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What if the world was different? No, really. Lots of people say that, and wish it profoundly, sometimes with the light exasperation of a parent whose child refuses to eat vegetables, or with the more rooted weariness of a person fighting homelessness or racism, and sometimes with several different spirits simultaneously, always rebuking the infuriatingly persistent distance between what is and what should be. I suppose I mean: What if we could move the world along, into that distance and toward better? I will have begun writing this column long before I will know the results of the election, but it occurs to me that a reflection on hope and some justification for it is on the cards.
I wrote some weeks ago about the “Mahabharata” and hypothetical possibility, but the South Asian storytelling consciousness seems to have understood rewriting reality — producing, through literature, alternate universes — on a more meta scale, too. One, for instance, called the Ramayana after its protagonist king Rama and traditionally attributed to Valmiki, is fit to be a universe of its own, brimming with lush details, scaffolded by personal relationships and enmeshed by a system of values. At the end of many versions of the Ramayana, accusations are laid against Rama that his wife Sita might have been unchaste while in captivity against her will, and that he should not have taken her back. Eventually, the accusations lead him to abandon a pregnant Sita in the forest. Bhavabhuti, an 8th century Sanskrit dramatist is disenchanted by this and writes the “Uttararamacharita”: a universe in which Rama eventually welcomes Sita back.
There is no shortage, in South Asian literature, of authors innovating plotlines from the longer epics, but the “Uttararamacharita” is unique in the way it presents its innovation, conscious of the way it separates important figures from the traditional narrative. For instance, the drama opens with Rama and Sita looking together at a gallery of portraits depicting scenes from their life together. I see them in my mind’s eye, walking alongside these masterful paintings, aware and even accepting of how people tell the traditional Ramayana. Operative is the distance, the idea that the characters may point to themselves in the portraits — like sitting in a car on the driveway in the evening and seeing your house lit from the inside. Certain plot elements interrupt their connoisseurship, and Rama and Sita are left to actively generate — paint, even — the rest of their story.
Four of the play’s seven acts take place chiefly in the forest, a space overrun by Rama’s memories of Sita, where Rama voices his agony, confusion, and sorrow over his moral choice. He knows in the drama that he stands at a forked path: at one hand proceeds the traditional narrative, in which he abandons Sita forever, and at the other lies the quiescent possibility that he might reunite with her. Although literary innovation is any author’s way of choosing among the many alternate universes of the Ramayana, Bhavabhuti extends the exercise and imagines what it might be like for Rama himself to see his life and story from the point of view of an alternative.
While Rama is in the forest, brooding over whether he should bring Sita back, Sita is also in the forest where she was abandoned. By some divine spell she is invisible to him, though she hovers around him and even touches him, trying to comfort him, responding to his cries of lament though he cannot hear. At one point, when he loses consciousness under the weight of his memories and her touch revives him, Sita says, “I feel as if the life of the entire universe has returned.” Sita’s touch—to Rama, like “forgiveness incarnate” — washes the current reality in a new light and seeds an imagination of a universe in which Rama might bring her back, the better outcome for Bhavabhuti gradually replacing the others. The “Uttararamacharita,” then, allows Rama to imagine and construct the alternate universe that he chooses, despite the nature of the one he was given. He thinks about what it will be like to live with his wife after twelve years of being away from her, what it will be like to know his children. It is about more than making a “better” choice or distancing yourself from the “bad” ones: It is about imagining, in full form, what an alternative looks like with yourself in it, and believing not that it could exist, but that it already does.
Bhavabhuti’s drama does not efface any of the traditional Ramayana. Rather, it bends space and time, giving us an impression that although the Ramayana has ‘taken place’ many times, it is still unfolding in real time in the “Uttararamacharita,” and so there is no “before” and no “original,” only “other Ramayanas.” So, too, is it an argument for the way the Ramayana and our other cherished narratives need to be told again and again, not necessarily to eventually get them right, but because doing so is a practical expression of hope. In our tiredness, in our frustration with the ever-increasing distance between the way the world is and the way it should be, we must not lose sight of this fact. There may be more to the universe and its story than we know.
Pranati P. Parikh ’21 is a joint Religion and Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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