Seeking Sita in 'Ayodhyay Shining'
The Ayodhya in Samhita Arni's new book, The Missing Queen, has Cadillacs on its roads and a journalist who dares to ask why Sita is missing. Arni speaks to Kareena N Gianani about the intricacies and challenges of looking at the Ramayana with a feminist gaze
This is your second book which looks at the Ramayana with a feminist gaze. Was the idea of The Missing Queen born when you wrote Sita’s Ramayana?
Actually, it was the other way around. I wrote The Missing Queen and, for years, it languished in a drawer, gathering dust, and I had a hard time finding a publisher for it. Four years ago, I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival with a draft of the manuscript, and ran into my old publisher, Gita Wolf of Tara Books, who published my first book — The Mahabharata — A Child’s View. We talked about the Ramayana — and Gita told me about Moyna’s work (who did the artwork for Sita’s Ramayana), and I immediately jumped at the chance to be involved with Sita’s Ramayana. The Missing Queen, since then, has been through many drafts and re-writes. There were times when I felt that it would never get published — but I think those years of hoping, of polishing and re-drafting were essential for me to hone my skills, and it forced me to question whether I wanted to be a writer. I’m sure now that this is what I want to be.
Please describe the process of giving a strong voice to the women characters in The Missing Queen — it begins with Kaykeyi, Surpanakha, Trijatha. What did you draw that from?
Well, the Ramayana, when I was growing up, was perceived as a black and white epic, with good and evil characters. It’s beautiful, it’s fascinating — but it’s quite straightforward. Yet, when I started delving into the Ramayana tradition, there are many variant retellings and some of the differences in these retellings provoke questions. Focussing on the female characters, for me, was an interesting process — because it allowed me to perceive and explore some of the ambiguities in the epic. Kaikeyi and Surpanakha are strong women who are villified, but — if you start to see things from their perspective — they have strong justification for their actions. Trijatha is interesting because of the choice she makes — to stick with the losing, ‘bad’ side. Yet she makes this choice to stay with her friends, and her people — this is honourable, and demonstrates integrity. New aspects of the Ramayana, which I hadn’t paid attention to before, opened up for me when I studied these characters, the choices they make and why they make these choices.
Why did you decide to base the mystery of the missing queen in a modern, ‘Shining Ayodhya’?
I came back to India in 2006, after a decade abroad, and I constantly heard the words "India Shining.” India was a “success” story, but what I found when I returned was something far more complex. Setting the novel in a “Shining Ayodhya” allowed me to explore these complexities. And I also wanted to question the idea of ‘right and just war’ — “Shining Ayodhya” is built on conquest, and, in my first year back, it seemed to me that some of India’s successes came with a price.
Indian publishing has seen multiple mythological retellings over the past few years. What do you think sets The Missing Queen apart?
I hope something does set it apart! But that’s for my readers to decide. For me, it’s not a straightforward mythological retelling: it’s a story set within the epic, on the borders/ margins of the epic. I’ve tried to write it like a thriller, fast-paced, in a noir-ish way — I hope that comes across to my readers.
What are you currently working on? Could we expect it to be on the lines of feminist retelling of Sita, or another female character from mythology or would it be another retelling explored differently?
I think I’m running the risk of being pigeon-holed for the rest of my career. Right now, I working as a script-writer/editor with the Afghanistan’s largest television network, in Kabul. I have been here for three months and am working on a police procedural drama, set in Afghanistan. It’s exciting, and challenging. I’d like my next novel to be something very different — it might be a murder mystery, or chick lit, or a historical novel. Definitely something not mythological, at least not right now!