Searching for Sita

01 September 2010

Ayodhya is prospering, ten years after Ram’s triumphant return from fallen Lanka. A journalist seeks to uncover the truth behind the dissatisfaction that brews at the heart of this regime, however—and behind the darkness that preys on the Lankan war’s heroes. Most importantly, where is Sita? In this extract from an unpublished novella, we revisit Ayodhya in a unique piece of speculative fiction.

Chapter One

IT WAS ALREADY DARK when I was ushered into her private parlor. She was barely visible, shrouded in shadows. She moved and the shadows slithered away, unwrapping her desiccated frame.

“I prefer the darkness,” she had said. “In one’s old age, darkness is far kinder than light.”  She was dressed impeccably - fashionable in a classic black chiffon sari, a simple strand of pearls clasped around her neck. But her sagging flesh and heavily rouged face spoke another, sadder story.

I had begun with the cliché list of questions I had prepared. She yawned, bored, and answered politely. But at some point, a question provoked a response. She rose, and walked towards the windows, posture erect and graceful despite

her age.

She paused at an open window, and lit a cigarette. The moon glinted in the sky. “The city was burning that night,” she spoke loudly, grandly. “The night he returned. He had a hero’s welcome. While I... I was less fortunate. The people were in high spirits that night, and someone flung a molotov cocktail into my dining room. I had moved out of the palace a while back, and was living in the city. The house caught fire, and my maid, poor Mantara, tried to put out the flames but burnt miserably, horribly, to death.”

She paused, and inhaled deeply. Clouds of cigarette smoke wafted out of the open window, as burning ash drifted to the ground. “I got the message loud and clear - I wasn’t wanted in Ayodhya any longer. So I moved here. My childhood home.” She gestured to the walls around us.

There were heads of extinct beasts, killed in hunting, mounted on the walls. Grand carpets on the floor - from faraway Turkey and Persia. Grand, but if one knelt down, you could see the tassels were frayed, the carpet moth eaten. Suits of armor, rusting in the dark corners of the room, creaked as the northern

wind blew.

It was different from what I had expected. Here I was, face to face, with the ‘demoness’ who had haunted my childhood. We had all been raised on tales that spoke of the evil nature of Queen Kaikeyi, who had ruled with an iron fist in the last years of Dasaratha’s life, whose cruel influence continued through Bharat’s proxy reign. My parents had welcomed her stepson Ram with relief, straining against her totalitarian rule. Yet now...I wondered. She wasn’t a ghastly nightmare. She was a sad old woman, still angry. Pathetically human. Something in me stirred, despite the stories that I had heard. I found myself wondering - was it really like that? What was her side of the story?

“No one’s asked me that before. There’s been a veritable deluge of reporters in this house since then, but they’ve never been interested. They’ve always wanted to show Kaikeyi - the malicious, vindictive queen.” She cackled, her brilliant, polished white teeth glimmering. “A hint of the truth is there, in your text books and newspapers. That’s what the media does - sells you a puzzle of truth and lies packaged nicely, and you are none the wiser. The media chooses what it wants to tell you; and in Ayodhya the media is hand-in-glove with the government.”

I offered a faint protest.

“That’s right, I forgot, you work for a newspaper. The Ayodhya Times or The Ayodhya Daily? Doesn’t matter which one. They are all the same.” She paused. “You’ll go back and write that piece, like all the other reporters, like Valmiki, painting me to be some beguiling siren, who ruined Dasaratha and Ayodhya. Sex, revenge, jealousy, vindictiveness - it will all be there...” Her voice rose. “But do you want

the truth?”

Her voice echoed, crashing against the ancient walls, words repeating and colliding. “Dasarata was a far cry from the powerful monarch you imagine him to be. He was a weak, erratic man. Yes, he was impotent - why do you think he had to visit that rishi? For a remedy for his sterility!  It was only after that we, all his queens, bore children. He could barely make a decision - I had to guide him! Me! And even in war, I had to be there. Strategizing, whispering orders to him, to relay to his troops. I was there - check your archives. The famed charioteer queen driving her husband into battle. I saved his life once, when he was wounded by enemy fire, and took him to a safe place. He owed me his life. And I called in that favour - I wanted my son Bharat to rule instead of Ram. Can you blame me?”

She turned to face me, her gleaming eyes the only source of light on her shadowed face. “I wanted to create a Ayodhya that I dreamed about, a nation unlike any other that exists in India. I was born a woman, but I am more a man than my husband ever was! And it stings and pricks me - to know that I was better at his job than he ever could be. I never got any of the credit, I only get blame and recrimination. Because I’m a woman. You’re a woman too, you must feel this too?”

There was silence, except for the faint whirring of my tape recorder.

“And the Ayodhya that I tried to create - it’s all gone now... you me, Kausalya, Sita - all we’ll ever be are villains or footnotes in history text books.”

Her shoulders slumped. She sat down, heavily, ungracefully. I looked away, ashamed, looked instead at the black and white photographs that adorned the walls. Pictures of a young, beautiful queen and her besotted husband. Pictures of them hunting, at court, with children. A picture of her, standing manly in jodhpurs. Legs parted over a dead tiger. Gun held aloft.

Her voice was weary. “As for Ram... He is a living God to the people of Ayodhya, he holds himself to an impossible standard. He is a visionary in that sense. But he can’t see beyond himself - he’s obsessed with his actions, with his nature - striving to be the ideal. That can be another form of cruelty. He was cruel to his father, mother, me, his brothers and his wife.”

Kaikeyi saw my surprise and laughed. “You are shocked at my words? Let me ask you one question - What happened to Sita?”

Ram’s wife was an enigma. He had fought a war to win her back from Ravana, the king of Lanka, and had brought her home to Ayodhya. I had seen the old film strip so many times. The images of Ram and Sita entering the city in a Cadillac, waving to admiring crowds. I had been there too - a child, twelve or thirteen years old, seeing the young, shining couple for the first time. I had been disappointed by Sita. Her legendary, murderous beauty had faded after years in captivity. But there was a gentleness in her gestures, and an intelligence in her quick eyes that had impressed me. Months later she left. Rumours abounded. Some suggested that her rumoured chastity was really a hoax. Ram had discovered this and Sita left in disgrace. Others suggested that she had retired to the countryside, her conscience burdened by the many deaths her virtue had caused. And Ram had never taken another wife, much to Ayodhya’s disappointment.

Kaikeyi leaned close. She reeked of tobacco. I could feel her hot, foetid breath on my skin. “What’s her story? That’s a story that your loyal citizens of Ayodhya and your puppet newspaper may have trouble swallowing.”

As she showed me to the door, I murmured my thanks. But she was dismissive. “You won’t write this story. You’ll write exactly what every reporter has written before. You don’t have the guts.”

She was right.

Chapter Two

TELEVISION WAS ALL THE RAGE in Ayodhya. Hundreds of us print journalists had scuttled from our desks, swapping typewriters for cameras and microphones, drawn by the irresistible lure of television. Television was the mouthpiece of the New Ayodhya. Ayodhya was booming, Ayodhya was shining. Images flashed on screens in every household, speaking of progress and development. Ayodhya was poised to take the world by storm. Ram became an intimate feature of our living rooms. His face, magnified a thousand times, blazed on our new, shiny TVs. His voice boomed through our newly constructed houses, promising prosperity and enlightenment.

But today, it was raining. Dozens of colourful plastic umbrellas unfurled, protesting the early onslaught of the monsoon. I was drenched. Press corps swirled around the open ground, where a giant screen had been put up for our benefit. Ram had wanted to keep the funeral private but had arranged access for all the television channels to beam live images of the cremation into every Ayodhyan home. The media had gathered in full force outside the cremation ground, awaiting the promised press conference.

The camera focused on Ram, lovingly, as he and Bharat knelt to light Kaikeyi’s pyre. Dressed in his trademark white kurta, he was still handsome after all these years. But the close-ups betrayed his age, magnifying the faint streaks of grey in his hair, the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes.

“Isn’t it amazing,” said a colleague of mine, a foreign journalist, as we jostled our way through wet, excited hordes of journalists at the press conference later, “how he makes the simplest clothes look grand? Sumptuous, even, beside all the other leaders and politicians, decked in their expensive suits and brocade saris! Spotless, starched, crease-less white means power in this country! It speaks of a legion of servants whose sole purpose is to wash clothes, bleach and iron them. It means money.”

I looked at my colleague, surprised at his outburst that stank of cynicism. He caught my eye, and laughed. “It’s all a show,” he said sarcastically. “A show for us.”

He was right. Ram came out, and the crowd cheered. We watched him mourn for a step-mother who had done all she could to destroy him. But his grief was sincere, no one could ever accuse Ram of dishonesty.

Something irked me. I thought back, past many years, to that meeting with Kaikeyi. She had been right. After reading my first draft of her interview, my editor had guffawed.

“I can’t publish this,” he told me, tossing the typed sheets back at me. “It might be the truth, but it’s not something people want to read. It brings up questions and memories that people don’t want to confront. Our newspaper runs courtesy of the regime, we don’t want to rock that.” Young and idealistic, I had been crestfallen. “It’s not a matter of dishonesty.” My editor was sympathetic now. “There are many versions of the same story, all truthful. Which should we tell? We pick the story that wins, the story that sells, and the story that makes us feel good. We write history. That’s our job.”

Dinner that night was the occasion for a rare family get-together. We sat in silence, watching the afternoon’s cremation replay on the muted television.

“Shrew. Better dead.” my father muttered, half-to himself, as archival photos of Kaikeyi flashed onscreen.

My mother flashed a warning glance at my father. She didn’t like such words at the dinner table, even if she did agree with my father.

We finished our meal in silence. There wasn’t much conversation in my family; and to escape the deathly silence that filled the house as my mother poured out coffee, I rifled through the contents of a cluttered, ancient cabinet that inhabited a corner of my parent’s living room. It was filled with relics from my childhood - trophies, medals, a few certificates - gathering dust and cobwebs. There were photos too, pictures of my parents, younger and thinner, and even a few candid snaps of my infant self. Amongst these familiar memories, there was an intruder – a faded print, mounted in a silver frame. I unlocked the cabinet, and pulled out the picture.

It was a beautiful painting, and as I wiped away years of dust, I realized it was a portrait of the royal family. Dasaratha sat on a silver chair, in the darbar of the palace, surrounded by his sons. Ram stood to Dasaratha’s right, one hand resting on the silver chair. Next to Ram, Lakshman knelt, looking towards his brother. On Dasaratha’s other side, Bharat stood, one arm around his younger brother Shatrughan. But Dasaratha’s face was turned towards Ram, a warm, affectionate smile on his lips.

In the distance, behind Dasaratha, there were a group of tiny figures, barely visible, watching from a balcony. I looked closer, and discerned Kaikeyi’s features. Next to her, two other women stood, faces veiled. Kausalya and Sumitra, I supposed. Two other girls were seated in the balcony – Sita and Urmila, I guessed, but they were tiny, vague, woman-shaped blurs. There were no features to distinguish them.

I showed the picture to my mother. She smiled, and wiped the frame clean. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

I smiled, and asked her to identify the women in the picture. She named Dasaratha’s queens easily enough, but frowned when we came to the other two, tiny figures. “Can’t be sure,” she said, mulling over the picture. “Could be maidservants... could be Sita or Urmila. But – these could be junior ranis.” She squinted, and then shook her head, handing the frame back to me. “Can’t tell.”

As we drank our coffee, I asked a question that had been nagging me since the afternoon. “Sita left all those years ago. Why? What happened to her?”

My mother shrugged. “There were rumours... It was so long ago, I can’t remember.”

“I think it had something to do with Ravana,” my father added, turning from his seat in front of the television.

“Oh yes! There were rumours - you can only imagine, after ten years in captivity, there would be rumours that she wasn’t as chaste as she had claimed to be. That something had happened in Lanka, and it had been covered up.”

“Who spread the rumours?”

“Can’t be sure... But it was flying all around town.”

“The story has it,” my father said, warming to the conversation, “that Ram heard of an argument between one of his servants and his wife. The wife had taken a lover, had run away and now wanted to come back. Her husband refused to take her back. His words were - ‘I’m not Ram, who will take you back, no matter what.’ Ram heard that. No matter what Sita was, it clearly didn’t set a good example for the nation. So he sent her away.”

“So he had a choice between a country which had exiled him, and a woman who had waited for him for ten years. And he chose the country?”

“It’s not as simple as you make it sound. He had a higher calling - to serve his nation, which takes priority over all his personal interests. And he’s done a damn good job serving his country. Who knows whether she really waited for him? If you really ask me, she had a choice earlier. Hanuman parachuted into Lanka to rescue her. She refused. Why? She claims she wanted her husband to defend his honour, not to take her away in some clandestine fashion. But all that caused a war and so much bloodshed. There must have been another reason. What really happened in those ten years at Lanka? That’s what I want to know.”

My mother interjected. “If it’s as she claims, Ravana must have been a gentleman, not the villain he’s been made out to be, if he never touched her against her will in ten years.”

More questions.

Chapter 3

SITA HAD BECOME AN OBSESSION. I stared at a black and white image of her, taken shortly after her marriage - hair still in braids, she smiles shyly at the unknown photographer. She was beautiful in an earthy way, but her beauty was born in youth and innocence. I listened to a scratchy radio recording of an interview with Sita, made at the same time. Her voice was low and timid. The questions were simple, the answers even simpler.

Interviewer: How is Ayodhya different from where you’re from?

Sita: Ayodhya is... different. A lot more modern, there are a lot more people, houses and machines. And so many cars. I had never seen a washing machine before I came here! It must make life so much easier! Mithila is a lot smaller, fewer people, much more rural.

Interviewer: So Princess, you’re a real country girl? (There’s a note of mocking superiority in his voice)

Sita: (hesitates, I can imagine her blushing furiously, as she realizes she’s being made fun of.) I suppose so, but I am learning to be a city girl.

I paused the tape, thinking. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen at that time. It must have been a big transition for her. Her father was a king, but the king of a small, impoverished kingdom, where kings are little more than farmers, ploughing their own fields. Legend had it that Old King Janaka, a widower, was yoking an oxen when a cry startled him. He limped over and found a tiny baby girl lying in freshly ploughed furrow. Daughterless, he adopted the child, believing her to be a divine gift. A simple man.

I pushed the play button.

Interviewer: (Still mocking.) What does a country-bred girl want to do in a city?

Sita: (Earnest and eager) I want to learn to be a good queen, as my country deserves, and I am learning to be a good wife, worthy of my husband.

A large hand slaps my back. I jump forward, pull off my headphones and swivel around. My editor’s booming voice shatters my eardrums.

“What’s all this?” He gestures to the clutter of photographs and old newspaper cuttings. My desk has become a sort of shrine to Sita.

“Researching an idea for a piece, ‘What happened to Sita?’ Thought it might be interesting.”

“Oh.” He dismisses the as-yet-unwritten article with a wave of his hand. “Forget all of that! More pressing matter at hand - Guess whose lucky break it is! Tomorrow an interview with Ram himself on the day, when, ten years ago, he had returned victorious from Lanka. Live, on Television.”

I had put the request months ago, and had given up hope of a reply. It was routine request. As a young, fledgling reporter who had recently made the switch to television, I hadn’t expected a positive reply. In response to the stunned look on my face, my editor smiles. “This is the scoop a journalist could kill for!”

After he leaves, I glance at another photo - taken after Ram and Sita have returned. She’s washed out now - the youth, innocence and beauty have faded, replaced by peace. Or resignation? I can’t tell. But Ram fills the frame, pushing Sita into the background. His looks have only improved in exile, given him more of an edge, makes him feel more solid, powerful.

And then, my eye falls on Valmiki’s weighty tome – the authorized biography of Ram, The Story of Ram authored by Ayodhya’s most famous journalist. Ram fills the cover, larger than life. He has the dreamy look of a visionary in this picture - his eyes stare somewhere past you, and his brow is furrowed – as if he’s squinting to read the future. The cares of a nation hang heavy on him, and can be read in the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes, the touch of grey at his temples. But broad shoulders, a wide chest tapering to a slender waist, testify to his physical strength. In the distance, the blurred figure of Lakshman is visible, many metres away.

But Sita is not here.

Ten years of ayodhya shining and this reporter’s lucky break.

Lakshman guides my camera crew  through a labyrinth of offices and conference rooms. He waddles swiftly - a seemingly impossible skill, given his large bulk. The years haven’t been as kind to Lakshman as they have been to Ram. Lakshman was the most handsome of Dasaratha’s sons, once upon a time. Even after the return from Lanka, he outshone Ram. But since then, it’s been a decline. His eyes are puffy, his large belly strains against his general’s uniform. But he’s still immaculately dressed, and as brisk and efficient as the bureaucracy he runs. Worry lines crease his face as he puffs past Ram’s secretaries, no doubt his mind’s already on the next appointment.

He taps on the King’s door and then lets us in. Ram is waiting, gracious and elegant in his usual white dhoti. It’s the first time that I am in the Royal office, I take a careful look around me. It’s white, pristine with lofty, imposing ceilings. An odd contrast with the ornate, cluttered décor of the administrative offices outside. Ayodhya’s walls and billboards are plastered with images of Ram. It’s ironic that his walls are bare of any such posters, there’s only two photos on his desk - one of his father, and one of Sita.

The interview starts. It’s the expected fare, progress, development, plans for the future.

I ask him the standard question.

“Do you have any plans to introduce democracy soon and end the dictatorship?”

Sheep in wolf’s clothing. Ram smiles, and leans forward, eyes shining. It’s his favourite topic.

“For democracy to function, one needs an authentic, grass-roots democratic culture. Our country has functioned as a monarchy for so long, it’s embedded. My father was king. It’s still hard for a number of people to get comfortable with the idea of democracy. I have been trying to introduce democratic reforms, on the grass-root level, to educate every one, particularly the common man, about his democratic rights and responsibilities. Democracy is self-government. That’s what you have to inculcate first. We’ve set up the Panchayat system - every village elects its

leaders to administer and look after local affairs. That’s the first step.”

“What’s the next step?”

“Well, we’ve just introduced the next step under the women’s special laws system. Thirty-three percent reservation for women in all Panchayat seats. We are targeting women now. Making them leaders. Democracy begins at home. It’s like mother’s milk - one has to be raised on it.”

I try not to grimace at the painful analogy.

“Women have always been the custodians of culture. Educate women about democracy, they will ensure it spreads to the rest of the community.”

He’s animated. Excited. Earnest. Caught in his vision.

“When the country is ready for democracy, what will you do, sir? Will you continue as a president, step aside, or stand as a candidate in the elections?”

He laughs. “To continue as a president would prove any claim to democracy false. No, I would step aside. But if my country commands me to serve again, I will of course heed that call - whether it be to stand in elections or continue, in an advisory capacity, to assist the elected government.”

I’ve heard it all before. But there’s one question still teasing me. I look at Ram’s desk, at the photograph of Sita. She gazes back at me, almost like she’s challenging me. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t resist the temptation.

“What happened to Sita? What I mean to say is, after the war in Lanka, you brought her back here. But after ten years of waiting for each other, after fourteen years of exile from Ayodhya - years spent dreaming of you and returning to Ayodhya, she left. Why? What happened? “

Ram’s bright smile fades.  He hadn’t seen this coming, and is too honest to mask his emotions. He feels betrayed and confused.

Agitated, he runs his hands through his hair. “Well... sometimes... It had been so difficult. Those years are so difficult - exile, war, coming back. You know... sometimes, people change, places change. We changed... time does that. She wasn’t happy here, so she left. I don’t know why. But she left.”

I press on, relentless. “And you’ve never wanted to marry again?”

“No. Never! I loved - I still love - only one woman. Sita.” He looks past me, straight at the camera, addressing the people of Ayodhya. “I could do anything to have her come back.”

That was a splendid, admirable recovery. I have to hand it to him. He smiles, relieved. Out of the corner of my eye, I see an aide, anxiously wringing his hands, inching forward to speak to my producer.

My producer signals, a grimace contorting his face. The interview is at an end. As we pack our equipment, an assistant scurries forward and hands Ram a white kerchief to mop his sweating brow. He thanks the assistant, smiles at me, and after a quick handshake, leaves.

My producer whispers to me, as we hurriedly make our exit, winding our way through the presidential palace. “We should have had a half hour more. You just had to ask, didn’t you? Couldn’t keep your trap shut.” He sneers, “Management is certainly not going to be pleased.”

I nod, catching a glimpse of Lakshman, watching the interview live on a giant flatscreen. He is sweating heavily, thinning hair plastered to his forehead, eyes bulging out of their sockets. He looks like he is on the verge of apoplexy. Or a heart attack.

My editor is certainly apoplectic, though, when we return to office. “That was out of line!” he blusters. “Completely out of line, damn it! No one’s pleased, I had to pull strings - they asked for your resignation on the spot! But I bargained for a two week suspension, to see if this dies down. If not, you’ll have to go.”

“What? For one question?!” I expected some reprisal, but nothing this bad.

“YOU DID IT LIVE! What do you expect? The powers-that-be are not pleased!”

“Who are the powers-that-be? Ram?” I pause, and think - I don’t believe he would ask for my resignation. Ram is just too damned honest.

“No. Not Ram.” My editor is weary. “You should go away, somewhere else, lie low for a while.”

“Who are the powers-that-be?”

He doesn’t answer.

“If it’s not Ram - who runs this goddamn country?! Tell me!”

He walks away.

Keywords: Ayodhya Samhita Arni Ram Lanka Sita Lakshman Valmiki Kaikeyi Dasaratha Bharat Ravana Kausalya Sumitra Urmila Mithila King Janaka demcoracy dictatorship monarchy grass roots