Who speaks for Surpanakha? (14 October 2017)

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 14 2017)

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A number of Diwalis ago, as a boy of 12, I went to Nashik for some inconsequential purpose. And though it could not, at least back then, be argued that the city held much potential to animate the mind of an adolescent, I returned struck by three memorable scenes. The man in charge of entertaining us shepherded us first to a lovely stretch of the Godavari river, and then to the magnificent 18th century Trimbakeshwar temple. Dark and built from richly carved stone, the shrine once held the Nassak diamond, seized by the British in 1818 and, as of 1970, in the custody of an American trucking magnate (whose other claim to fame was that he was once husband to tennis star Gussie Moran). But what was most interesting about Nashik was not the striking temple, or tales about the legendary diamond. It was a far simpler, but very popular, site nearby, which happened, it is said, to be the scene of a pivotal episode that altered the very course of the Ramayan.

Stories about Diwali vary from place to place, but the most popular in our all-important Hindi heartland is that it commemorates Ram’s victory over Ravan, and his triumphant return to Ayodhya. Panchavati in Nashik, however, appears not on Ram’s journey back but during his years in exile. It is said to be the spot where that singular event that would pitch Ravan against Ram unfolded. And indeed, more than the great battle the heroes would fight later, it was what transpired here that highlighted their personal qualities as much as their codes of conduct. To this day, there is a cave in Panchavati where Ram, Sita, and Laxman are supposed to have dwelt. From outside it looks like a nondescript house, with doors and windows. But once one enters, as I did all those years ago, there is a flight of steps that goes underground, so narrow that one must descend squatting, its smallness causing adults of more than a certain size great inconvenience, though all visitors stand united in the inelegance of their posture.

It was from Panchavati that Ravan abducted Sita, and I was quite impressed by the image of a heroine secured in this underground vault. What my mother pointed out, though, was that this is also precisely where Surpanakha was mutilated. It was here that Ravan’s sister lost her nose (and, according to some versions, breasts and ears), and it was to avenge her honour that the Lankan king would seize Sita. The story, of course, is well established—the hero triumphs over the villain, and with his wife, whose virtue has been confirmed by fire, returns to a capital illuminated with lights. The person who seems to vanish from this happy narrative, however, is Surpanakha, whose fate, even in the most orthodox retellings of the Ramayan, seems to signify that Ram’s conduct had its moments of imperfection. After all, when the woman professed love for him at Panchavati, it was he who sought to amuse himself by sending her to his brother instead. Laxman then sent her back—till, finally furious, Surpanakha decided (not particularly rationally) to devour Sita. Sita survived, but Surpanakha lost her body part(s)—and her dignity.

In Valmiki’s Ramayan, Surpanakha is evil incarnate and has no claims to dignity to begin with. Where Ram’s “face was beautiful, hers was ugly. His waist was slender; hers was bloated. His eyes were wide; hers were deformed. His hair was beautifully black; hers was copper-coloured. His voice was pleasant; hers was frightful. He was a tender youth; she was a dreadful old hag. He was well-spoken; she was coarse of speech. His conduct was lawful; hers was evil. His countenance was pleasing; hers was repellent”. Surpanakha was a shameless ogress who openly expressed lust, unlike Sita, who is single-minded in devotion and brimming with wifely sacrifice. Surpanakha, in contrast, “at the sight of a handsome man, be he her own brother, father, or son,” tells the Ramcharitmanas, would grow “excited” and fail to “restrain her passion”. The undertone seems to be that given her unedifying conduct, Surpanakha, “foul-mouthed and cruel as a serpent”, had it coming. Her honour was irrelevant.

While most poets stuck to this narrative, not all ignored the inconsistency that Ram—who is meant to be proper in all ways—should amuse himself at the expense of a besotted lady, whatever her deportment. She may still have reacted violently if they had simply rejected her, but the insulting provocation of turning her into a joke first reflects poorly on Sita’s protectors. Kampan’s Tamil Ramayan, as the late scholar Kathleen M. Erndl notes, “not only describes Surpanakha’s appearance as beautiful but expresses considerable sympathy for her plight”. When she saw Ram, “the love in her heart swelled higher than a flooding river or even the ocean” and she made him a proposition—that a powerful woman like her could protect Ram was one of the points she advanced in her favour. In this version, Ram chats with her, and it is the next day, when she attempts to abduct Sita to imitate her form, that Laxman disfigures Surpanakha in his sister-in-law’s defence. This, perhaps, offers an explanation for the violence without blemishing Ram’s honour, though here too he does consciously entertain himself at Surpanakha’s expense.

For a boy of 12, it was a revelation to come out of a temple to Sita—that paragon of goodness—and be reminded of the dishonouring of Surpanakha—a gallant “demoness” with power and authority but who failed the test of chastity. Panchavati then went down in my mind, all those Diwalis ago, not merely as the scene where an evil king kidnapped another’s wife, but also as one where great heroes showed heroism to also be fallible, prejudice denting forever tales and songs of their valour.

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