Reading a book by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a joyful experience. For me, personally, it has to do with the simplicity of her language and context that doesn’t seem forced or plugged in for the sake of it. I also love the plots of her stories — for the most part, they feel rooted in reality. The reader can relate to the themes of Divakaruni’s books immensely — with the turn of each page, there is no choice but to be drawn in.
The Forest of Enchantments is Sita’s story. But not just Sita’s, this is the story of the women of the Ramayana, and Divakaruni does more than enough justice to them in her retelling.
We all know how the Ramayana plays out. The Indian epic has been retold multiple times in books and movies by people with differing points of view. There have been feminist retellings as well, by Samhita Arni and Nina Paley, to name a few. Divakaruni’s version reminds her readers that the Ramayana, besides being a morality tale, is a love story at its heart — a tragic one, created by misunderstandings and boundaries of faith and fidelity.
In The Forest of Enchantments, Divakaruni trains her lens on both the major and minor women characters of the Ramayana.
While the book is primarily about Sita, the voices of the other women of the epic — even Kaikeyi and Manthara — are given their due. Somehow, all these women need to be redeemed by Rama, or they seek their end goal through him — Divakaruni cleverly deals with this and gives them all unique voices.
The book also asks tough questions about what transpired in the epic — these include a relook at Soorpanakha’s role, the male entitlement that runs through the story as well as the character of Mandodari. I loved the relationship between Mandodari and Sita while the latter was in captivity.
The male characters, however, seem rather one-dimensional, though that is less Divakaruni’s fault and more to do with how the men themselves are — mostly alpha, bound by duty and what is right or wrong. It is the women of the epic that understand and relate to shades of grey.
We see Sita as Divakaruni wants us to see her, and yet there are so many shades to her. She reasons. She fights. She agonises. And above all, she wants to claim her voice and say what she has to. Reading The Forest of Enchantments, one can’t help but compare it with the other versions written before — here, I am inclined to exclude male writers (such as Anand Neelakantan and Devdutt Pattanaik was more about Ramayana as a whole than Sita really) because the treatment is different when a woman writes about women. In The Forest of Enchantments, Divakaruni trains her lens on both the major and minor women characters of the Ramayana — it doesn’t matter how much time they get or not in the book, it is about the role of women in an epic and how their voices are often muted.
The writing is complete. You get to know everything — from Sita’s birth to how she married Rama, to the exile, to Ravana kidnapping her, to Lakshman’s role in all of this, to her successful rescue, to the banishing of Sita yet again, to the birth of her children, and to ultimately the predictable end. The ending is what one would expect it to be — it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that the demands of staying true to the original story take precedence over the empowerment of women and that, to me, could’ve been dealt with better.
Divakaruni does more than enough justice to this epic narrative. Her readers will internalise Sita’s story as the writer problematises what it means to be a woman, then and now. The Forest of Enchantments is not just a retelling of a much-told epic, rather it is a book that tells it like it is — balanced and non-judgmental.