The true mark of a great writer is his or her ability to take the reader into a different world
To me the true mark of a great writer is his or her ability to take the reader into a different world, a distant time period, an alternate reality, and to somehow make that world, time period, or reality feel completely relevant and familiar. In seconds we can go from being absorbed in our work responsibilities, family life, and the provocative news headlines of the day, to becoming absorbed in the lives, struggles, and emotions of the characters we are reading about.
It is even more impressive when that said writer is able to breathe new life into a centuries old epic and turn that seemingly archaic story into a captivating novel. In The Forest of Enchantments, Houston author and American Book Award winner Chitra Divakaruni accomplishes this and so much more.
Growing up in an Indian Hindu household, the epic story of the Ramayana was very familiar to me, or so I thought. I had read the comic book versions my parents had given to me as a child. I had heard religious leaders speak about it with great fervor, and I had watched episodes of the weekly series that aired on Indian television channels. Like stories of Greek mythology that I would later come to read in college literature classes, the Ramayana has everything that makes for a juicy story. There is family drama, a love story, war, a celebrated hero, a damsel needing rescue, the evil antagonist, jealously, revenge, sacrifice, Gods capable of special powers, and more.
Even though I had been told that there is much we can learn from the Ramayana—about how to make decisions at difficult crossroads in our lives and about the importance doing one’s duty as a member of a family and a member of our respective community—I never really connected to it in the way I had seen many of my elders connect to it. Frankly, Ram—the protagonist of the story that we had been taught was an incarnation of God—felt pretty flawed to me. How else can we justify the fact that he abandons his wife. Sita—Ram’s wife and celebrated as the epitome of what all Indian women should aspire to be like—felt like the docile victim of a patriarchal society and culture. And the constant focus on being virtuous felt very outdated.
When I heard last spring that Chitra’s next novel The Forest of Enchantments would be the retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, giving her the voice of the narrator, I was pleasantly surprised. The versions I had been exposed to always focused on the male characters, Sita was never given much agency and I was curious to see what the story would become in the hands of such a gifted writer.
In the prologue Chitra says, “I’m going to write the story of Sita… because I’ve always been fascinated by the Ramayana…. She’ll fill in the gaps between the adventures undertaken by the male characters in the epic, their victories and defeats. She’ll tell us what inspired the crucial choices that directed the course of her life. What she believed in. What interested and moved her. How she felt when faced with the deepest of tragedies. And what gave her the ability to overcome them.”
Chitra flawlessly does exactly what she sets out to, resulting in what feels like a truly groundbreaking piece of literature. Chitra’s Sita is not at all like the Sitas I was use to hearing about. This Sita has a powerful voice, has martial arts skills and a knowledge base of herbal remedies. She is a complex character that knows how to navigate multiple relationships, bring people together, and question injustices. She isn’t quiet and meek like I had naively assumed her to be, in fact she is smart, loving, generous, and courageous. She is by no means perfect, which is how she had always been portrayed and which is also what makes this characterization of her more relatable. She gets angry and happy, feels lonely and joyous, loves and hates. And Chitra is careful as a writer, she avoids placing modern stereotypes and clichés on Sita and all the other characters, keeping the story true to the context and feeling extremely authentic.
Through Sita’s voice, the reader becomes immediately absorbed into the plot of the novel. Many other aspects and characters of the story that are rarely shared in popular depictions of the Ramayana are brought to the forefront – characters like Urmilla, Sita’s sister, and Mandodari, the wife of Ravan (evil king antagonist). You feel like you are on this long journey with Ram and Sita, like you are in Ayodhya and Lanka. You start rooting for them, and even though you may know better, you start hoping for a happy ending. Without giving too much away, the novel is a thrilling page turner, and until the very end I continued to find myself refreshingly surprised.
If you know the story of the Ramayana, this novel will make you see the characters and the plot in a whole new light. If you are unfamiliar with the Ramayana, this breathtaking and well-crafted version is one of the most fascinating depictions of it you can read. What I learned in the end is that the character of Sita is not at all about conceding. From her we can learn so much about how to gracefully face the circumstances life throws at us and how remaining true to oneself is what will give us strength to do that, especially as a woman.
Chitra Divakaruni will be a featured speaker and talk about The Forest of Enchantments on Saturday, September 14, 2019 at JLF Houston 2019, a two-day festival with internationally acclaimed authors and thinkers engaging in a range of provocative panels and debates.
Chitra Divakaruni will be a featured speaker and talk about The Forest of Enchantments at JLF Houston 2019 this Saturday at 10:45 am. Produced by Teamwork Arts in partnership with Inprint, Asia Society Texas Center, and the Consulate General of India, JLF Houston is a two-day festival with internationally acclaimed authors and thinkers engaging in a range of provocative panels and debates, September 13 & 14. It is the Houston rendition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, one of the world’s biggest literature festival drawing half a million people to Jaipur, India annually from all over the globe. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.