Retelling the saga of Surpanakha
Author- Kavita Kane
Publisher- Rupa, Rs295
Unlike numerous other fictional works which have the Ramayana as their backdrop, Lanka’s Princess is set in Lanka where Ram, Sita, and Lakshman play just marginal roles, writes ASTHA JOSHI
Kavita Kane creates an interesting take on the Ramayana in her latest work, Lanka’s Princess by giving the various female characters center stage in the high-tension drama. Though Meenakshi is undoubtedly the protagonist who runs the show, we also come across other equally strong women who are resolute in their decisions and take sole charge of situations. Interestingly, the author hands the reins of the narrative to Meenakshi, the evil Surpanakha. She suppresses the bitterness which was thrown at her throughout her life but vents it later with all the power of annihilation. Though kept away from love and familial affection for the most part of her life, she grew up on hatred and vengeance destroying whomsoever crossed her path. In the character of Meenu we have a strong woman who does not tread the path of righteousness and submission. She is explicit about her needs and wishes and feels it is right to voice the same.
Meenakshi is the younger sister of the royal brothers Ravan, Kumbhakaran and Vibhishan. The royal blood runs through her too. But unfortunately she could never receive care and love from her mother whose ‘…heart sank, her aspirations drowning in a flood of disappointment and easy tears.’ The mother’s hard feelings for the daughter continued throughout their lives. And gradually it was Surpanakha who harboured extreme hatred for her entire family and saw to the complete destruction of her kith and kin. The novel deals with another set of emotions, the ones which society never attributes to womenfolk, those of jealousy, hatred and sadistic brutality. Our protagonist Meenu personifies these emotions which get magnified with every passing day of her life. Whatever normal feelings she is capable of nurturing are for her father who leaves the family and retires to the forest and for one of her brothers, Kumbhakaran who is forced away from home for six months every year. Devoid of any support from her family, she uses blackmail and manipulation to turn situations for her benefit and deems ethics and morals of little value. She knows what she wants and snatches that by any possible means. Her decision to marry Vidyujiva was sure to be followed by serious implications for her as well as her entire family. But it was her love for him that forced Ravan to invite an enemy into the family and the royal palace. She had blackmailed Ravan that she could jeopardise his conjugal peace if he didn’t allow her to marry her chosen groom. For her, though a political enemy, Vidyujiva was someone who loved her as she was and was even ready to face her family’s wrath to get her hand in marriage.
After a childhood incident wherein the young Meenu had scratched one of her brothers’ face with her sharp nails, the protagonist was given the ugly name of Surpanakha, one who had sharp and hard nails. What is a bitter reality for the young girl is that even her mother abhors her. She had learnt to defend herself without any help from anyone of her family. Her sharp claw-like nails become her best tools for defence and she doesn’t hesitate in leaving a mark on those she sees as enemies. Though for the readers Surpanakha will definitely come across as an unwomanly woman, it will be on a closer look that the readers will start feeling for her. Her tragedy lies in the fact that she unsuccessfully yearned for love and compassion all her life. Instead, the bitterness she received multiplied several times within her and came out as destructive fire. The venom on which she had fed on since her childhood poisoned each of her relationships. Her marriage and subsequent motherhood could do but little to pacify her turmoil as both her husband and son did not live long enough with her. Their deaths brought her on the verge of breakdown and she pushes herself to plot the downfall of her own people.
In the character of Surpanakha we have an extremely strong woman who is an anti-image of womanhood. She revels in the fact that she is nothing like what is expected from her and is proud of her rebellious nature. Born in the royal asura family of Lanka she is arrogant, haughty, impulsive and stubborn, much like all her elder brothers. She ceased to be embarrassed of her physical hideousness at an early stage and used it to further her motives. Her unhindered sexuality is another of her defining characteristics. She had no qualms professing her love for Vidyujiva in front of Ravan. Later, she even tries to seduce the brothers Ram and Lakshman; a futile attempt which makes her lose her eyes and ears adding to her disfigurement. Forgiving none who wrongs her, Surpanakha seeks revenge on Ram, Sita and Lakshmana and also uses them as pawns to crush her brother and his family.
For Surpanakha, no relation or friendship is above her selfish desires. She considers nothing morally sinful to achieve what she feels is her right. Through Surpanakha, the author creates a strong and formidable character who stands out in a world of powerful men. Not for a single moment does she falter from her chosen course though at times she finds herself overcome with maternal sympathies for her nephews and her loving brother Kumbhakaran. She is aware of the bloody consequences of the war she had initiated but views it as the only means to her peaceful end. Unlike numerous other fictional works which take the Ramayana as their backdrop, Lanka’s Princess is set in Lanka where Ram, Sita and Lakshmana play just marginal roles. It is interesting to have a different perspective on the events leading to the war between the Ayodhya’s prince Ram and Lanka’s asura king Ravan. To say the least, it was a war between two powerful men, instigated by a woman and fought for another woman.
The reviewer is pursuing PhD in Comparative Indian Literature in DU
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