwar must have conceived the perfect nose in the beginning of Creation. I was so proud of my nose! I used to adorn it with yellow and white wild flowers which shone like stars on either side.

“When my lovers tenderly kissed the tip of my nose, it used to arouse me.

“No one except I will understand what it meant to lose such a nose. I endured all that misery. I endured the burden of all those perverted thoughts that arose out of my disfigurement. Sometimes I felt like disfiguring everyone, everything.

“To come out of that spitefulness, to love beauty once again, to understand the essence of form and formlessness – I had to wage a huge battle against myself. My only collaborator in that battle was this infinite nature.

“I struggled a lot to grasp that there is no difference between beauty and ugliness in nature. I observed many living creatures and understood that movement and stillness are one and the same. I discovered the secrets of colours. I had no guru in this matter. I pursued it on my own. I searched every particle in nature, and in the course of that search, my own vision has changed. Everything began to look beautiful to my eyes. I, who hated everything including myself, began to love everything including myself.

“To recognise that the response evoked in me by a little bird, which had been pecked and displumed by its fellow birds, was a feeling at once of love and beauty, and to seize that response and understand its meaning– the effort I made to achieve all this was extraordinary.

“Gradually I learned to love my hands. I learned how to create, work and serve with those hands. It took more than ten years for all this to happen. After ten years of rigorous practice and hard work bore fruit, I began growing this garden.”

Surpanakha unravelled before Sita the beauty and truth of her life’s journey.

“How beautiful you are, Surpanakha! How does it matter whether any man appreciates your beauty or not,” Sita’s voice choked.

Surpanakha’s trial was no less than the trial by fire that I had to go through—Sita thought and it brought tears to her eyes.

But Surpanakha laughed, beautifully, joyously.

“Why? Don’t men have eyes? Don’t they have a heart? I’m not talking about men who only know how to disfigure and to hate the disfigured.”

“You mean...” Sita did not complete the sentence but its meaning was clear.

“Your guess is correct, Sita. I found the companionship of a man. There is a man who could own for a while the beauty that flows into nature through my hands and could surrender himself to me.” So saying Surpanakha called out, “Sudhira!”

A strong, well-built man, who perfectly fit the description of his name, appeared.

“This is Sita.’

Sudhira greeted Sita respectfully, with folded hands.

“I just called you to introduce you to Sita.’

At this, Sudhira turned back and left. In that moment’s interaction, Sita could see that there was between them a relationship which she had not seen before between any man and woman.

“You’ve made your life a success, haven’t you?” Sita asked.

“I’ve realised that the meaning of success for a woman does not lie in her relationship with a man. Only after that realisation, did I find this man’s companionship.”

Sita intently listened to Surpanakha’s words. There was a rare wisdom and dignity in her words. One felt like listening to her again and again.

“Sita – what about you?’

“I find fulfillment in bringing up my sons.’

“Is that the goal of your life?’

“Yes. I’m Rama’s wife. As the queen, I couldn’t discharge my duties. I must at least give to Ramarajya its heirs.”

“You never lived in that kingdom, yet see how your life is entangled in it, Sita!’

“Yes, being a king’s wife, it is inevitable, isn’t it?” Sita smiled.

“I don’t know why, but I was always afraid of kingdoms. Despite my brother’s persuasion, I never lived in the city of Lanka. The joy you get from wandering in a forest, you don’t get anywhere else.”

“I too like the forest life. When Rama abandoned me, this forest softened my suffering.”

Time simply flew as they conversed.

“My children do not know that they are Sri Rama’s sons. I have not told them. They’ll know when the time comes.”

“Once they get to know, you think they’ll live even for a minute more in the forest?” Surpanakha looked pityingly at Sita.

“They too love this forest life” Sita said feebly.

“They may like it. But the kingdom has no love for the forest. For the development of cities and for the protection of the citizens, it may become inevitable for children of the forest to migrate.”

Sita too knew it was inevitable.

“What will you do then? Will you stay back alone at Valmiki’s ashram?”

“No, Surpanakha. I will take refuge in my mother, Bhudevi.”

“Isn’t your mother omnipresent, Sita? I think your mother is manifest more beautifully here than anywhere else.”

Surpanakha proudly surveyed her garden.

Sita smiled, having understood Surpanakha’s suggestion. Her heart swelled with joy at Surpanakha’s unsolicited affection. She felt a bond of sisterhood with her.

“I will certainly come, Surpanakha. After my children leave me and go to the city, I will become the daughter of Mother Earth. Resting under these cool trees, I shall create a new meaning for my life.”

Their conversation stopped as the children returned.

Surpanakha gave the children ripe fruits from her garden, which they ate with relish.

“Mother, who is she?” they enquired on their way back.

“She is someone very close to me. A dear friend.”

“But you never told us about her.’

“You’ll know everything at the right time. But never forget the way to this garden in this forest. Wherever you may go, whatever you may do, never forget this path.”

“We will not forget, Mother,” Lava and Kusa promised.

Excerpted with permission from The Liberation of Sita, Volga, translated from the Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree, Harper Perennial.

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