Amish Tripathi turns around every notion we have about Sita in his new book, Sita: Warrior of Mithila, the second in the Ram Chandra series. Sita is a warrior and the incarnation of Vishnu, and not the submissive woman we have always known her to be. In a chat, Amish takes the debate further, from feminism to ‘manufactured’ controversy. Edited excerpts:
Sita’s character is more exciting than Ram’s. Sita also defies every conventional notion we have about her. What do you have to say about that?
Lord Ram’s character is someone who follows the laws and she is someone who can be much more aggressive. So in the kind of times we live in now, she appears more attractive.
As for her character, this is the version that inspires me. It may appear different to modern Indians because our impression of Sita is moulded by TV serials and Amar Chitra Katha, but there are ancient versions where she is quite different from our modern interpretations. The Adbhut Ramayana has spoken of her like that, as has the Gond Ramayani. In the Valmiki Ramayana itself, which is the original, she might not be a physical warrior, but she’s a warrior of the mind. She’s a very strong character who does what she thinks is right.
She is a strong person who rises above physical beauty, predefined gender roles and conventions. What was the objective of drawing this character? Are you trying to portray an ideal society; do you think society was more elevated in ancient times; or is it a theme taken from our present times and juxtaposed on that era?
The predefined gender roles that we assume today in Indian society are actually relatively recent. It wasn’t so in ancient India. The only place where women found it difficult to compete with men was in the area of violence. And that is because of a natural benefit that men have with testosterone and bigger bodies. In every other area, men and women can compete as equals, which is the way it was in ancient India. We did have women warriors, but they were lesser in number. The Rigveda has hymns written by rishikas (female rishis). It’s like having women prophets or women messiahs.
The second part is that we should realise that, sometimes, perhaps in the modern feminist influence, you tend to deride the role of the mother as well, which is not positive. A woman who wants to work and have a career receives every support there is, but if a woman chooses to stay at home, that’s her choice too. It must be respected. You can’t deride her. The answer to sexism shouldn’t be reverse sexism. It should be a balance. In our ancient way, it was always believed that god existed in balance and not in any kind of extremism.
Language also tells you a lot about what the culture was like. For instance, in English, the male god is written with a capital ‘G’, while goddess is written in lower case. In Sanskrit, male and female are the same; it’s twam, it’s ‘you’. There’s no equivalent of aap. So human being, god and goddess are all the same. This is an indication of what culture was like in ancient times.
How inspired is your book by things that are happening today?
There are issues that trouble me. But I don’t go on TV or on panel discussions; I try and bring out those issues in my books. Things like women’s rights, the way we approach businessmen, for example; the need for balance.
After Ram’s return from exile, is Sita, in your telling of the story, meekly going to accept Ram’s decision to send her away and undergo an agnipariksha? If that happens, it’s going to be really disappointing after the way you have hyped up Sita.
I don’t hype up anything. I just go with the story the way it comes to me. So wait for my interpretation.
Where does the narrative go after Raavan?
It’s all going to end with the kidnapping of Lady Sita, so the next book will go onwards from there. The fourth book will be the battle with Raavan and, after that, will be the battle with their actual enemies. Raavan was just an opponent. One of the ways of looking at the Ram Chandra series is that it’s a prequel to the Shiva trilogy.
Is Raavan also going to meet the same sort of end as we know he does?
If in the fourth book, Raavan dies, what are the fifth and the other books about?
I told you, they will battle their actual enemies.
You have taken amazing liberties with the way we have known the Ramayana. Why do you think you can get away with it, while a furore is created over the smallest of religious issues?
I’m not getting away with anything. I am writing it with respect. I am posing a counter question: why should there be a controversy? There is no reason for it. I write my books with love and respect, and genuinely worship the gods I write about. I am proud of our ancient culture. I think there is a lot to be learnt from it. In our education system, we teach nothing about our ancient culture. We’re a rare culture with such great wisdom to be inherited, but we don’t want to learn about it at all. It’s bizarre.
I have said this before and it just gets reinforced that often controversies are created by artists themselves for publicity. And, if an artist himself stays away from controversies, then nothing happens. It’s one of the easiest marketing strategies around. Controversy khadi karo, publicity ho jayega, sale ho jayega and, the next week, the media will move on to the next issue. So many times for a movie or a book, the moment a controversy starts brewing, you can tell ki kitaab aa rahi hai, movie aa rahi hai. But I would never do that because I would rather not sell at all than sell through controversy. That’s not my marketing strategy at all.
Considering the atmosphere we live in today, did you feel hesitant at any point in twisting our notions or perceptions about religious texts and having your own version of it?
I am not mangling anything. I am actually retelling an ancient version with love and respect. Moreover, isn’t the so-called atmosphere that we see actually exist in the media or Twitter alone? The left- and right-wingers can keep screaming at each other. Most of us Indians are at the centre. We probably laugh at the circus. You see them in opinion columns, in TV studios, on Twitter. Even the way of speaking to each other, on both sides, there is a lack of manners. They are more focused on vivaad rather than samvaad. Someone can have a different opinion, it’s okay. This is India, we celebrate a different point of view.
Would it be right to say that you find it safer to voice your opinion in the garb of fiction?
No, I’m going to be putting non-fiction out. My first work of non-fiction, a compilation of my articles, speeches and some fresh thoughts, will be out in August. I never comment on politics, so it’s on social issues, issues which I think about. My books, in many ways, are stories, but at the core are some philosophies that I want to speak of. The stories are wrapped around them. There are more plans my sister and I have on a series of pure philosophy books to explain the dharmic way central to Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism.
When is the next book out and what after the Ram Chandra series?
The next book in the series will be out in the later part of 2018. After this, there is Parshu Ram, Lady Mohini, Mahabharata…