Surpanakha’s Legacy: No Laughing Matter

Recently in the Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a jibe at the laughter of Congress MP Renuka Chowdhury by comparing her loud laughter at his address, to one heard in the Ramayan TV serial, years ago. The reference was, of course, to Surpanakha, the unruly sister of the ‘demon’ king Ravana. Louder, more boisterous laughter erupted in the Parliament, accompanied by thunderous, appreciative thumping of desks by the political leaders of the nation. Print, television and social media were split between heaping lavish praise on the PM’s wit and equanimity in the face of derision, and outrage at the blatant disrespect shown to a woman in public office during Parliament session. Leaving aside for the moment the particularities of the incident, it may be well worth the effort to investigate why Surpanakha’s laughter or Draupadi’s wrath make so many in our cultural milieu uncomfortable in a way that Ravana’s laughter or Bhima’s wrath do not. As several scholars of the Ramayana have convincingly argued, female and male characters of the epic function in fascinating pairs and triads mirroring and shadowing one another — on the one hand we have Rama, Ravana, Vali and on the other we have Sita, Ahalya, Surpanakha, etc. For the purposes of this article, let us focus on Surpanakha. Beyond Ramanand Sagar’s television production that so took over the popular imagination of the epic story (based on the devotional Ramacharitamanas penned by the medieval poet Tulsidas), how do some other tellings and adaptations of the Ramayana portray Surpanakha, and also Surpanakha and Sita in relation to each other, when they are conventionally supposed to act as foils?

In Valmiki’s Aranyakanda (Ramayana by Valmiki: Book 3 — The Forest translated by Sheldon Pollock), Surpanakha is smitten by Rama at first sight, even as she despairs at his beauty and her own misshapenness. Wracked by lust (or lovestruck?), she approaches him directly, and upon being asked, introduces herself and pledges that for Rama’s sake, she would be willing to defy her brothers. She asks him to be her husband and threatens to devour Sita, in a fit of jealous rivalry. Rama is amused, but declines her offer politely, professing himself a one-woman man and diverting her attention to his brother Lakshmana instead. Wild with desire, Surpanakha promptly turns her attention to the younger brother, who, in the same vein, mock-praises her beauty and asks her to become Rama’s junior queen instead. Unaware of their sarcasm, Surpanakha misdirects her wrath upon Sita, whereupon Rama restrains her and instructs Lakshmana, “Never tease savage, ignoble creatures, Saumitri. Look at Vaidehi, dear brother; she is frightened half to death. Now, tiger among men, mutilate this misshapen slut, this pot-bellied, lustful rakshasa woman”. Lakshmana promptly slices off Surpanakha’s nose and ears. Mutilated and humiliated, Surpanakha roars in pain and flees back into the forest. And the rest, as they say, is mythology. Though reading this portion in the Valmiki text (recognised as the ‘original’ written version among the innumerable that have flooded the subcontinent since) gives one a more sympathetic understanding of Surpanakha’s motivations, one cannot help notice Sita’s silence, and the purpose that each woman serves towards the other’s destruction. Surpanakha is mutilated apparently for Sita’s sake, and Sita in turn is abducted ostensibly to avenge this dishonour, by Ravana. In both cases, it is apparently female sexuality and desire that makes her vulnerable to male aggression (Ram/Lakshman, golden deer). But clearly, there is more to the richly heterogeneous epic tradition than this. How have a few contemporary narratives explored the possibilities around these two characters?

In Samhita Arni’s dystopic mythological thriller The Missing Queen set in the recognisable subcontinent of today, Surpanakha’s is a story that challenges the authoritative version in two ways — as a desiring woman and as an ‘alien’ woman. Years after the main incidents narrated in the epic have occurred, and after the mysterious disappearance of Sita, an unnamed female narrator sets out on an obsessive search for the missing Ayodhyan queen, meeting along the way, several marginal characters who shed light on the Ayodhya-Lanka war. Surpanakha is now working as a militant with the Lankan Liberation Front (meant to evoke the LTTE), and she clarifies to the journalist narrator that she had desired Lakshmana, not Rama, that Lakshmana had flirted back with her and that her face had been disfigured because it was considered unacceptable to kill a woman under the Ayodhya code of honour. The link between female vanity and/ or desire, and her disfigurement is made clear here, and reminds one of the horribly misogynistic contemporary practices in our times — acid attack — though there the reason is the thwarting of male desire and not the violent suppression of female desire. Lakshmana, she rants, is “a man so narrow-minded that he can’t imagine a woman has needs and wants and can act on them”. Reflecting on Ayodhya in general, she remarks, “ In Ayodhya, it seems, people are fond of locking up their women, drawing circles in the dust to contain them, looking up skirts at every opportunity to check that a woman’s virginity or virtue is intact…Lankans are different! We believe in freedom and equality”. However, it is important to note that Surpanakha is not entirely blameless — proud and self-absorbed, she clearly manipulates everybody she can to avenge her dishonour. But, this is a result of the abuse and malign she has faced and her transition from a beautiful seductress to an embittered, vengeful woman seems to the narrator to be “the greatest tragedy of all”.

Amit Chaudhuri’s short story ‘An Infatuation’ in the excellent anthology of essays, ruminations and creative interpretations In Search of Sita — Revisiting Mythology (also published as ‘Surpanakha’ in The Little Magazine) is a short narration of Surpanakha’s humiliation, which paints an unflattering portrait of Rama and Lakshmana. Here, the conventional structure of romance narratives is clearly inverted, such that Surpanakha is the one attracted, stalking, nervous and desperate, and Rama experiences, “for the first time, the dubious and uncomfortable pleasure of being the object of pursuit”. Amused and flattered, Rama plays along for a while, before turning to Lakshmana with casual cruelty and asking him to teach her a lesson for her ‘forwardness’. Lakshmana promptly obliges, though the mutilation happens off-stage so to speak, and we hear of its description from her heartless perpetrator, who compares her to a beast in agony. Bewildered and pained, “that the one she’d worshipped should be so without compassion, so unlike what he looked like”, she goes looking for Ravana. Almost in a continuation to this plotline, is the powerful scene in Atul Satya Kaushik’s celebrated play Raavan ki Ramayan, where Surpanakha is reliving that nightmarish episode in Ravana’s court. On being taunted about her use of dark magic to transform into a beautiful woman to seduce the man she desires, she lashes out at the insidious patriarchal matrix, whereby her brother kills her husband and promises her a man of her choosing but which also precludes that a man of her choice should desire her in return, given the harsh and uncompromising standards of female beauty which disqualify her without the use of deception. Her choice was no choice at all, she laments, something that Sita too would soon discover when Ravana comes to exploit the loophole in the code book of patriarchy, whereby a Kshatriya wife must not step out before an unknown man, yet a Kshatriya daughter-in-law must not anger a Brahmin by disobeying him.

Still from YouTube video of the Odissi performance Katha Surpanakha performed by Shashwati Ghosh, choreographed by Sharmila Biswas

Kavita Kane’s Lanka’s Princess takes a largely indulgent view of Surpanakha and traces her tragic journey to becoming the monster she has always made to feel she was. After Sita’s abduction, the two women finally confront each other in Lanka. Surpanakha asks Sita who it was who loved her more, Rama or Ravana, given that Sita had sacrificed a lot for Ram, but that Ravana had staked a lot for her sake, a question that is sure to haunt Sita in later years after her return to Ayodhya. Sita in turn asks her if the whole point of the war was to assuage Shurpankha’s hurt ego, because the two men had spurned Surpanakha’s advances. To this, the latter demands, “If they found me so crass and crude and unwelcome, could they not have just politely refused me like the chivalrous warriors they claim themselves to be?” and asks why Rama had toyed with her instead. Sita’s unuttered thoughts are significant — “How could she explain to Surpanakha that in the world in which she lived, there was a deep suspicion of women’s power and desirability flaunted so openly and when unchecked by male control. Surpanakha’s overt sexuality had taken the men by surprise, amused them greatly and they had played along till the amusement had gone awry”. Sita is uncomfortable with her husband’s violence in this episode, as much as she is both, admiring and uneasy with Surpanakha’s forthrightness. Surpanakha in turn wonders if Rama’s reaction was more attributable to his guilt at a possible attraction he had momentarily felt towards her.

In Telugu writer Volga’s novel translated into English by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree as The Liberation of Sita, four of the five stories revolve around Sita’s interactions with marginalised female characters from the epics, each of whom teaches her important life lessons from their own experiences, as well as the significance of real and forged sisterhoods in one’s emancipation, the true meaning of which Sita realises in her own time and at different stages and tribulations of life. In ‘The Reunion’, it has been years since the war of Lanka has been fought, and Sita has been abandoned in the forest, where she is now rearing her sons. Surpanakha is an object of pity for Sita, as she recollects how Rama and Lakshmana had ‘tricked’ and mutilated her, all with the intention of provoking her brother Ravana into war. Sita admonishes her sons against judging Surpanakha as ‘ugly’ on the basis of her external appearance and seeks her company out of curiosity about the beautiful garden that Surpanakha is rumoured to have nurtured, which surpasses all others in beauty. Sita expects to meet a woman who is resigned to her fate, lonely and channelling her yearning for beauty and love into the garden and its flowers. Instead, she finds peace, wisdom and dignity on Surpanakha’s face and the latter is moved by the kindness, affection and maturity that she finds in Sita. Surpanakha relates her brave tale of overcoming her bodily disfigurement, grappling with body image issues, contemplating suicide, grappling with crippling hatred, jealousy and spite. Interestingly, it is in the lap of nature, and not under human tutelage, that Surpanakha learns to appreciate true beauty and love another part of her body — her hands. Thus she now uses her hands to create things and serve others, instead of lamenting the loss of that bit of herself that was more a sign of her vanity than anything else. When Sita remarks that Shurpankha is genuinely beautiful and not in need of male appreciation, Surpanakha is quick to interject that not all men are destructive and hateful and that she has found meaningful companionship with one such man, though also maintaining that she has come to understand that “the meaning of success for a woman does not lie in her relationship with a man”. She alerts Sita gently against making the mainstay of her existence the upbringing of her sons, who would inevitably leave the forest to join the kingdom in the city. Sita is touched by Surpanakha’s ‘unsolicited kindness’ and teaches her sons to never forget their way to Surpanakha’s garden.

As Helene Cixous has demanded to know of women in her pathbreaking essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (evoking the female ‘monster’ of Greek mythology), “Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a … divine composure), hasn’t accused herself of being a monster?” If dominant discourses today are quoting Surpanakha to threaten and shame women, then mercifully, her story, in all its longing, desire, self-pity, vanity and dignity, is also being scripted anew, by women and men . So let’s read her open letter to the Karni Sena, or hear her Aadhaar woes, and take heart. For, as Adrienne Riche has powerfully argued, the act of entering an old text anew is not just a chapter in cultural revolution for women, but their very act of survival. And woman, are we learning to survive!

Banner image : Spread from graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana by Moyna Chitrakar and Samhita Arni