When her novel ‘The Palace of Illusions’, based on the Mahabharat told by Panchaali, was published 10 years ago, many readers asked Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni what she would write about next. Usually that was a question she had no answer to but this time she instinctively knew she had to write about Sita. Just like Panchaali, she wanted Sita to be able to tell her own tale.
In Hindu mythologies, women are more often than not relegated to the margins and we rarely get to know them unless it is in context of their husbands who are always mighty warriors. Which is why retellings of these ancient texts are so important. They bring women to the forefront and give them a chance to tell us how things transpired in their lives and how they felt about it.
And ‘The Forest of Enchantments’ is just that. It’s Sita filling in the gaps in the story and recollecting her version of events. What I specially liked about Divakaruni’s retelling of the Ramayana is that it’s not just Sita’s story either. The other women—Kaikeyi, Mandodari, Surpanakha—also get a chance to set their narratives straight. They are more than just mothers, wives and sisters. Kaikeyi is an excellent charioteer and swordswoman, and Mandodari is shown to be a perceptive leader with infinite compassion for her people.
We know how the Ramayana plays out but even if you don’t reading Divakaruni’s version of the mythology is enough for you to understand the story. There’s everything there, from Sita’s birth and her marriage to Ram, the eventual exile, to Ravana kidnapping Sita, and the ultimate rescue and the birth of Luv and Kush. Divakaruni has also chosen to be faithful to the original text and kept the ending the same. But it’s much more nuanced than in the original text.
Sita’s Ramayana, which is what this book essentially is, is far more than a story of morality and filial duty, as Ramayana is generally made out to be. The Forest of Enchantments reads like an important commentary on love, duty, the importance of balancing the two and, sometimes, when situations demand, being able to prioritize one above the other.
I read The Forest of Enchantments on a weekend. Divakaruni’s writing is a joy and the story too is captivatingly told. If you, like many women I know, have always been slightly angry by the unfairness of things in Ramayana, then this book will appease you a little.
The Forest of Enchantments
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 359, Hardcover