Manjula Padmanabhan’s Three Virgins and Other Stories (TVAOS), a collection of ten short stories, each one weirder – in a good way – and bolder than the other.Reading this immensely diverse collection, I was struck by the author’s capacity to bring to life such a disparate range of images and narratives. From expat vampires in Delhi to a cyber-punk feminist retelling of the Ramayana, one thing that binds these distinct stories is Padmanabhan’s subversive slant. Each of the stories push the boundaries of ‘normal’ and question the rules of storytelling that we are so used to.
As I am obsessed with Hindu mythology the stories that stood out to me most were Padmanabhan’s two re-interpretations of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The Ramayana along with the other great Hindu epic the Mahabharata plays an important role in the Hindu and to an extent the Indian nation’s psyche*. It’s good vs evil narrative and trope of Sita as the idea all suffering woman and wife are well-worn storylines that have influenced the Indian socio-cultural schema for centuries. They echo in the nation’s socially constructed values, literature and even in Bollywood plot lines.
I have huge problems with this.
When it comes to the portrayal of women, and therefore the role of men and women, in Hindu mythology it becomes hard for me to reconcile my feminist, woman and Indian identities. As a feminist I begin to question whether I can truly be at home in a literary culture that demands the gender binary and quarantines women to the labels of matriarch, wife, beautiful and self-sacrificing (and men to shackles of masculinity of course).
Padmanabhan’s two stories, Exile and The Other Woman are feminist retellings of Ramayana. They both highlight and reframe the problematic elements of the original tale.
Exile is the famous Ramyana with a twist. Not only are the protagonists female, the story is also set in an alternate sci-fi universe where Earth is an ancient planet ruled by robots and machines. It is the story of Rashmi (as Rama), her husband Siddganshu (as Sita) and her sister Lakshmi (as Laxmana).
The Other Woman is the story of Mandodari, an important but often ignored character in the Ramayana. She is Ravanna’s sister and in the original tale the war between Rama (the good) and Ravanna (the bad) starts of with Mandodari. In Padmanabhan’s version Mandodari, from a futuristic and alternate universe wakes up from centuries of silence to ‘set the record straight’. Her alternative story of the war is meant to challenge the good vs evil narrative of the Ramayana and reveals the inherent power dynamics in all historical, religious or cultural tales. They are framed by the victors and exist to set boundaries of Us Vs. Them.
Padmanabhan’s technique of using science fiction to challenge the narrative is a useful one for anyone struggling with problematic issues in a personal text. Here she has reframed the issue and takes us beyond the questions of whether or not the Ramayana is a problematic text for feminists like me. It flipped the question on it’s head and made me ask the ‘what if’ questions. What if important folk and mythological stories of a culture were written by women? What if they were written not as the an echo of the past but the future? What if they were written by the ‘losers’?
* I want to point out that Indian culture owes its richness to many religions and peoples and not just Hinduism, but here I am focusing on possible revisions of the Ramayana – which happens to be a Hindu mythological epic.
I got my copy of the book from the amazing feminist publishing house Zubaan Books. They also do international shipping!
Manjula Padmanabhan is an Indian author and columnist writing in varied genres including science fiction and dystopia. Check out her website and list of published works here
R.K Narayan’s Ramayana is a good (and quick) introduction to the epic in English. Only 200 pages!
Some other feminist interpretations of Ramayana and the Mahabharata from the perspective of Sita or Draupadi:
- The Liberation of Sita, Volga (Ramayana from Sita’s perspective): http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31680189-the-liberation-of-sita
- The Palace of Illusions , Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Mahabhrata from Draupadi’s perspective: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1774836.The_Palace_of_Illusions