BEING THE BHAKT OF A HINDU GOD is a little like being the fan of a Bollywood actor. It does not matter if he or she ever sees you; the fervour of your love brings into existence the version of the god that you carry around in your heart. The convenient thing about celebrities and deities is that you, and not they, get to define the authentic narrative of their lives.
Coming across a tacky retelling of your cherished god’s story, then, is like seeing a particularly tawdry picture of a beloved actor decorating the interior of an autorickshaw.
That was my reaction to reading Breaking the Bow, an anthology of speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana, in which author after author attempts to put Sita in fancy-dress costumes and parades her in a literary beauty pageant as a suitably decorous example of a feminist retelling. Sita as giant “intelligent nanite cloud” choosing voluntary exile; Sita as an alien testing humanity to deem it unworthy of her species’ largesse; Sita as time-travelling feminist seeking to fix the ur-Ramayan; Sita as drug-addicted NRI housewife. Well-crafted writing lifted some of these stories above mediocrity, but as characters, the Ramas and Sitas fell flat—vacuous hollow-hearted puppets jerking around only to fulfill the polemics of their authors. (Actual shadow puppetry Ramayanas, on the other hand, have a far more moving grandeur.)