One wonders why Valmiki devoted only four lines in Ramayana on Urmila, Sita’s sister and wife to Rama’s devoted brother Lakshman, who was asked to stay back while her husband escorted his brother and her sister to the forest for fourteen long years? Legend has it that despite being ready to accompany him, Urmila was advised against it as her husband would have little time for her, other than serving the couple in the forest. She was found missing from the rest of the epic, apparently in deep sleep, only to be woken up after fourteen years to witness Rama’s coronation.
Unseen and unheard, Urmila is considered one of the forgotten heroines of Indian literature by Rabindranath Tagore. Valmiki may have considered Urmila as a minor character, but in his poetic version of the epic, noted poet Mythili Sharan Gupta has made Urmila the central character in Saket. Even in Telugu literary play Urmila Devi Nidra, Urmila has been placed on a higher pedestal than Sita as an ‘ideal wife’. Intriguing, however, is how must have Urmila negotiated the situation when she was neglected by those two whom she loved the most, husband Lakshman and sister Sita?
In her absorbing narrative recreated out of mythology and folklore, Kavita Kane narrates the story according to Urmila in Sita’s Sister. Despite being left out and let down, Urmila did accost Lakshman on his unilateral decision, wondering why he would need to go when he wasn’t exiled. Even while accepting the inevitable; Urmila does not shy away from seeking her legitimate rights knowing well that her sacrifice will help Lakshman earn nobility by serving his brother. Yet, she avoids wallowing in self-pity and emerges as a woman of courage and conviction as she conducts herself independently over the following fourteen years.
Urmila may have been wasted away in sleep, as folklore has it, for fourteen long years, but the author fleshes out a hitherto unknown character of Urmila by using the metaphor of ‘sleep’ as an interpretation for ‘self-realization’, dismissing the symbolic representation of sleep for a married woman sans her husband is supposed to sink into. Instead, she excels herself as a devoted daughter-in-law, an astute administrator, a talented painter and a great scholar.
Sharing space with respected scholars like Vashishta, Markandeya and Jaabali at the prestigious brahmanyagna, Urmila questions the rationality of religion and its influence on the nature of religious truth rather than seeking the divinity in religion. Waking out of her proverbial sleep, Urmila discovers herself not just the woman of passion as her name so defined but one whose heart and mind had come together in intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. Could she have discovered the scholar in herself without experiencing pain, separation and detachment? In fact, her separation from Lakshman became her meditation, her spiritual birth and her salvation.
Sita’s Sister discovers many facets of Urmila, which never got a respect of place in the grand narrative. In her fresh interpretation of the epic, the author delves into the life of a woman who is forced to put her life on hold. Like a tower of strength, Urmila not only tended her feminine duties towards women in the palace but lent administrative hand in the affairs of the kingdom in the absence of Bharat. Her role gets acknowledged by members of the palace as the one ‘who made it the home one wants to return every single day’. Urmila performed the dharma of a wife, a daughter-in-law but never got an answer to her nagging question ‘what is the dharma of the husband to her wife’?
By giving a fictional spin to the grand old story, the author peeps into the life of one of the prominent unsung characters and offers insights into her mind and her actions. Urmila offers contrasting images of parents’ home and the one she gets married into. While she enjoyed freedom of thought and action at her parents’ place, the royal palace in contrast was just to its people but cruelest to its own family members. Yet, she rarely resented her existence in the palace. Dissension to her was part of seeking light at the end of the tunnel.
Valmiki had reasons not to delve deeper into the psyche of Urmila who, in her own way, helped everyone in the royal palace to smile. ‘Learn to smile, that small curve can straighten lot of things’. Sita’s Sister is an immensely readable and absorbing story that lets the reader get to see other side of the story, relevant to our times.
by Kavita Kane
Rupa, New Delhi.
Extent: 311; Price. Rs 295
This review was first published in Speaking Tree (The Times of India), on Oct 18, 2015.