A review of Sita: A Retelling of the Ramayana, and the Importance of Devdutt Pattnaik

I spent this weekend engrossed in a very readable version of the Ramayana written by Devdutt Pattnaik, called Sita: An Illustrated Retelling. This was perhaps the fourth book I have read by this author, but the first one that compels me to write this review, and also try to explain my perspective on why I think he is such an important author for India in this century.

This retelling compiles a large number of written and orally-transmitted versions of the Ramayana, from not just the many regions of India, but also other parts of the world, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Lao, and parts of South East Asia.

His extensive research and knowledge of Indic epics reflects in almost every sentence of this book, and other books. Many stories and turns of events have been examined from the perspectives of the various characters of the pic, often at odds with each other. Most interestingly to readers who have generally been exposed to the most commonly-read and distributed version of the Ramayana, Valmiki’s, the annotations at the end of each chapter discuss the different angles that these many different retellings have emphasised in that specific portion of the story.

Written with special emphasis on the character of Sita, this book attempts to delve in to what would have been her thoughts, perspectives, and actions as the narrative unfolds in somewhat greater detail than most other versions. Even though the entire epic is told around her abduction and rescue, the book examines how Sita gets the short end of the stick throughout her life, first exiled by an unfortunate turn of royal family events where she had little control and emphasis, and later cast out by a widely-adored husband, who is perhaps over-sensitive to gossip in his own kingdom.

For Indian readers, this book brings out very clearly how so many of our cities, regions, and aspects of language are influenced by or named after a series of incidents believed to have occurred around 5100BC in north India. It also lays out beautifully how the various parts of India, and broader Indic civilisations, have adapted, transformed, embellished, and enriched the story, suiting their local preferences and traditions. This tradition of local adaptation is symptomatic of how a simple story, a brave warrior prince-God fought a strong demon to rescue his wife, can be adopted by different communities in their own way, much like how ideas such as democracy, freedom, collaboration, community etc are often adopted and adapted by societies in their own ways.

Devdutt Pattnaik’s style of writing has immense relevance for our chaotic and fractious times. His writing untangles extremely complicated narratives from millennia-old epics, making them accessible to broad modern-era audiences, in a language that is neither elementary and paternalistically over-simplified, nor too academic or obtuse. Like a good historian, his descriptions allow the reader to imagine and understand the situations or the pressures on the characters, without letting the reader lose control of the broader arc of the story, like a good story-teller.

While untangling and simplifying, Pattnaik also manages to add layers and nuance to characters traditionally seen as linear and/or monochromatic, such as Ram. The protagonist of this massive epic is seen as upright, consistently fair, and exemplary. However, the narrative delves into the internal conflicts and contradictions in his mind at various points in the story, and how he resolves them. The book also traces how some of these interpretations are added by societies over the centuries as they start seeing him as divine, and do not want to see their divine hero falling short of very high ideals.

Furthermore, he deconstructs the various narratives at several levels, explaining the same story or incident in terms of the local context in which the books or stories were written, and the relevance for the broader narrative. Going beyond simple translation and retelling, his writing goes the extra mile to help readers situate the writing in the context of the era in which they were written. He provides contexts of agricultural practices of the era, the available technologies or methods, etc., and is often able to trace the historical trends/theories evident in the story, for example the move of Vedic culture from northern India to southern, or the advent of cow-centered agriculture in the Gangetic Plains, etc.

To make his books accessible to a wider audience, he compares and contrasts the events and characters with well-known ones from books of other religions, mostly the Abrahamic ones. In this book, the bullet points at the end of chapters also contrast how some of the events contrast with comparable ones in books of other religions. He allows the reader to make the comparison, without bringing in value judgements.

Very importantly for an Indian author in modern times, he does not shy away from highlighting events or trends that would be seen as discriminatory or exploitative when seen from a modern lens, such as the caste system or patriarchy. But while highlighting these shortfalls or inadequacies, he also explains how these perceptions need to be anchored in the cultural norms of the time when these events occurred, allowing the reader to judge the characters’ decisions or steps. He provides enough material for the reader to judge on each character’s actions and decisions in the context of the times.

At many points of the book, Pattnaik examines incidents that explore Indic society’s long history of tolerant and sympathetic interaction with atypical situations, such as single motherhood, non-binary genders, infidelity, excessive loyalty, torturous royal traditions, etc. These examples, also often collected in his other books such as Shikhandi, show how the Indic faiths absorb and assimilate all humans kinds of many variations and atypical tendencies, without value judgments or excessive criticism.

Devdutt’s writing is critical for India at this juncture, because it allows readers to understand how the epics have influenced Indian life, languages, culture, and social norms. It also provides modern Indian readers access to a version that they can read and understand, but also use to take these stories and epics to the next generation, further extending the tradition of transmission that has been seen for at least the last 7000 years.

Finally and most importantly, for the many Indians educated in English and often detached from Indic civilisations’ cultural context, Pattnaik is providing a body of work in simple English that sees Indian epics and Indic traditions seen from an Indian viewpoint, not a Western lens.

I congratulate Pattnaik for this exemplary piece of work, and wish that he keeps writing for the next several decades, enlightening us with his insights, while also regaling us with stories that have come across millennia.