Ravan was a disturbed man; if not about Vibhishan, Sita occupied his mind and attention. Every day he went to meet her and each day she refused him with a stinging rebuttal. It was almost comic – the powerful hulk of a man beseeching to the slight, frail woman. She was stronger than he believed her to be and he was arrogantly sure that she would succumb to him one day.

But each passing day, Surpanakha saw him becoming increasingly restless: something he had been experiencing in a milder degree since the day Sita had arrived. Fear and frustration made him furious. His love, his liberty, he told her and perhaps even his life, seemed to lie hopelessly in the hands of Sita.

Surpanakha was his new confidante, as he had no one to share his woes with.

She heard it with a strange fascination, how he admitted that the sight of Sita had touched off a spark inside him which no woman had up to now succeeded to do. Watching Sita gave him a sense of satisfied pleasure but he wanted more. He had lost his sleep, and would lay sweating in the semi-darkness, as his mind saw only Sita in the garden, not far from him.

That was the thing that kept him from sleeping – the picture of her lifting her thick, chestnut coloured hair off her white shoulders, the shape of her, sitting under the tree, the young, fresh beauty of her, and the realisation that she was not his but Ram’s wife, piercing him with fury and frustration. The war did not scare him, but that she would leave him, assailed him with agony.

Why had she married Ram, he kept asking himself. A princess wedded to a prince who was now a pauper, a wanderer who had dragged the poor girl with him. How she must have suffered, but yet she had eyes and heart only for him, seethed Ravan, torn and tormented.

Surpanakha watched his wretchedness and tried to snap him out of this mood, as Ram had touched the sandy shores of Lanka, with his army. The war had begun. Kumbha’s twin sons and Prahasta were the first martyrs in the first battle. Sufficiently jolted, Ravan had promised her he would do his best to stop thinking about Sita and focus on the war.

His granduncle warned him repeatedly that she was another man’s wife and therefore sacrosanct.

She wasn’t for him. She couldn’t possibly be for him – ever. And the idea drove Ravan more crazy, frenzied in his frustration. He was crazy to think of her the way he was thinking of her, but it didn’t help, he confessed to Surpanakha. He just couldn’t get her out of his mind.

He tried to be cordial but Sita refused to listen to him, to talk to him. He went down on his knees and promised her she would be his Chief Queen, unseating Mandodari, but Sita simply turned her lovely face away, hard and unrelenting. Ravan sat on his heels, his face pale, his eyes burning, slightly mad. He sat still for a long time and Surpanakha almost felt sorry for him; he cut a pitiable figure. He got heavily to his feet, his face now getting back some colour and walked out of the garden and to the palace. He was shaking with frustrated rage.

Surpanakha turned to Sita,

“How much more do you want to be convinced?” she said. “He has done everything he can for you – from writing poems, giving you gifts, to grovelling at your feet. He loves you, he really does.”

Sita shook her head, “He only wants to possess me. It is his ego, not his love speaking. A true man in love looks after the happiness of the woman he loves and my happiness is with Ram.”

“I have met Ram,” smiled Surpanakha grimly. “But I must admit, Ravan is more flamboyant and charming. Ravan has it all – good looks, wealth, power and knowledge. He is a scholar in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Tantras, astrology and even the occult sciences and dance and music. He is a man none can refuse.”

“He may be knowledgeable but he has no wisdom, he has power but he has no pity, he has pride but knows no humility,” stated Sita, her face unperturbed. “He knows only to own, not to prevail. For him, all are things or pets to possess, to subdue and to make them obey to him. My Ram has nothing, but just his love, thoughts and humility. That suffices for me, I am the wealthiest wife in the world.”

Sita never ceased to amaze Surpanakha. Her serene complacency was disconcerting. Surpanakha still had not yet had an opportunity to gloat and this day would be it. She wanted this girl to feel the same terror which had gripped her when Lakshman had held her arms and brought down his merciless sword on her. To instil that little hint of fear, to wipe out the calm composure off Sita’s face.

She smiled maliciously. “Ravan can always force himself on you,” she purred, the menace thick in her voice.

“The body, you mean,” Sita shrugged her slim, fair shoulders. “I am more than just a body. He cannot possess my heart, my mind, my soul. They all belong to Ram.”

Surpanakha did not know what was more astonishing: the girl’s immeasurable love or her immense faith. Both were her shield, they were her conviction that none could break. “You keep talking about Ram, dear girl but what has he ever done for you?” asked Surpanakha equably. “He broke Shiva’s bow to prove he was the best; he gave up his crown for his brother; he went on exile for his father. But what has he done for you? You gave up a lot for him – your trust, your home, the luxury of the palace; I don’t doubt your love,” she stated, with a purr in her voice. “But love is measured, if not judged, in selflessness, not bravado. Ravan has given his all for you – his pride, his crown, his family, his honour, his reputation, and even his precious Lanka! So, who loves you morem– Ram or Ravan?” She asked.

Sita stared back wordlessly but the defiance had dimmed.

Surpanakha shrugged. “You may realise it a little late...”

“Ram is here in Lanka, that is why Ravan is so agitated,” she said slyly. If not fear, let Sita writhe in hope, she thought viciously.

“I know my Ram will come here for me. And kill Ravan. But Ravan will not come to his senses till it is too late,” said Sita.

Surpanakha flushed, Sita’s confidence was annoying,

“You are fortunate that you have the hospitality of the Ashok garden, how appropriately wooded with the Trees of Lust, dedicated to Kama,” she sneered. “They are bursting with the flowers of love, still intact and not reduced to ashes in the fire like the city,” she said tightly. “The city which burned because of you.”

Sita smiled, “But who got me here? Ravan? Or you? All will blame me for Lanka burning, I can see it in every accusing eye. But will they blame Ravan for his senseless ego? Or you for your unfettered passion? It all started because of that incident at the forest, did it not?”

Sita was staring at her mauled face, still livid in its grotesqueness.

Surpankaha stared at her coldly and thought, Sita had the temerity to remind me of that day.

Excerpted with permission from Lanka’s Princess, Kavita Kané, Rupa Publications.