MEET THE WRITER

‘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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.