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Book Review: The Forest of Enchantments - contd

by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, India)

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The issue of habitation and territory also surfaces. In spite of Ram and Laksman confidently tell Sita that they will be doing the sages a great service by killing rakshasas in the forest, she has her own misgivings. She ponders thus, “We were visitors to the forest, which already had its own rules, its own rhythm, its own savage beauty. It belonged more to the rakshasas than to us. What right did we have to cause destruction to those who had been here long before we came?” It is a point relevant even today.

The Forest of Enchantments is also a story of sisterhood and female bonding. The closeness between Sita and Urmila, tacit understanding of Sita and Ahalya as well as the bond between Sita and all the women of Valmiki’s ashram (credited with “my spirit they saved, and thus my soul”) are endearing. After Ram’s victory in Lanka, it is Sita who requests him to entrust Vibheeshan, the new king, to take special care of Mandodari who has lost her husband, son and position as queen. This feeling of compassion towards another woman, though of the opposite faction, is both noble and exalting. It shows that female solidarity can extend beyond the rigid contours of conflict. Again, the novel is not just Sita’s story but also of the other women in the epic such as Kaikeyi, Surpanakha, Urmila and Mandodari, who are often misunderstood and relegated to the periphery. When Sita sits down to write her story, she tells the voices of these women inside her, “Yes, I’ll write your stories as best as I can, for without them, mine can’t be complete.”

The exercise of creative license tends to run overboard a couple of times. For example, Sita’s mother is shown to be familiar with reading books and later Sita and Urmila too read a scroll from Kaikeyi’s messenger. Whether women, even those belonging to royal lineage, could read in the ancient times is shrouded in ambiguity. Again, Sita receives training in self-defence in Mithila which is outlandish and impossible in the context. Barring these exceptions, however, The Forest of Enchantments is worth reading for all the right reasons. It resonates with the reader at a deeper level. “I pray that the novel lodges deep in the hearts of readers regardless of their gender; for Sita’s story has much in it to inspire and console us all,” says Divakaruni and her hopes look poised to be fulfilled.

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