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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.