By Artika Raj:
Urmila felt a fury she had never experienced before: it was white hot, and smouldering… ‘So be it, Bharat, like your brothers, Ram and Lakshman, you too shall live a life of an ascetic, free from the bond of love and worldly care…‘Today, in this room, we have talked about all sorts of dharma – of the father and the sons, of the king and the princes… But is there no dharma of the husband for his wife? No dharma of the son for his mother? Is it always about the father, sons and brothers?’
A brief four-line mention is what Urmila, Lakshman’s wife and Sita’s sister, got in the magnum opus that was Valmiki’s Ramayana. A young wife left behind to serve her in-laws at her husband’s command while he went off to fulfil what he considered his duty above all else. From the author of Karna’s Wife, Kavita Kané, this is yet another story that puts the spotlight on a lesser known character, that of Urmila (like it was Karna’s wife Uruvi in her first), who is Janak’s biological daughter and yet is never called Janaki – an epithet reserved for the divine born Sita.
Beautiful and bold, Kané’s Urmila is that feminist voice which has never really been heard in a story that expounds upon feminine virtue in the figure of Sita – devoted, ready to testify to her purity, following humbly in her husband’s footsteps. Urmila in contrast is the outspoken scholar who questions all these misogynistic norms, even as she does her supposed duty and pines for that husband who has left her.
Drawing generously on her artistic license, Kané does a commendable job in creating a strong feminist narrative for Urmila, voicing questions and concerns about the brothers that one would seldom think of, given the pedestal on which they’ve been placed in popular imagination. But what strikes one most about the book is its language. Kané’s language isn’t of the high-brow sort as one would expect from something that uses the classical epic as a background, but fast and pacy with the conversations at once familiar and yet slightly jarring when one thinks that these are characters we’ve grown up revering. So when Lakshman angrily exclaims ‘What the hell!’ on spotting Manthara lingering around his palace, one can’t help but smile – this is that Lakshman, serene and sedate with a dhanush on his shoulder, flanking Ram through all his trials and tribulations, the devoted brother, the warrior prince – on our calendars and on altars worshipped.
As romance blooms between him and Urmila, in intense gazes and his unbraiding of her hair, there are all the usual pot-boilers in this book – love, anguish, hurt and the happy ending. While this may not be the best pick to know mythology, it’s a good example of the flexibility our literary traditions hold within them, that allow such tales to prosper. And it is to the writer’s credit that she can dig them out so fluently and seemingly effortlessly.