Many of our ancient epics, i have often felt, tell you only one side of the story and even there a gender bias is evident for they are clearly stories of a ‘man’s-world’. In the Ramayana, Sita gets to go with Rama when he is asked to proceed on a 14 year exile at the insistence of his step-mother. In fact she is so insistent about it that a reluctant Rama agrees to take her along. Then there is Laxman who volunteers to accompany them. But what about his wife ~ for that matter how many even know what her name was? (Urmila for those who may not be aware was also the younger sister of Sita!) Does he ask her before making his offer to Rama-Sita? What does she do for those fourteen years? In the ‘Mahabharata’ what happens to those wives, the Pandava brothers marry and then leave behind during their exile period? Then there is the story of Buddha. There are chronicles of his enlightenment but none about the wife and son he left behind in his quest for nirvana (except for a passing reference here and there of how they too followed his path) Thats why i find it fascinating to read novels that explore the feelings and emotions of these fringe-characters often attributed just a few lines in the original legends. Tagore had called Urmila the foremost among the ‘forgotten heroines’ of Indian epic-literature. ( Just as an aside Kavita Kane’s book “Sita’s Sister” is purported to be a wonderfully detailed retelling of her legend and is next on my reading list!)
Recently on the festival of ‘karva-chauth’ a friend shared this write-up from a blog wherein an extract by writer Vikram Bhattacharya was quoted as a salute to ‘womanhood’ (what else on karva-chauth fast day?!) Feminists may not agree with the part where he creates an image of her as a self-sacrificing ideal-woman who “weathers into a shell of her former self and concentrates only on bringing up her son” (lines excluded from the quote below!!) But what i did love about it was the sass and spirit of the last part…
“He offered her the world but she refused saying she has one of her own!”
“He left her in the middle of the night, the night their son was
born. When she heard the news
she was devastated.
Yet, she did not complain but her
life lost all meaning. The only
reason for her to live now was
her son. She wanted him to grow
up to be a man that the world
would look up
Her friends and relatives came
around and asked her to forget
about the man who had left her
and start life again.
They asked her to marry again
but she refused. She was young
and beautiful and suitors queued up
outside her door, but she refused each one of them…
Then one fine day he came back !
He stood in front of her and she could hardly remember him as the man who had left her. “They call you the Buddha now?” she asked him gently.
“I hear they do,” he answered in
a calm fashion.
“What does it mean?” she further inquired.
“I think it means the enlightened one, a knower,” he informed.
She smiled and then a silence.
“I suppose we have both learned something. Your lessons O Buddha, will make the world richer in spirit, but my lesson will unfortunately remain largely unknown.”
she reflected deeply….
“ And what lesson is that? ”
The Buddha probed.
Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears, “That a courageous woman does not need anyone to complete her…..
She is complete on her own.”