An epic with a twist

An epic with a twist

An epic with a twist

Poor Sita must be on the run. She would rather remain what she has been down the millennia, the ideal of traditional Indian women, than allow her psyche to be torn to tatters by these new-age retellers of ancient legends. But she has no choice. Even as these retailers of the Sita-Rama mythology sell the Ramayana by retelling parts, they search for more and more attractive packaging to sell the goods.

In Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen, Treta Yuga holds hands with Kali Yuga as televisions flash Rama’s return from the forest: “The images of Ram and Sita entering the city in a Cadillac, waving to admiring crowds. I had been there myself — a child, 12 or 13 years old, seeing the young, shining couple for the first time. I remember being disappointed by Sita. Her legendary, dangerous beauty had faded with years in captivity.”

Dangerous? Well, well. The lady- journalist, who is the omniscient narrator, tries to get at the true story of what happened in Lanka, and thereafter in Ayodhya, from the aged Kaikeyi, reeking of tobacco. The Ramayana tale with an innuendo-ridden hook-up to the disappearance of Sita is brought to us through contemporary lingo. Ayodhya is booming, Ayodhya is shining, thanks to the omnipresent television, for Ram has become a household presence, as his voice booms through his deceptively prosperous kingdom.

This Ram could be the prime minister of India today or the chief minister of any one of the states. One who is not easily rattled by journalists posing shrapnel questions about his missing queen Sita. The journalists who are the self-appointed dharma-guardians, take charge, and soon we get to have a clandestine interview with Angad.

That is it! The journalist has been watched by the Washerman Group and soon her notes and person are in trouble. She is in this group’s custody (the Indian version of a KGB or CIA), and wonders whether Sita is also in such a dungeon. She communicates with another detainee, a Lankan, who gives her information about that bombed capital which has now become a city of whores. And LLF terrorists, of course. Samhita doesn’t camouflage too much, does she?

Apparently, the Ayodhyan Secret Service is not impregnable. LLF’s blitzkrieg sees our narrator freed and what else? Aha, here is the new-built, gleaming Sethu, “a white bridge snaking over miles and miles of foam-crested waves, dwindling over the distance until it disappears into the horizon.”
Presently, we are in the LLF camp, deep in Lanka’s forests. Surpanakha has her story of disfigurement to tell, and her job of teaching boy-recruits of the terrorist organisation how to shoot down gagged soldiers from Ayodhya. “Good job. It will be easier the next time.” The more we hear of the LLF from Samhita, the greater our sorrow. And how journalists display information: suppressio veri, suggestion falsi! One can only echo Milton: “No worse, there is none.”

Meanwhile, where is Sita? Trijatha Devi, Minister of State for Women’s Affairs, is quite voluble beginning with how Hanuman parachuted in to reconnoiter the city. A bit of play with chronology makes Sita a mother within a year of her departure from Lanka. And a re-claimed Ravana through Samhita’s telling, “a soldier and philosopher, an immaculately dressed gentleman… thinker and a man of strength, who takes pleasure in beautiful things.” A character certificate that would please the Dravidian poet Kuzhandai, who wrote Ravana Kaaviyam. Sita’s phrase, ‘na kascid na aparaadhyati’, gets a new gloss.

But where is Sita? The Samhita-journalist now lands up in Mithila. Janaka is dismissed as an invalid, while the omniscient narrator goes on in her “only-I-know-the-truth” style; apparently, all those who have held high the story of Valmiki are a little more than head-nodding morons. Though raised as a thriller, the movements of the novel are so jerky that one begins to lose interest even when the poet Kamban turns up, playing with his cocktail glass. And, Sambooka too! Sita comes into the narrative at last, but is gone when Samhita brings down Kaikeyi’s palace like the temple of Dagon in Samson and Delilah.

Though Indian mythology sells today, this particular collection of  possibilities and probabilities becomes tiresome after a while. Journalists drinking merrily in a dingy bar, or rubbing shoulders with bureaucrats, or getting roughed up by power-centres do not by themselves make a taut thriller. The Missing Queen ends up making faces at the way the Indian masses gulp down what Samhita considers to be an untrue tale attributed to Valmiki. It is actually sad for us who were charmed by her Sita’s Ramayana, and hailed its success. Nothing succeeds like success. Unfortunately, nothing fails like excess!

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