Chandrabati's Ramayan: A Book Review
by Chandrabati; Translated into English by Nabaneeta Dev Sen; Published by Zubaan Books, New Delhi; 2020; Pp. 120; ISBN: 9789385932946
Nabaneeta Dev Sen has long worked with women’s retelling of the Ramayan from across the country (in Maithili, Marathi, Telugu and Bangla languages), and I had heard her speak inimitably on ‘Lady sings the Blues: When women retell the Ramayana’ when she visited IIT-Kanpur in 2013 (http://ninapaley.com/Sitayana/Manushi_LadySingstheBlues.html ). In this book, Chandrabati’s Ramayan, published posthumously, Nabaneeta Dev Sen lovingly translates 'word by word, phrase by phrase’, but in free verse, from the original Bangla, the Ramayan composed by the 16th century poet from Mymensingh, Chandrabati. And she manages to retain the lyrical beauty of the original.
Chandrabati’s Ramayan, begins not with Ram, but surprisingly with Ravan, who having conquered the three worlds, and plundered the heavens, is revelling in the wealth and splendour of Lanka. If this is surprising, it quickly becomes clear that for Chandrabati, the question that begs the long tale of Ramayan has nothing to do with the valour of Ram, but rather—‘Such a great king was Ravan in whose curse/ Was he destroyed with all his kith and kin,/ What was his sin?’ And that brings us to Sita, for in Mandodari’s hurt and wounded pride when Ravan ‘dallies night and day/ With the divine maidens, in the Ashoka Kanan’, lies the genesis of Sita’s birth.
While Book One deals with Janmaleela, the story of Sita’s birth, and also of the bit-players, Ram and his siblings, Book Two starts with Sita as Ram’s queen, and is entirely given over to Sita’s Baromasi, the song of sita’s life over the twelve months, as Sita tells her friends of her happy life in the forest (not so much an exile filled with suffering), her separation from her beloved in Lanka (no talk of assault on her honour). The epic battle is disposed of in a stanza, but it does come to haunt her much later, when she is banished to the forest by Ram, and tearlessly tells Lakshman, “It was for my sake that Golden Lanka was devastated/ I have heard the heart-rending cries of thousands of women/ Thousands of desolate women without their sons and husbands/ Have cursed me from the depth of their aggrieved hearts/ Those dreadful curses have blighted my happiness forever”. Not power, not riches, but the suffering of other women is her portion from that epic battle.
So, Chandrabati’s Ramayan is the story of Sita, who stands stoic in the face of adversity and accepts her fate unquestioningly, for ‘I know not who my parents were, nor who my brother might be/ I am but moss on the river floating where the current takes me’; like so many women then and now, every day and everywhere in our country. But that is Sita, Chandrabati herself does not mince words when it comes to her own opinion of the king, ‘Paying heed to others’ words leads to your own destruction/ Chandrabati says, poor Ram, you have totally lost your mind.’
The afterword to this curious but familiar tale, by Ipshita Chanda, is a bonus, and a touching elegy to Nabaneeta from a colleague, friend and a scholar of her work.
Published March 2020