This book was reviewed by Trisha Ray.
The Ramayana is one of the oldest and oft reinterpreted stories in the world. Author Kavita Kane shifts the focus to Sita’s sister, King Janak’s firstborn Urmila. Urmila is feisty, fights for what she wants and fiercely protective of her elder sister. She is a complete contrast to the demure Sita. Sita’s Sister is a glimpse into her struggles to keep her family together circumstances split them apart and their loyalties are tested.
Urmila (or Mila as the sexy serious Lakshman calls her) has long been deemed the forgotten heroine of the Ramayana. She stayed behind as the man she loved left to protect his brother in exile. In some versions, the Goddess Nidra grants her wish and put her into a deep slumber in Lakshman’s stead. I, however, prefer Kane’s interpretation. Rather than simply falling asleep for 14 years (which honestly sound like the best thing in the world), Urmila helps Shatrugana with affairs of the state and prevents Ayodhya from falling into anarchy.
One of the biggest issues I have had with Ramayana is the uni-dimensional portrayal of the women- they are either pure and virtuous or evil and scheming. Sita’s Sister doesn’t abide by these character tropes. Instead the reader gets a nuanced and complex reading, especially of the often ignored women. We see Kaikeyi, Sumitra, Urmila and Mandavi in a new light. These are all women trying to be good, dutiful wives but they are betrayed repeatedly by those they love. Kane also doesn’t fail to emphasise that they were all accomplished individuals in their own right, learned and brave.
“Does the man have no duty toward his wife and mother? You may be the best of princes, the perfect sons, the ideal brothers, probably the ideal king too, but never the good husband!”
The structuring of the story is a bit uneven, where the two month courtship covers half the book but the 14 year exile is covered in a few chapters, but I can’t really blame the author for that since complete accounts of Urmila’s life would’ve been hard to come by. I am also not overly fond of the lengthy descriptions of Urmila’s curvaceous body and Lakshman’s dark brooding looks (and the slightly clichéd descriptions of love-making) but again, Sita’s Sister isn’t meant to be a romance.
What I truly did enjoy were those moments when Urmila would get pissed off with the status quo. She is portrayed not only as stunningly beautiful, but fiercely intelligent. She salvages Sita’s Swayamvar after Parashurama threatens Ram for breaking the bow, she manages to get the scheming Manthara exposed and justly punished and slowly brings the broken family together.
Sita’s Sister is a good read, with many great moments for feminism. It is a scathing critique of the subservient role women were expected to play, even in royal families. It is also, above all, a reminder that these people, elevated to the role of Gods and Goddesses, were ultimately human. They were far from perfect, they also doubted themselves, and they too struggled with their inner demons. Ram, for all his perfection, sent his wife unwittingly to her death. The great King Dashrath was torn by paranoia, the regal Kausalya was resentful, Queen Kaikeyi insecure.
Sita's Sister is a Rupa publication, 2014
[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are Trisha Ray's own.]