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Book review – Sita’s Sisters

Book review – Sita’s Sisters

Mythological fiction has emerged as a very interesting and intriguing genre in the field of writing. We see new authors coming up with refreshing new ideas of how these age old mythical stories could be written in today’s dynamic setting. 

When we talk about India and its culture, mythology holds a very strong position. We’ve grown up watching many renditions of our holy books and have been listening to our elders recite quotes from them trying to impart knowledge and moral behavior.

Kavita Kane chooses an overlooked woman character in Ramayana, written by Valmiki the greatest epic in Hinduism, Urmila, Sita’s sister. This is her story.

Book review – Sita’s Sisters

From the bestselling author Kavita Kane, comes this book about Urmila, Sita’s sister and the neglected wife of Lakshman, and one of the most overlooked characters in the Ramayana.
As Sita prepares to go into exile, her younger sisters stay back at the doomed palace of Ayodhya, their smiles, hope and joy wiped away in a single stroke. And through the tears and the tragedy one woman of immense strength and conviction stands apart—Urmila, whose husband, Lakshman, has chosen to accompany his brother Ram to the forest rather than stay with his bride. She could have insisted on joining Lakshman, as did Sita with Ram. But she did not.

Why did she agree to be left behind in the palace, waiting for her husband for fourteen painfully long years?

Will you let your husband go with his brother to fulfil his duty? Will you live without your husband for 14 years? What will you do when your husband chooses his brother over you? Ramayana gives us various lessons of relationships. We end up discussing the role of primary characters in Ramayana like Ram, Sita, Laxman, Dashrath but we overlook the sacrifice of Urmila, who lived without her husband for 14 years. Her penance of love, her hidden pain can never be seen by us.

Sita’s Sister is essentially a book that talks about all the women in the Ramayana unlike Valmiki’s Ramayan that talks about Rama, Sita and their exile. And among all these women, it is Urmila who comes out as the most influential character- outspoken yet respectful, headstrong yet calm, strong in the face of adversity, a learned scholar, with an ability to forgive, forget and look at the bigger picture, the tapasvi who has achieved understanding.

The story traces the journey of the four sisters from the mentally stimulating and gender impartial environment at the court of Mithila (a place where they interact with learned sages, both men and women, and learn to question and argue intelligently) to the patriarchal household at the palace of Ayodhya. Ayodhya is the place where the son obeys the father unquestioningly, the women don’t question their husbands, not even speak up against any injustice; where women are expected to “stay where they have been put or asked to”. The book explores the sisters’ emotions as they transition from the frank and open assertiveness of Sunaina to the scheming and simmering rivalry between Kausalya and Kaikeyi. One cannot help but notice the continued comparision between the unbiased and learning centric Mithila to the patriarchy ridden Ayodhya.

The book provides interesting insights into the world of women, the conflicts in the domestic sphere, social restrictions on learning and scholarship, the notion of the “ideal” wife, the power play of politically influential wives and the testing of emotional ties during war and conflict. The very sidelining of the character of Urmila in the original epic along with the silencing of countless other female voices highlights the pushing away of women to the periphery of society, leaving the margins free for them to quarrel and bond, grow and develop.

This account of Sita’s talented sister who is shown as outspoken and smart, critical of Ram (the “maryada purshottam”) in some cases, highly supportive of her sisters, resolver of all misunderstandings in the household and scholar of great repute, appears to be very utopian and hard to believe.

The period of departure of the trio (Ram, Sita, and Lakshman) becomes dreary and lacks luster, possibly to echo the melancholy that Urmila feels due to the loss of the two most important people in her life. Kaikeyi is forgiven and an elaborate series of predictions and prophecies are used to justify her stand. She is the suffering heroine who believes in the greater good and silently tolerates the tarnishing of her name and status in the royal hierarchy. Ultimately, our protagonist Urmila discovers the truth behind her actions, brings her back into the fold, and sets about repairing relationships between the wives of Dashrath. Manthara, who is represented as the personification of evil spreading mistrust and stoking jealousy in the palace, is inevitably banished and the whole blame of the matter is thrust upon her. Thus, even though the lives of women become notice-worthy in this adaptation, their roles continue to exist within boundaries of social behavior and expectations or become too contrived to be believable.

Plot summary: 
The story starts with the childhood of Sita, Urmila, Mandavi and Shrutakirti (Kirti) the four daughters of King Janak and Sunaina of Mithila. Sita was adopted after they find her underground while performing a holy ritual. Mandavi and Shrutakirti are the motherless nieces of King Janak. Sita is a humble, docile and obedient girl, Mandavi is headstrong and stubborn, Kirti is the youngest and loved one. Urmila, the biological daughter is the wise one, the link of the four sisters. She’s the anchor of the group, the strong one to whom the others turn for advice, help and solace; literally “the glue that holds them together”.

One day, while playing, Sita accidentally picks up the tallest bow of ‘Shiva’ and King Janak and announces that whoever breaks it would marry Sita.

When prince Ram and Laxman come to Mithila to participate in the Swayamvar of Sita, Urmila falls in love with Laxman. Later the four princes of Ayodhya get married to the four princesses of Mithila.

Once Urmila and the other three sisters reach Ayodhya, they find the silent rivalry between the three queens. Later, one unfortunate day, Queen Kaikeyi demands Ram to leave the crown and live an exiled life for the next 14 years. The fate leads Ram, Sita and Laxman to leave the palace and live in the forest. Each one follow their dharma; Sita choose patnidharma, Ram chooses Putradharma and Laxman chooses Bhratadharma leavinghis wife alone at the palace. The author has emotionally written the whole scenario.

Urmila, a woman with strong will chooses not to mourn but to bind her scattered family. She becomes the backbone of the family when everybody is in a bad situation. She is portrayed as an emotionally strong woman who does not get distracted by the pain of separation. During the meeting in forest, she questions the elders “…what is the dharma of the husband  to his wife and I did not get answer…” 

A woman living without her love, any future, a victim of fate, moulds herself according to the situation and stands tall in the worst situation. This was Urmila, Sita’s Sister.

Apart from Urmila, the portrayal of queen Kaikeyi and Laxman is awesome.

Book review – Sita’s Sisters

Writing style: 
The language is stylistic and ornate with an abundance of adjectives. The narration is compact; fast paced and holds your interest to the last word, making Sita’s Sister a must-read for everyone. The author has concentrated more on the feminist aspect of Ramayana. The story is written from the point of view of Urmila. The narrative is excellent and you can read this book in pace.

If you discuss Ramayana with elders or your daani naani all they would say about Urmila is that she too lived a painful life. She also sacrificed a materialistic life. The author must have put many efforts to give life to the character of Urmila whose life is not very well documented in the epic.

Most of us today would not accept Ramayana in the way women were treated however the way the author has flipped the feminist side of Ramayana is a treat to the soul. A must-read for those who love to read and want to know more about mythology!

Since the novel is being marketed as having a sound foundation in Hindu mythology, one cannot help but be skeptical- could any woman in those times have actually raised the questions Urmila asks?

Book review – Sita’s Sisters

All in all, it forces us to rethink our stand on many issues concerning women and our blind devotion to the protagonists of epics as depicted by the sages without putting efforts into exploring all the nuances of their personalities.

Aaj Ka Jaipur

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