Bhumika could have been a very simple book. It could have told you, “Look buddy, Sita needs her revenge. Times have changed – we’ve been harping on for decades about how she was wronged, about how Draupadi is a far more feministic icon than she is, and some wrongs need to be righted. Therefore, she needs to sit out this agnipariksha business – and instead, tell you what? We’ll subvert the tropes and make him do it instead. That’ll show them.”
It could have said all of that – and then sat back in the reflected glory of the rightful embers of a literarily-lit “sacrificial fire”, sacrificing the patriarchy (this time) in place of the submission, the husband in place of the wife.
It could have been all so simple: to go for the kill, and justify it through well-reasoned arguments of tipping the scales. Arguments of feminism. Arguments of vindication. And they would have all been right. But instead, Aditya Iyengar’s Bhumika chooses to let his women choose – and that singular point sets it apart from the myriad “Ramayanas” before his time.
Two Sides to Sita
Who are Bhumika’s women? Sita. And an alternate Sita in an alternate universe – Bhumika.
The story picks up from where Sita has been living in the bard Valmiki’s ashram for years – the sense of time communicated only through allusions to her greying hair, the smell of earth filling her nostrils (which fills Sita with the dread of imminent death), the inability to move as quickly and as easily as she once did – and a bitterness accrued over years of resenting husband Rama’s decision to banish her to the forest.
As she tauntingly tells a wandering minstrel who performs the more-conventionally-pleasing version of the Ramayana, “do you know what happens after Ram Rajya?” – there is more to her story than just Rama.
Cue the entrance of sage Vishwamitra who now offers up to Sita a glorious, bewildering pantheon of possibilities – through one simple question: what if she had never met Rama? What would Sita have been without him? With trepidation and curiosity, the aged Sita agrees to be shown this world through his thumb on her forehead, and Sita – and we – watch her story unfold like a fervently-wished-for feminist dream.
How Iyengar’s ‘Bhumika’ Differs From the Traditional ‘Sita’
‘Bhumika’ – which is the name Sita hears herself given in this surreal new universe – charts a path for herself that is exactly the opposite of Sita’s in the traditional Ramayana:
- Bhumika is the only one in the parallel universe who can lift and wield the bow Pinaka/in the Ramayana, it is Rama who ultimately lifts it in her swayamvara and ‘wins’ her.
- Bhumika remains happily unmarried after no man at her swayamvara manages to lift the bow/in the Ramayana, Rama does lift her bow and the duo are wedded.
- Bhumika ascends the throne of Mithila after her father recognises her leadership skills and hands it over to her/in the epic, Sita remains Rama’s wife through and through, following him on a 14-year-long exile and later, returning, only to watch from the sidelines as he rules his kingdom.
The two women have deliberately been offered different trajectories, different goals and ambitions – and yet, you feel an odd sense of watching the same woman performing acts that would’ve been mirrored by the other, had she had the chance.
Which leads to the book’s most wondrous conclusion – a catharsis for both. Iyengar appears to hint at an inevitable up-womanship between the two women were the two to meet – and yet, when the two do come face to face – in another Vishwamitra-styled contraption – miraculously, they laud the other’s choice.
Feminism and a Catharsis
Aditya Iyengar’s Bhumika finally offers catharsis to a woman who, in the words of one poet, walked into a fire for a man – and found herself pitied and pooh-poohed for her meekness in years of subsequent literature. The relief with which Sita realises that she could not have done otherwise – that it was her choice to love Rama, her choice to walk into the forest, her choice not to go back to him after he came begging for her return, years later, at the ashram – is palpable.
The realisation that she had chosen, after all, finally sets Sita free – both from her own conscience and from the collective consciousness of a society that had judged her too harshly. The finale – when Bhumika gently tells Sita – “you’ve lived your life well” – is a moving one.
If choice is the flesh and bone of Iyengar’s “version” of the Ramayana, it is also cleverly undercut by “opponents” who aren’t as black as you’d thought they would be. Iyengar paints no adversary evil – be it the Rama in the parallel universe who wants to invade Bhumika’s throne, or Bhumika’s own parents who are resistant to change.
And then, the ultimate question – what of Rama himself?
Does he survive his agnipariksha at the end? Sage Vishwamitra doesn’t tell Sita, and Iyengar doesn’t tell you. But somehow, in the midst of the realisations, revelations and catharses, it really doesn’t matter.
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