Arshia Sattar is an acknowledged expert of the Indian narrative. As one journeys through her analytical re-interpretation of the Ramayana in Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish, her ease at handling Rama and Sita as literary characters strikes you as extraordinary. It’s almost as though this writer has been a silent and sharp observer of the various lives of Rama and Sita across the plentiful narrations in the Ramayana realms. Perhaps that’s the secret behind this very readable demystification of the “eternal hero” of the Ramayana.
It’s not academic scholarship or analytical skill that dictates most of the text of Lost Loves; but the understanding of Rama the Man, and his anguish; and yes, one can just about include Sita too. But Sita is mostly a sub-text to Rama here. It’s all actually about Rama, Rama and just Rama. In spite of the huge but non-scholarly familiarity with the Ramayana text, the reader will be stunned by the questions Sattar raises on how to perceive Rama the man and his life. The text is less about Sita, yet when the narrative concludes, the most important observation arises with reference to the mild, gentle-mannered nayika of the Ramayana. Who really did lose the love of one’s life and who gave it up for other considerations?
The story of the Ramayana unfolds along its main themes of the epic in the version we call Valmiki’s Ramayana, rather than less discussed incidents; the role of Rama, the nayak of the Ramayana, flits between godliness and humanness and Sattar explores these fluctuations on various interesting perspectives that matter to a rasika, here a literary reader, rather than a bhakta. Why does Rama, the lover of Sita, reject her twice? Are his reasons justified? Why does Rama’s definition of dharma change so frequently across the story? Yet, why, at the end of it all, is he still termed the perfect man? Sattar attempts to answer these questions by analysing just Rama’s life and its incidents. If he is God, then why does he have to take a step suited to only a human? Why is he a declared ascetic, though he carries weapons? Why does he make a conscious choice to give up what could be rightfully his, yet contradict himself on later occasions?
Seven essays that scrutinise the complicated issues of dharma, both personal and familial, dominate the arguments the self-claimed feminist writer puts forward to discuss the whats and whys of Rama’s decisions. Are his choices rightly wrong or wrongly right? Yet, the debate does not favour the feminine. It retains an unprejudiced balance, keeping in mind the human and man that Rama is and concentrates on his inner torment.
Of the seven ideas mooted as central themes of the essays in the book, the most appealing is the one that has lent the book its title — Lost Loves. The arguments work best and Sattar pens a significant point when she says: “The tragedy of Ramayana is not simply that there is no happy ending with Rama and Sita finally reunited. The greater tragedy is the death of their love for each other, which cannot renew itself in the changed (albeit the better) circumstances of their lives.” Separately, the essay titled “A Tale of Three Cities and the Search for Dharma” is a brilliant comparison of the three prominent locales of the epic (I won’t call them cities): Kishkintha, Ayodhya and Lanka. Sattar’s familiarity with the epic text makes itself evident in this piece.
The essays, as Sattar mentions, have been written on different occasions. Perhaps that explains the persistent repetition of certain strains of thought throughout the text. I found that reading them independently worked best for me, because otherwise I had the nagging “didn’t she say this before” thought. I also found the very topics of the last two essays quite academic in nature. “Remembering in the Ramayana, The Problem of Memory” harps on the various cases and levels of amnesia in the epic text and how it serves the progress of the epic as a story. Similar echoes of academic exercises are found in the essay titled “Inside-Outside: Where is Valmiki in the story that He tells”. These two essays have less to do with the rasika and more with an academic audience.
As one reads the final paragraph, one realises why the epic text has not been named Sitayana. In spite of her bold sketch of Sita as a passionate and assertive individual and woman who is in love with her Rama, Sattar has reclaimed the story of Rama as the hero through an eclectic yet simple re-interpretation; an endeavour possible only with someone who is involved with the epic intimately and passionately. As Sattar has said in her article introducing the book at Pratilipi, “At the very end of the story, we are left with the man – hero, husband, king, divine reflection – and his emptiness. Glorious Rama, destined for greatness and success from birth, ends up alone and lonely — that should be enough reason for us to read the text anew. For our sake, and not his.”
Reading the Ramayana in the 21st Century, by Dr Arshia Sattar
LOST LOVES: EXPLORING RAMA’S ANGUISH