Sita by Samhita Arni

I wonder what the headlines are this morning. My fingers itch for a newspaper, and my brain is busy – imagining, hypothesising, deducing – what the papers say today. I wonder if the news of this order will seep into the papers – whether it will find prominence on the front page, or whether it will be consigned to oblivion in the inside pages – a small two hundred word item placed near the inside margin, lost in a crowd of bright, colourful adds, so that the eye passes over it and turns to the next page. I wonder if my name will have any mention at all – or if anyone in Ayodhya will notice my disappearance. I wonder what lies will be told, what excuses will be given. I wonder what time it is, whether it is morning, noon or night.

I wonder where I am.


I am in a prison somewhere – I know that much – but the cell that surrounds me bears no resemblance to Ayodhya's state-of-the-art, modern prisons. I have seen those prisons, on many occasions I have even entered them – and they are nothing like this. They have bright, white walls, and shining, steel bars. Cells with beds that have mattresses, TVs, commodes and washbasins. Model prisons, beautiful prisons – prisons that could make a criminal yearn to commit a crime.


Here, I am surrounded by darkness, and it only by touch that I can learn anything of my environs. There is no window here, no light penetrates the dense blackness that inhabits this cell with me. The floors are made of packed earth, and the walls are built of stone. A rusty, iron door bars the entrance of my cell. There is a jug of water in one corner, I can tell, by the glimmer of water. There is no commode, just a hole dug into the ground.


Food appears at irregular intervals, a packet dropped through a hatch in the door. Once, for boredom, I examined the hatch – but it was a twisting thing, like a periscope, barred at one end.


Hours pass, days pass, but I have no way of marking them.


I grow angry. I do not deserve this. What have I done?


All for a question. One question.


I wonder what really happened to Sita. Whether, if her prison in Lanka was anything like this. I wonder, perversely, whether they have locked her up in a dungeon like this in Ayodhya. Perhaps she is even here in the next cell. I am determined, when I leave here, to uncover the mystery of her disappearance.


What have they done to her? Where has she gone? Why has she gone? Why do they want to stop me from finding out?


This prison stinks.


I salt my anger and preserve it.




There are moments of madness. When I boil with frustration. I break my nails, trying to dig a tunnel through the mud floor, I bloody the soles of my feet as I kick the hard walls, I am bruised as I hurl myself, over and over again, at the iron door, hoping that the hinges will give way, that the iron will buckle and bend.


But nothing happens.


I am crying, after one of these fits, when I hear a scratching. I follow the sound, and trace it to a tiny hole – a mouse hole, in the wall. I press my ear against the wall, and I hear someone breathing.


I am not alone.




The scratching stops. ‘Who are you?’ It's a woman's voice – low and sweet, with a strange accent.


‘I'm a journalist,’ I whisper through the hole. It's a relief to hear another human voice, to hear someone breathe. ‘Who are you?’


She doesn't answer. But after a moment, she speaks. ‘What are you here for?’


‘For asking the wrong questions.’


‘What was the question you asked?’


‘What happened to Sita.’ I state it not as a question, but as a fact.


‘Oh.’ Her voice hardens, cool and distant. ‘It's about Sita. It's always about Sita.’


I'm puzzled. ‘What do you mean?’


‘I'm a Lankan,’ she says, bitter. ‘I'm here too, because of Sita.’


She is silent after that. Moments pass, and then I hear a door rattle. I turn towards the door, as footsteps pound the dirt floor – but it is not my cell that is being opened, it is hers. I hear a low murmur of voices, I hear her shriek and yell, scratch and claw, and then there is silence. The door slams.


‘Hello? Are you there?’ I whisper again.






I fall asleep, awaken, and fall asleep again. Sometime later, I hear the door rattle, hear the dull scuffle of a body being dragged. Minutes later, I hear her cry.


‘Are you okay?’ I whisper, and immediately I realise the odd choice of words. ‘Where did they take you? What did they do?’


‘They took me for interrogation.’ She lays a particular, ironic emphasis on the last word.




‘Because I'm a 'terrorist.'‘


‘Did they hurt you?’


‘Of course.’ She sneers, through her tears. ‘But I'll live. I will.’


Silence again.




‘What is Lanka like?’ I ask her, when the silence gets too much bear.


She tells me that there are streets in Lanka, streets upon streets, filled with Ravana's old harem. Vibhishana turned all of them out of the palace years ago, there wasn't enough money to keep them – he kept the legitimate queens – Mandodiri and a few others. But the rest of them – who had lived cushy, pleasure-filled lives, have nothing now. Lanka has the best and the most beautiful whores now, remnants of Ravana's famed harem.


‘Many of your Ayodhyan politicians and soldiers come, for a few days, for the whores. It's not the whoring part that troubles me so much, to be honest,’ she adds, after a pause, ‘If that's the way you've got to make a living, you've got to do it. It's the fact that the men you sleep with are the ones who killed your husband, your brothers, your father, your sons.’


I try to imagine it – a city full of whores, full of bombed streets and soldiers. A city of widows, sisters and daughters.


So different from Ayodhya.




Just as my eyelids feel heavy, she starts to talk again.


‘My mother was raped when you won. I was a child then, eight years old.’ She pauses, and I do a quick calculation, and realise that she's barely eighteen years old. Too young to be in a prison.


‘I went with her after the last battle, after Ravana was killed, to find my father's body. There was terror in her eyes, I saw then, as she gazed at the hordes of Vanar soldiers amassed on the battlefield, she knew what was going to happen. She clutched me tight, as we searched through the piles of dead, looking for my father's corpse. She told me – everything is going to change. I couldn't understand. But it was horrible – the smell of decay, the stench of blood – slipping on the ground, slick with blood. Blood, drying on my hands, on my clothes.’


‘We came home, and later that night, we heard the drunken songs, of the soldiers as they celebrated our grief. There was fire too, spreading through our quarter, and my mother bundled us – me and my sister – into a tiny cupboard. It was suffocating. They came then, minutes later – a bunch of them. I couldn't see anything, but I heard everything – the crude jokes, the pillaging, the curses. My mother's voice pleading with them not to – just to take everything and go. But they didn't. I heard it all.’


She pauses for a moment. ‘It didn't take long, just perhaps fifteen minutes. They left the house, and my mother came – brought us out of the cupboard. She held us – but I could see, that in those fifteen minutes she had changed. She had become a different person. There was a dullness in her – I don't know how to describe it. When I asked her, years later – she told me that I couldn't understand, that I never would understand. But I think it was that, that which led me here. How unfair it was. For the sake of one woman's virtue, for the sake of one wife, so many women were raped, so many were widowed.’


‘Who do you blame?’


She doesn't say.




The interrogators pay her another visit, this time in her cell. I hear them kick her. I hear their questions.


‘What is your name?’ They shout.




‘Where are you from?’




‘What is your rank in the LLF?’


‘Who is your contact in Ayodhya?’


They beat her again.


‘You better talk, you know. You eventually will.’


She replies. ‘Tell the washerman this, then, tell him that the truth comes out. It always does.’




‘I saw Sita once,’ she tells me.


I scurry closer to the hole, and place my ear against the wall.


‘It was at the battlefield, when my mother and I had gone searching for my father. Sita was wearing white, like a widow. It was the first time I had seen her. I wanted to gouge out her eyes, to scratch her face, to throttle the life out of her – for it was on her account, that all of this had happened. I pulled myself away from the hands that restrained me, and ran across the field – stamping on dead bodies, feet slipping in blood, towards her. But she turned towards me, as I neared, and I saw her face. Tears dripped down her cheeks – hollow cheeks. I could see the shape of her skull, her bones staring at me. She was thin and wasted – only traces of beauty remained, she was haggard, pale. Not beautiful. There was a lot of pain in her eyes, her mouth was twisted – and she was crying. Not a graceful, gentle crying – but a horrible, ugly, gasping weeping.’


I can almost see it. Sita, garbed in simple, white cloth, fluttering in the wind, blood staining the edge of her sari.


‘I stopped,’ she continues. ‘I didn't know what to do – to go on and strike her? But I felt something – a sympathy, a sharing – we were both sharing grief. They – some Vanar soldiers – had caught up with me then, and were pulling me away. I tried to resist, but the fight had gone out of me. As they led me away, I turned, and saw her, still weeping. Our eyes met, for a moment – and then something flickered at the corner of my eye. I saw Ram, standing a few steps behind Sita. He looked angry and confused, he could hear her crying, but he couldn't understand it. She then turned towards him, and I suddenly revulsion flit across his face. Revulsion and anger.’


She catches her breath. ‘They took me to the edge of the battlefield, where the widows and orphans had been rounded up. I watched from there – Sita, just a white speck on a red battlefield. Ram was still facing her, neither moved towards the other. Suddenly, he turned and walked away, quickly. She tried to follow him, stumbling, but Vibhishana came to her, and gently, pulled her away. She came later, dressed in silks and dripping with jewellery, her face veiled by a gold pallu, dressed in Mandodiri's finest things, the prized crown jewels of Lanka. Vibhishana brought her back and handed her to Ram.’


‘What happened next?’ I am mesmerised, even though I know what comes next – the test of chastity. But I've never heard it told this way – from this point of view. It is a revelation.


‘That was all I saw. We found my father's body then, buried under a pile of dead soldiers. His hands were hacked off, I remember. That's all I remember. I fainted then.’




I'm still thinking over her words, a day later. Something in her memory intrigues me – something that was left out of Valmiki's version.


‘Why do you think Sita was crying, when you saw her?’


My neighbour tries to speak, but begins to cough. Her cough is horrible, racking. ‘I don't know,’ she finally manages to say. ‘I don't care, anymore.’


I am confused. I would have imagined that Sita would have been ecstatic when the war was won. But – it would have been a shock, too, to finally find your prayers answered. To finally look at the face of the husband you had dreamt of, for so long, and see anger there, and to wonder what you had done to deserve that anger. And this too – to walk on the battlefield, and see so much death, all on your account– it would have been terrible. She would be asking herself – was she worth it?


Who, in any place, in any life, is worth so much bloodshed?’




I wonder if it was like this for Sita. To lie here in darkness, to eat wretched food, and to see no end to captivity. To wonder if you will die here or if you ever see day again. To hope against hope – that something will happen, that rescue will come. The worst is the darkness. The moments when you lose track of time – how many days has it been, how many hours have passed? In the dark, you begin to see phantoms – to see dreams and nightmares take shape. Madness comes and goes. You unpick the threads of your life, unravel your past, examine it in this new, confining darkness. What went wrong? How did you end up here?


Did Sita curse her legendary beauty? Did she desire ugliness then, to come and clothe her limbs, so that Ravana would turn away from her? Did she wish for death?


But there is one important difference, between me and Sita.


An army crossed the ocean for Sita.


No one knows, or cares, that I am here.



Extracted from Samhita Arni's first novel, tentatively titled Sita, forthcoming in 2012 with Zubaan. The first three chapters were published in Caravan Magazine in the September 2010 issue and can be accessed online.

Samhita Arni is the Bangalore-based author and illustrator of the The Mahabharata – A Child's View, Tara Books, 1996, which has since been translated and published seven languages. Another Ramayana-inspired work, Sita's Ramayana a graphic novel retelling of the epic developed in collaboration with Patua Artist Moyna Chitrakar, will be published by Tara Books later this year. More on her website,