I have always wondered and thought that the Ramayana has nothing to offer in terms of shades of grey. I thought that it was a plain vanilla story, with nothing of value, though at the back of mind I was aware of Sita and her predicaments, I somehow did not give it too much thought. I was more focused on reading more of the Mahabharata, with its vast number of characters and intricate plot, there was no way any other mythological text could hold a candle to it. This was my opinion till I started reading, “The Missing Queen” by Samhita Arni.
I had read Samhita’s graphic novel, “Sita’s Ramayana” sometime ago, however that did not impact me much as this one has. Once in a while, I read a mythological piece of work that compels me to recommend it to whosoever I meet, and this time it is “The Missing Queen”. I cannot stop raving about. Most of it has got to do with the writing; however most of it has also got to with the plot and the new angle or twist so to say to the epic.
“The Missing Queen” is set in modern-day Ayodhya, ten years after Ram won the war and Sita disappeared basis the hearsay from the Washerman and other speculation by Ayodhya’s citizens on her chastity. Things have changed a lot since then. Ayodhya is indirectly a totalitarian state kept under strict vigilance by the Washerman and his people. Ram, but of course is the shining hero and king who looms large and makes decisions, however not without consulting some people. This Ayodhya is of television and media, of Cadillacs and malls, of consumerism and a complete dry state with bootleggers reining at night-time in shoddy basements. It is also on its way of becoming a democracy, which in a way is scary and at the same time liberating for some. Amidst all of this, a young journalist begins asking questions about Sita: What happened to her? Why did she disappear? She wants answers and does not even stop at asking Ram during an interview about Sita and her whereabouts.
She must not be asking such questions. The Washerman and his fleet chase her out of the city and she goes to Lanka in search of answers, which further takes her to Mithila. For me this was the best part in the book. Samhita has brought out different perspectives through this short book – of Surpanakha, of Vibhishana and his daughter, of Urmila and others who have been a part of the epic. While reading this book one also gets the feeling of the “other” part of the story. The question posed by the journalist seep into the readers’ head and that to me is great writing as demonstrated by Arni. There were so many places in the book where my heart just went out to Sita and also to the Lankans. That is primarily because of the writing and the world that Samhita conjures given her imagination and what happened after the war. There are so many questions in the book and also so many issues. For instance, the one line that struck me the most in the book was the one said by Surpanakha: “Do women need circles drawn in sand to protect them?” I think this is so relevant even today. Some men take it upon themselves to protect women, without wondering what they want. There are parts like these in the book that shake you up and make you question everything around you.
At times while reading the book, I felt that Sita and Ram and the Washerman were merely metaphors for who we are and our beliefs (if any) and that made me think a lot more of the plot of the book. I will of course not give away the ending. However at the end of it all, what I can say is that you have to read “The Missing Queen” to experience a different kind of tale and storytelling when it comes to mythology and more so to the Ramayana. A must read for February.