“We shall always strive to delve and to dive
To search the immeasurable universe
For answers in a naïve hope to somehow satisfy
The acutely churning void
Who am I? And wherefrom?
The unanswered question, of ends without beginnings
The daughter of the earth
Born of the maroon soil of Mithila …”
Thus begins the story of Sita of Ramayana fame, as introduced by Vasantha Senanayake in verse throughout of four Books titled Of Innocence, Intrigues, Infringements and Invincibility, covering 147 pages.
I will start my comment by saying the book is unique: larger in size, illustrated by black and white sketches and each Book prefaced with a wonderful colour drawing – all of a doe eyed woman. So also the cover. These drawings and paintings are Vasantha’s mother’s. Thus the book I have before me which I admire, is also a work of art – in its illustrations; in its writing.
Title and chief protagonist
I was intrigued by the title: Transcending Sita. I sought the exact meaning of ‘transcending’ and found it to be: ‘be or go beyond the range or limits of a field of activity or conceptual sphere.’ It can also mean ‘go beyond, rise above, cut across and surpass.’ You reader of this comment and the book itself can reach your own interpretation. For me it means that the story of Sita, particularly her behaviour and nature have been viewed, studied, analyzed by Vasantha, different to the usual interpretations. He has gone beyond the concepts, opinions and ideas so far held and expressed. He gives a fresh interpretation to Sita and the story of her lover-husband and abductor; the test of sanctity she voluntarily undergoes and the affirmation of her purity. It is her story in Vasantha’s poem, narrated by her.
First of all who is Sita? She is the female protagonist in the first epic poem ever recited and later written down – the Ramayana. We well know her story and Lanka features in it because Ravana who kidnapped her was a king of Lanka. She epitomizes purity of body, morality and spirit and is an example to all womankind.
Vasantha in his narrative poem has centre-staged Sita; the light of analysis and interest he focuses on her. That is remarkable and most interesting because the Ramayana gives so much importance to Rama, Ravana and Lakshmana, one of Rama’s three brothers, not forgetting Hanuman. The Ramayana to us was Rama and Ravana and the battles that ensued. True, the entire story is because of Sita and her abduction by Ravana. But she was secondary in the epic poem of long ago and modern day films. Vasantha brings her up front and thus her stoicism and purity are made more important than the bravery of the two male opponents. Her purity and patience are the crux of the story. Thus womanhood is upheld; more important than victory in war.
My surmise explained above is stated by Vasantha in his Introduction. “I speak not of the Ramayana itself, which dedicates itself to the glories of men … My focus is on the silent heroine, A poetic rendition of her life and my visualized triumphs and disasters faced by a single woman, without whom there really is no tale to tell.” This positive highlighting of women we deeply appreciate, especially so when eastern society was so patriarchal then and even now.
As you well know The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys. It is traditionally attributed to the authorship of the sage Valmiki and dated to around 500 BCE to 100 BCE. The Hindu gods come in and thus the religious significance of the epic. It became a metaphor for the final triumph of the righteous.
Valmiki is said to be the first poet. Vasantha, in his Introduction, contests the fact that the story of Rama and Sita was first narrated by Valmiki. He states “,,,even though the great Valmiki may have been the first to quill it down using his mastery of language and poetry, the actual events were of a prior age.” He says he has read of other versions of the story. He mentions a Jataka story and thus brings in Buddhism. However, he assures the reader: “this is neither meant to be a religious nor historical account, it is merely my visualization of a most powerful feminine entity in the best loved and best known story of the Indian Sub-Continent and perhaps even South East Asia. It is to be enjoyed for its content as literature, and must not be taken to be as religious dogma nor for historic nor chronological perfection.” Reading through this newest version of the epic poem proves all he says.
I must first say that I was lost in wonder and praise as I read Vasantha’s ‘epic’ in verse. Poetry is so different to prose writing and even free verse needs great skill and I dare say, an inherent ability, which is developed through time. The language in Vasantha’s story told in poetic form is simple and the story flows effortlessly, almost like prose but taking on the format of verse.
The writing is terse and precise. There isn’t much imagery or metaphor. That does not reduce the value of the writing as images are created in the mind by the lines of verse and the entire story is a metaphor for womanhood excelling in honour and purity.
I was very keen to see how Vasantha dealt with the fire incident where Sita agrees to walk through flames to prove her chastity was intact though living under Ravana’s control.
Why must I swear a sacred oath?
And swear upon some god
My word, and my word alone
Does that not count at all?
Thousands of men, wanting to test the virtue of one woman
I pray, the fire shall not shield, I much prefer to burn
And now the fire is roaring madly
I walk into the flames so slowly, praying to goddess Parvathi
Take me to thy divine abode, take me! Oh take me!
Entranced, but I feel wood giving way and I move instinctively
Ever slowly through a wall of reddened flame
You will see here that language is used simply and straightforwardly with no embellishment; sans poetic devises, extravagant phrases, dramatics, climaxes and flights of fancy. That is Vasantha’s style of writing. And it is effective; it is powerful. Maybe he wanted the story/incident described to be fully appreciated by the reader and not led astray by extravagant and decorative language. Too much emphasis on the language may even have reduced the impact of the incidents, and conveyed a sense of artifice.
Vasantha Senanayake (b June 28, 1973), a great grandson of D S Senanayake, took to politics at a young age and was in the United National Party. He served as State Minister in two ministries. He changed parties but says now he has given up politics and means to concentrate on his creative writing. All the better, I applaud. How can a person of sensibility be in the melee of present day local politics? The body of Sri Lankan writing will improve with persons of sensitivity and skill moving to creative writing.
Transcending Sita was published this year by Godage & Brothers (Pvt) Ltd and is priced at Rs 1350/=. It is well worth possessing this unique book which can also grace one’s coffee table.