Sita's Diwali: A Futuristic Festival For Women

13/11/2015 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
PKG Photography via Getty Images


If you know of Diwali, the Indian festival of lamps, the one that even the White House celebrates, then I should tell you that this is not the festival I'm talking about here.

No, Sita's Diwali is a festival that's yet to be marked on our calendars. Like the original, Sita's Diwali will also be celebrated with lamps. And, the lamps of Sita's Diwali will also symbolise the victory of truth over injustice. But it will be a different truth, and a different injustice. And it will be about a whole different victory.

As all know, the protagonist of the Diwali story is King Ram, who rescued his wife Sita from Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka, who had kidnapped and enslaved her. After India celebrated Ram's victory with millions of lamps, he decided his wife, who had possibly been raped, wasn't a "pure" enough asset for a respectable king. Apparently, it was a passing comment from a washerman that caused him to think this. So he banished his pregnant wife to the boondocks, where she struggled in poverty to raise her twin sons. Even so, Sita was eventually compelled to prove her "purity" by immolating herself.

"I have a vision of a Sita, sitting on a horse, with bow and burning arrows, focused on 30ft-tall, larger-than-life effigies of Ram, Ravana and the Washerman."

In the Diwali saga, Sita's story never comes to the fore. Her life remains an incidental canvas on which India's storytellers erect the imposing image of a heroic, indomitable, righteous Ram to indulge the patriarchal ego.

The protagonist of Sita's Diwali will, of course, be Sita. Not just because this is her story, but because Sita is the original "India's Daughter". She is one figure in Indian history and mythology whose life singularly (I emphasise singularly) encompasses the truth of Indian womanhood in its entirety.

Sita's life, at its onset, contains one of the most tragic elements of what it means to be female in India. And that's female infanticide. Sita was found by her adoptive father, buried alive in an earthen pot beneath the ground. This is a centuries-old method of killing infant girls in India, one that's still used, among others. Every year, thousands of girls born in India continue to be murdered by various methods, because of their gender. The 2011 census data reveals that of the 18 million girls under the age of 15 years, who went "missing" in India, the majority, about 17 million, were killed after the age of one year. Most were killed between the ages of one-six years.

Sita's years in exile are also reflective of the lives of millions of Indian women. According to census data least 27 million single women are the sole bread earners for their families. Of these, 45% live in one-room poverty, and are vulnerable to extreme discrimination, social abuses and sexual violence. In some states, 20-23% women singly raise their children. However official data counts only widowed or legally divorced women. Millions of women who are simply abandoned by their husbands are unaccounted for, and are ineligible for government programs. They have no support from family, society or the state.

That rape was not a crime against Sita, but a contamination of her worth, such that her immolation seemed necessary to dispose of her, as one would a worthless article, is the fundamental dehumanisation of women. Through history, thousands of Indian women have met this fate. If raped or faced with the possibility of rape during civil war, women would collectively self-immolate, a custom called Jauhar. During the 1947 India-Pakistan partition, when thousands of women were raped, they were either killed or abandoned by their families. In the tradition of Sati, widows, considered dispensable, would be burnt alive on their husbands' pyres. Even today thousands of widows live in absolute hell, disinherited and discarded on the streets, struggling to survive. And then there are thousands of women today, who are burnt to death when the husbands are not able to extract any more dowry from them.

"I see women weeping and laughing, and hugging each other, as they watch the embers fade. And they say, 'It is the victory of the long-buried truth.'"

Ravana's kidnapping of Sita across state and national boundaries is reminiscent of another ugly reality. India now is a global hub for sex trafficking which also includes millions of underage girls. With female gendercide, there's escalation in another type of sex trafficking, called "bride trafficking", where women are kidnapped, bought, and sold, sometime multiple times, to families of men looking for a woman for sexual and reproductive use.

Sita's Diwali will be a commemoration of all these Sitas of India. It will be the Bastille Day celebration for Indian womanhood -- with sweets, lights and fireworks. There will also be a grand finale with effigy burning, just like Diwali. I have a vision of a Sita, sitting on a horse, with bow and burning arrows, focused on 30ft-tall, larger-than-life effigies of Ram, Ravana and the Washerman. She focuses with quiet deliberation and then sends the burning arrows flying with speed and force straight into the three effigies -- making them burst into crackling flames. And I see women weeping and laughing, and hugging each other, as they watch the embers fade. And they say, "It is the victory of the long-buried truth."

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