Ten years after the publication of The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel in the voice of Draupadi from the Mahabharata, she returns with a sister-novel – one she describes as “the most challenging project of (her) life.” The Forest of Enchantments is the Ramayana as observed and understood by Sita – a queen exiled, held captive, and exiled again.

It’s a different kind of retelling from the one Divakaruni undertook with Draupadi, whose story ran (in some part) parallel to the anti-hero Karna’s, and whose marriage to five brothers allowed the author to explore various aspects of Draupadi’s personality. In The Forest, Sita doesn’t have an equal among men, there isn’t a quintet of brothers whose virtues accumulate to offer something resembling a match. The kings surrounding her are flawed and rigid, beholden to rules even in moments when they do need to be.

Faithful to the original plot of the Ramayan, the novel imagines a version of Sita who navigates the myriad humiliations in her life with less equanimity and perhaps (though not entirely) more pride. Banerjee Divakaruni spoke to Scroll.in about breaking classical characters out of their moulds, the difference between oral and documented narration, the space for accountability in retellings, double standards for women, the influence of epics on readers, and more. Excerpts from the interview:

“I was afraid of tackling what I knew, deep down, to be the most challenging project of my life.” I know there are some writers who are drawn to challenges. As a writer, is the difficulty of a project interesting to you?
Yes, it is. I am at once frightened by challenges and exhilarated by them. A novel with Sita as narrator was a great challenge because I was dealing with an iconic character, at once revered by society but also ossified by traditional thinking. I was attempting to break a very strong mould. This realisation made me push myself really hard.

Did you read and watch other retellings about Sita as you wrote the novel? How do you see your writing interacting with or responding to other revisionist narratives on Sita?
I read several contemporary books and watched a couple of serials about Sita, such as Siya ke Ram. Two books that impressed me were Volga’s The Ascent of Sita and Mallika Sengupta’s Sitayan. They made me think a great deal about who Sita really was and what her guiding principles were. However, they deviate significantly from the epic texts, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to keep the plot the same and focus on the characters, analysing the motivations for their actions, and their reactions to their tragedies. But in the end, our projects have a similar aim: we want to present Sita as a strong, multi-dimensional woman who can inspire her women readers to take control of their lives.

In The Forests of Enchantments, Sita isn’t an oral narrator, she’s writing the story of her life on palm leaves. Would you talk to us a little about that choice?
There is a certain permanence to written narrative. There is an authenticity. Once Sita writes her story, it will be there (presumably) forever without corruption. She cannot be misrepresented, or the nature of her experience changed because of an oral storyteller’s whim, as often happens in oral narratives. And the things she wants to emphasise cannot be minimised.

Since Sita is both author and subject, I was curious about what you think she’s not telling the reader or not aware of about herself. What are some of the things you had to keep in mind as you wrote in her voice?
I think Sita learns and grows, so in the early sections there is a certain innocence to her which the world will erase. There is a lot she doesn’t know – for instance, about palace politics when she first comes as a bride to Ayodhya. But as a narrator, she is very reliable, sharing with the reader exactly what she thinks and feels, even actions that she knows to be unwise or even shameful. That’s the kind of transparent relationship I wanted to create between her and her readers.

Endure. A word solid as a tree-trunk.” That word is a particularly double-edged one for women – both instruction and a way to cope.
This is what Sita’s mother advises her to learn when she gets married. Yes, endurance is a double-edged sword, because it can trap one in situations that should not be put up with. And yet, without endurance, how would Sita have survived the long midnight of her captivity in Lanka? An important lesson that Sita learns is when to endure, and when to say, no more!

There’s a scene before Sita’s wedding where her mother is offering her counsel on married life. It reminded me of a scene in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad where Penelope’s mother is doing the same. Can you break down for us how you wrote that scene, how you chose and collated the various pieces of advice she gives her daughter?
The scene you refer to in The Forest of Enchantments is an intimate one – because one aspect of this novel is intimate, drawing the reader into the kinds of scenes that do not exist in the Ramayana. I think I put myself in Queen Sunaina’s place and imagined the things she would have been worried about as she sends her daughters away into a complicated, politically fraught space like Ayodhya. And of course, since I know what’s coming (one great advantage of writing a book based on an already familiar text), I can have her ironically mention problems that will soon appear in Sita’s life.

Is there room for accountability in retellings? Should there be? I’m thinking of what protagonists in epics do to Kaamarupini or Eklavya for example.
Yes, definitely. Not only is there room, but accountability is often important and inevitable. It may not occur as an action in the text, but certainly it influences how the protagonist thinks and feels. For instance, when Sita realises that Ravan is abducting her in revenge for what Ram and Lakshman do to Soorpanakha (known in the book as Kaamarupini), she is forced to feel that there is a certain dark justice in what is happening. The idea of accountability complicates the abduction.

The reason for Sita’s banishment, though sanitised or obscured in popular versions, is the idea that she has been defiled by her time spent in another man’s palace. Do you think stories like that shape how people think about abduction, sexual violence and “purity”?
Yes, indeed. Often in patriarchal interpretations, the woman is made responsible for what happens to her, even if it is against her will. In The Forest of Enchantments, Sita will be very aware of this kind of problematic thought process. When Ram defeats Ravan and declares to her that because she is considered impure, he cannot take her back to Ayodhya with him, she says, “Yes, Ravan has touched this body, this bundle of flesh and bones and blood. He dragged me, against all my will and effort, into his chariot. I tried my best to stop him. I couldn’t. Am I to be punished because he was physically stronger? . . . Is that dharma?” I feel this is an important question, in these #MeToo times, for women to think about and articulate.