Lanka’s princess by Kavita Kanè is about Surpanakha and how individual choices and mistakes they lead to can shape the destinies of those associated with us.
My memory and knowledge of Surpanakha is dependent on the reading of Ramayana while in school , and watching the epic serial on Doordarshan. Even then I was struck by the independent streak in her and thought that the punishment meted out to her was very harsh in comparison to her offence. So when I came across this book my curiosity knew no bounds.
It is an epic task to write a mythological fiction from the point of view of a character who has been maligned and vilified as an ugly monster. All knowledge about her is just that she is Ravan’s sister and when she is disfigured by Lakshman , a war is waged to avenge the act. The essence of the book is the choice Surpanakha makes and the unfolding of the events thereafter. Our choices define which part of our nature we allow to rule our minds. And that is the poignant within each of us. A small anecdote from the Puranas would make it clearer.
When the world was being created, the Devas and Asuras went to Sage Prajapati to understand the meaning of Atman, or the self. The first answer that he gave was a simple one. The Asuras accepted it and left with the confidence that they now had the power to use this knowledge as a weapon. But the Devas, led by Lord Indra were not satisfied with the answer. They kept cross-questioning the sage trying to grasp the complete significance and debating the ideas. This small anecdote from the Puranas defines the essence of an Asura – impatient, hungry for power and impulsive. One can also conclude from here that there is an Asura and a Deva within each of us. There is an Asura which always hungry and never satiated and a Deva which keeps questioning so as not to to be distracted fro the right path. It is our choice of the self that determines the events in our life.
The book opens with Krishna, who upon seeing Kubja, the hunchbacked woman of Mathura, recognises her as a reincarnation of Surpanakha. He reveals to her that he himself is Ram, now born as Krishna and has come to her to rectify the grave misdeed he committed in his previous life – of rejecting her. He begins to narrate Surpanakha’s story from the time she was born as the youngest child of Rishi Vishravas and his second wife Kaikesi. She was born Meenakshi – the one with the fish-shaped eyes. Since her birth she is rejected by her mother as an ugly and useless being. Her life as a kid at her father, Rishi Vishravas’ ashram was desolate, where she is neglected and overshadowed by her brothers. Even as Lanka’s Princess,she is again neglected and side-lined; It is only when she weds and becomes a wife and a mother does she find love and a sense of belonging.
And when all that is lost all that is left behind is simmering angst and bitterness. The later incidents and experiences keep fueling her inner desire for revenge, even at the cost of those few that she loves. She sets into motion the events that finally lead to Lanka’s war and the downfall of her entire race.
Alongside, there is unraveling of events leading to the rise of Ravan as King of Lanka and the ensuing effect it brings on his family, more predominantly Surpanakha’s life. The reader may sympathize with her for being the neglected child, while at the same time despising her for her vengeful tactics. The author portrays her not as a good or bad character, but simply as a misunderstood woman who, in her own eyes, is merely righting the wrong done to her when her one chance at happiness has been taken away.
The timeline is fast and keeps readers on tenterhooks such that you do not lose interest. In true Ramayana style, the author raises underlying questions about right and wrong, good and evil, gender discrimination, and women’s rights. An example of this is the confrontation between Surpanakha and Sita. The very attempt by Surpanakha to tempt Ram was unbeknownst at that time where women were not expected to be sexually active and and open about their own desires. Her boldness is a stark opposite to Sita’s meekness and it comes across vividly in every page where she clearly expresses her desires.
To summarize, Lanka’s Princess may be a mythological retelling of events. However in today’s day and age, when women are still subjected to various forms of discrimination, the author puts the spotlight on a woman’s individuality, her sensuality and sexuality, her choices and her desires, which the society wishes to keep hidden behind curtains.
As one reads the book, one cannot help but ponder whether we happen to identify the Asuras and Danavas that exist among us in the form of molesters, murderers, rapists, thieves, etc. Can we look into the mirror and see ourselves as we truly are, not black or white, but grey also when the demons within us shouts ‘tit-for-tat’ when faced with discord. What Lanka’s Princess will leave you with is a food for thought. You will spend days thinking whether Ram and Lakshman have been on a pedestal due to worth or the male dominated society list virtues only for womenfolk to follow.