The story of Ramayana is a tale of epic proportions, entwining within itself the untold story of many, or may I say particularly women, where they have always been either demonized like Surpankha or Tataka marginalized like Sita or Manthara or completely forgotten like Shanta (Ram’s elder sister).
Ramayana has always been considered a tale of the triumph of good over evil and it is upon this foundation that its teachings have been preached for centuries. It isn’t just a mere fictionalized story but a face of Indian culture. Its story lives and breathes through us as we make a way for it to the coming generation.
Valmiki’s Women written by Anand Neelakantan even when considered fictionalized presents the epic in a manner that can't be questioned and isn't biased towards the conventional narrative of the epic, particularly in the Hindi heartland.
It humanizes its characters and presents their side of the story where they aren’t waiting around to plot revenge against the protagonist but rather living their lives ordinarily.
Neelakantan in his book crafts five tales, having their origins in the traditional telling of the epic. It opens with Bhoomija, an agonizing story of two karucha birds, their killer, and the heavy price their love pays which becomes the inspiration for Valmiki’s parable known as Ramayana. Written with empathy it serves as a gentle reminder for all about the joys that one experiences often stems from the turmoil of others.
The second story features Shanta, the forgotten sister and the first rightful heir of Ayodhya. In the author’s retelling, Shanta isn't fierce like her infamous step-mother Kaikeyi who supports and teaches her customs of the royal court, making Shanta ready for handling her land despite everyone’s wishes. Nevertheless, her strength of character and the willingness to sacrifice her future for the rights of others, overlooking the harshness she has been subjected to by her own father for years in his neurotic search for a son deserves all the praise. She emerges as an extraordinary character untainted by the ulterior motives of others.
Coming to Manthara, who sowed the seeds of what transpired ahead, she is one of the most attacked characters in Indian mythology. The author attempts to provide the reasoning behind her motives. Having lived a life of poverty and shame owing to her disability she is constantly ridiculed for the same, more so for her frightening visage but in a twist of fate, she is given the charge of the royal heirs of Kaikeya, where an ugly hunchback is accepted and loved by an orphaned young princess Kaikeyi. Manthara’s fierce loyalty to Kaikeyi stems from this acceptance which she never experienced from others to the extent that the line between morality and trecharory blurs in the mind of Manthara when she feels that her daughter is being tricked by the hands of Dashrath when Ram is announced as the future king of Ayodhya. However, her unswerving loyalty at the cost of her personal happiness is rewarded with nothing but further humiliation.
Finally coming to Tataka and Meenakshi aka Soorpankha who conventionally have been depicted as vile, lusty demonesses always on the hunt, disrupting the holy rituals of the sages are written as strong-minded women who didn’t stand still and watched meekly but fought for their beliefs. Living and dying as they saw fit rather than surrendering to the so-called holy men of Bharat Varsha.
And as someone has rightly said, “Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter”. Anand Neelakantan ‘Valmiki’s Women’ depicts the stories of these lionesses. Where one can observe his commitment towards giving voice to the always marginalized, proving his role as a contrarian writer he unveils the unfair treatment of its women characters in the patriarchal version of the Ramayana.