Speaking from the Margins

The demonisation of Kaikeyi and Surpanakha

Saswati Sengupta Illustration By Osheen Siva
31 October, 2021

MY FIRST MEMORY of the Ramayana seems to be from before memory begins. I can only recall a slow sedimentation into consciousness of sounds and images: raucous laughter as Surpanakha, holding a bleeding nose, runs off the makeshift stage of the local Ramlila; tinselly bows and arrows being sold outside the Durga Puja pandal; and the larger than life, ten-headed Ravana being set on fire in the colony park on Dussehra. No, the embedded violence in the cut nose, the toy weapons or the burning effigy did not shock or frighten. Perhaps it had already been domesticated by the fabulous stories of rakshasas and monkey brigades who roamed the exciting terrains of forests, mountains and oceans.

The blue-bodied man at the centre of these adventures was no stranger either, though an avatar. He had gentle lotus-like eyes and smiled beatifically from calendars, pictures and icons. The songs of his childhood, in the melodious voice of Lata Mangeshkar or the more robust one of DV Paluskar, brought him home as a loved toddler whose waddling steps made music with the tinkling of anklets—“thumaka chalata Ramachandra bajata panjaniya.” The overwhelmingly popular Hindi films familiarised him as the deity of a syncretic peasant world, who was appealed to send clouds and rain to heal a parched earth—“Allah megh de pani de chhaya de re tu/ Rama megh de, Shyama megh de” (Guide, 1965). He was the benevolent icon of self-sacrificing love who was asked to bring solacing sleep to the suffering beloved—“Ram kare aisa ho jaye meri nindiya tohe mil jaye” (Milan, 1967). He was also the one to whom the modern maidens of Naya Zamana (1971) could confess the unfamiliar stirring of burgeoning love that transgressed familial norms—“Rama, Rama gajab hui gawa re/ haal hamra ajab hui gawa re.

All these images, invocations and songs came together to create a kaleidoscope of affective benevolence. I thus knew, without being told, that when Mirabai had sung of receiving Ram’s wealth in the sixteenth century—“Payoji maine Rama ratan dhan payo”—she did not mean gems or jewels but a devotional bhakti that liberates from this world’s materialist and conventional fetters.

Somewhere, amid all these benign invocations, was the razing of a city and the abandonment of a pregnant wife.

Saswati Sengupta teaches English literature at Miranda House, Delhi University. Her most recent work is Mutating Goddesses: Bengal’s Laukika Hinduism and Gender Rights, published by Oxford University Press.

Osheen Siva is a multidisciplinary artist from Tamil Nadu, currently based in Goa. Through the lens of surrealism, speculative fiction and science fiction and rooted in mythologies and her Dalit and Tamilian heritage, she imagines new words of decolonised dreamscapes, futuristic oasis with mutants and monsters and narratives of feminine power.