‘O Urmila, will the world ever know of your inner suffering, your divine sacrifice?’ Sita Sister is maybe Kavita Kane’s attempt to answer this very question. A rendition of the Ramayana written from the point of view of one of the lesser known characters is what this book intends to be, but in the midst of it all, it is a story of a beautiful, strong and intelligent woman, who was, mostly ignored throughout centuries of mythological studies and research on Ramayana.
Urmila the true-born daughter of King Janak of Mithila, sister of Sita and Lakshman’s wife. A woman who had suffered as much as anyone else during Ram’s exile. Even though Valmiki has described Urmila’s sacrifice of not going along with Ram, Sita and her husband Lakshman as an unparallel sacrifice in his book, he had spared only a few verses to Urmila’s story. Kane, on the other hand, gives dimensions to Urmila that has yet been unknown.
Of course, as Valmiki has described, her sacrifice was maybe the most interesting part of her life, but saying that sure robs Urmila of the multidimensionality that Kane has beautifully endowed her protagonist with. Saying that Urmila’s life was all about her sacrifice makes her look like a docile feeble woman who was asked to stay home when her husband had to go protect his brother while she stayed home, in the meantime using her time, fourteen long years, in studying or sleeping (there are two versions, one that says she studied and became a highly respected scholar of the scriptures, which Kane has adopted in her book, and the other where she asked Nindra the goddess of sleep to take away Lakshman’s sleep so that he can perform his duty to protect Ram and Sita while Urmila herself would sleep in the entire period of the exile).
Kane’s Urmila is learned and loving, sensitive yet strong, hot headed but mature. In a book based on mythology and religious scriptures Urmila is many times mentioned to be non-religious and practical. Kane’s Urmila dotes on Sita, knowing that Sita is adopted and yet more favoured by her parents. Without being a brat about it, Urmila is understanding and at some point even forgives her parents for the injustice. Being the trueborn princess of Mithila, she is preferred over Sita, who marries Ayodhya’s ‘king to be’, Ram. Urmila falls hopelessly in love with the brooding Lakshman knowing that she will always come second to him, his first priority being his brother.
Even when the fourteen years of exile is suggested she breaks down only for a moment in utter despair but brings herself together just as quickly understanding Lakshman’s priorities. But the beauty of this Urmila is that she argues, she fights and even if she does not win all the time she lets her voice be heard. She fights for Mandavi’s (her cousin and Bharat’s wife) sake at Chitrakoot. She lashes out at the sages and scholars and questions her husband and her brother’s duties towards the women in their family. She takes royal decisions while the princes are away, she tries to bring peace to a family.
While Ram, Sita and Lakshman are in exile Urmila becomes a respected scholar. What is interesting is that Kane’s book has its own brand of feminism, where Urmila’s break the barriers of being just a wife. Kane says that the self is not gendered. That the mind is the great leveller, the great egalitarian truth. Urmila is a painter and a scholar, she calls a spade a spade and not once has she cowered down because of circumstances. Lakshman loves her not because she is docile but because she isn’t. And here one can see the great difference that is between her and Sita.
While Sita is the perfect daughter, the perfect wife one cannot help but be impressed with Urmila and her hot heatedness. Urmila openly criticises Ram for letting Sita questioning her chastity after her rescue from Lanka. She fights with Lakshman, debates with the learned sages, and even stands up to Kaikeyi and Manthara.
Sita’s Sister also bring forth other facets of the characters of Mandavi and Kirti, Bharat’s and Shatrughna’s wives. The blacks, whites and greys in the characters of the royal queens Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi.
It is an interesting read and Kavita Kane has made sure that the hitherto unknown character of Urmila shines bright throughout the book. The book wavers a lot from the popular storyline of Ramayana and thus comparing them is meaningless. The book lags a little near the end, after Ram’s exile. And it leaves the readers with many questions to ponder upon. Had Urmila been a renowned scholar if Lakshman had stayed? Was it right for Urmila to accept being the second choice for not only her parents but also her husband? Is there virtue in loving selflessly without getting a similar kind of love in return? And most importantly as Lakshman’s mother Sumitra puts it, ‘Did he (Lakshman) deserve you? Did we deserve you?’