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‘Once, we accepted the right to question mythology. Now, we are intolerant': Telugu writer Volga

Threatened for rewriting one of the narratives of the ‘Ramayana’, Volga details the rise of intolerance against a feminist perspective in literature.

Telugu poet-writer P Lalita Kumari, better known by her pen name Volga, is a feisty feminist, an old school feminist. She believes that sisterhood is the best way to seek emancipation. This view comes through in Vimukta (2011), a collection of five short stories written between 2003 and 2009. In them, she reimagines Sita’s life after her banishment from Ayodhya.

The book, translated as The Liberation of Sita, features five of the Ramayana’s minor female characters, relegated to the sidelines in the epic to let Sita’s virtuousness shine bright. In Vimukta, Sita bonds with these women, from Mandodari to Surpanakha, absorbing from them the life lessons they have learnt about the tyranny of patriarchy and how to withstand it.

Volga, 66, heads Asmita, a Hyderabad-based resource centre for women. After the launch of The Liberation of Sita in English, in December 2016 Volga wrote a short story for the Telugu newspaper Andhra Jyothi, titled Asokam.

At the centre of the story is Mandodari, Ravana’s wife who is deeply disturbed by Ravana’s ambitions to outdo the Aryan kings of the north. She is particularly stricken by the trees being hacked to set up a splendid capital at Lanka. To appease her Ravana builds the garden of Ashokvan, which of course is later destroyed by Hanuman.

Asokam, however got Volga angry responses and threatening calls for her portrayal of Mandodari as an intelligent, compassionate protagonist. Excerpts from an interview:

​​You have been threatened for your sympathetic portrayal of Mandodari in a short story, Asokam, which appeared in Andhra Jyothi in December 2016.
By and large,​ readers were appreciative of the work but yes, I did get threatening calls. I was told, don’t write “these kinds” of books. That they could be problematic and could “divide” our society.

I am a known name in Telugu literature, so the threats didn’t descend into anything personal or violent. What worries me is this steady descent into intolerance.

In 2000 I scripted a dance ballet titled War and Peace, in which Surpanakha is portrayed as a beautiful child of nature who questions the violence she suffers at the hands of Rama and Lakshmana. When Doordarshan was going to broadcast it they said they had reservations about the idea of Surpanakha being portrayed as a good character who befriends Sita. They asked for some edits.

That same year saffron elements had ransacked the office of Andhra Jyothi for publishing a three-part story reinterpreting Sita’s stay in Lanka, Ravana Jyosyam. But till December 2016 I had never been threatened.

Even Vimukta, which got the 2015 Sahitya Akademi award, was unanimously applauded when the stories appeared between 2003 and 2009 and was later published as a compilation in 2011. It is obvious that intolerance has been growing over the past few years.

Did you not anticipate this antagonism when you were writing Asokam?
No, because classical Telugu literature has had a liberal tradition of questioning mythology, especially the Ramayana and its assumptions about caste and gender. Way back in 1897, Gurajada Apparao had written Kanyasulkam (Bride Price), a revolutionary work against gender discrimination.

There was Tripuraneni Ramaswamy Chowdhury, who reinterpreted the Ramayana in Shambuka Vadha in the 1920s. He criticised the slaying of a shudra ascetic at the behest of a Brahmin.

Gudipati Venakata Chalam wrote Agni Pravesham in 1924, a boldly feminist take on Sita’s trial by fire. In it, dismayed by Rama’s suspicions about her chastity, she opts to jump into Ravana’s pyre, but not before pointing out that the demon king had given up his life and empire for her, proving that he loved her more.

There was Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao’s Asokavanam, a short story written in the 1950s on the destruction of Ravana’s splendid garden by Hanuman. In Seetha Josyam, the famous play by Narla Venkateswara Rao, Sita is openly critical of Rama’s campaigns to help the ascetics against the demons. We accepted these works and their right to ask questions about mythology then. The attack on Andhra Jyothi in 2000 came as a real surprise to intellectuals.

What drew you to the idea of doing a feminist retake on Ramayana?
I am fascinated by the fact that the wars in our epics never really ended – they were wars fought over the bodies of women, the honour of wives, daughters and sisters. There is no end to the violence perpetrated by men over the chastity of women, their proprietorial rights over women.

From the Ramayana to the Mahabharata to the Partition to honour killings and sexual harassment, the everyday violence that women like the Delhi gang rape victim face forms a continuum. Even today, women have to be punished, put in their places, disciplined, for real or imagined sexual transgression, by men who are strangers as well as men inside their homes.

In Vimukta, Sita forges a kind of sisterhood with the other women from the Ramayana. This idea is never floated in the original epic, where only Sita shines as the ideal.
All the women characters in the Ramayana except Sita are unimportant. Surpanakha gets her one scene but we don’t get any glimpses into her life. How did she live? To me, the cutting off of her nose by Laxman for daring to make an overture to Rama is like the acid attacks on women today. Like Surpanakha they go through life faces and bodies deformed.

We always talk of brotherhood between men, it is a recurring, strong theme all around us. But women are supposedly the enemy of their own sex. In Telugu there is a popular saying: “Moodu koppulu voka chota immadavu.” Even three women can never co-exist peacefully. Sisterhood is always discouraged, treated with suspicion. I refuse to toe this line.

In a remarkable passage, when Sita sympathises with Ahalya for being conned into infidelity by Indra, Ahalya responds with a great deal of defiance.
You know it is one of the most abiding questions of all times, it has fascinated us all. Did Ahalya see through Indra’s disguise as her husband Gautama or not? It obsesses anyone who reads the epic because here is a woman punished into lifelessness till Rama offers her salvation for sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband.

Sita says: “...you did not know he was not your husband?” And Ahalya answers: “Do you know whether I knew this or not? Does anyone know?” In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sita never really meets Ahalya. In my book, they meet when Sita is living with her children in the forest.

Here Ahalya is a woman of great wisdom who actually shows Sita the path to liberation. They are at that point both victims of a man’s right to discipline women in their family.

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