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Monday, 28 September 2015

The Missing Queen

Book Title: The Missing Queen
Author: Samhita Arni
Publisher: Zubaan Books
When I was old enough to understand the basis of Sita’s exile towards the end of the Ramayan, I was restless. Here was Ram, a prince that people revered; an avatar of Vishnu; and a man who obeyed his father’s will unconditionally. One would think that he would stand up for his wife, quite the way he stood up for the vow his father had made to Kaikeyi, the step-mother who sought Ram’s exile through a boon. One would think that he would stand up for his wife – the woman who left a life of comfort in a palace to be by his side while he braved the vagaries of the forest.

But he did not.

And it riled me that he did not.

I spent years wondering how a whole nation of people worshipped this man and sung praises in his name, when he couldn’t so much as trust his wife. And when the myriad rape cases in the country came to light, I realized that this was the fount of all patriarchy that has proven to be the cultural backdrop for sexual violence against women in India.

So when Samhita Arni’s recent book, The Missing Queen came up, I was over the moon that there was someone else as driven to question the Ramayan, as I was, and even more so at that – since she wrote a whole book built on that feeling. While the writing itself is fantastic and lucid, it is the whole new dimension that Samhita has given to the story that intrigues you.

Taking place in modern-day Ayodhya, the story is set at a date that is ten years after Ram has won the war against Ravan. Sita has disappeared, her exile was an edifice built on the foundation of the Washerman’s hearsay testimony as to her unchaste ways, coupled with rumours running amok among the citizenry.  In the ten years of Sita’s absence, Ayodhya has transformed. Besides being a thriving hotbed of modern-media activity and consumerism with its own dark underbelly, it is now officially an authoritarian regime under the watchful eye of the Washerman and his people. But Ram is still revered, for he is the overarching emperor that takes the biggest decisions – of course, consulting his people all through. The kingdom is slowly inching towards democracy: a thought that is both scary and welcome all the same. The country is happy, though, and Sita is not on their minds by and large.

Enter a young journalist. She has questions aplenty on Sita, her whereabouts, the reasons for her disappearance and much more. She wants to know, and this thirst for knowledge drives her to even ask Ram, directly. And before she knows it, the Washerman and his cronies have descended on her for asking what she should not – and she is chased out of Ayodhya as well. She hunts her answers down with a sense of devotion, running from Ayodhya to Lanka to Mithila. And on her way, she finds nearly everyone else that the epic features. Where does her journey take her? Does she find the answers? If I do tell you about that, I’d be doing grave injustice to the brilliance of the book.

To put it simply, The Missing Queen is a must read. The storyline is beautifully rendered, as Samhita paints each character in vivid shades. For readers like me, that had these questions already, the journalist’s trajectory becomes something of their own. For readers that simply liked the Samhita’s imagination is childlike and poignant all at once – both facets being grand instruments with which she addresses the nuanced issues in the tale. The jewel in the crown is the set of lines spoken by many of the women in the book that sends chills up your spine. One out of them all is a line by Surpanakha, the demon queen whose nose was chopped off by Lakshman, when asks, Do women need circles drawn in the sand to protect them? Relevant as it was then, relevant it is, now. 

The reason I believe this qualifies as a Peace Read for is, that it is articulate, powerful, and provokes thought: allowing you to question what you are forced to accept without question.