The Forest of Enchantments
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,
Published by HarperCollins India (2019)
I’ve had a soft corner for Divakaruni’s writing since I first came across her work, and the projects she undertook – retellings of Indian mythology. It was this premise that got me hooked almost immediately. Coupled with her simplistic writing and excellent narration, it sowed the seeds for criticism I had of Amish’s later works. Retellings of Indian mythology often suffer from an attempt to try to force new elements of plot onto the reader, or to surprise the reader with information that wouldn’t ordinarily fit into the original tale. Divakaruni does surprise you, but her surprises feel organic, and they align comfortably with characters goals, ambitions, and weaknesses from the original epics – making her retellings believable and more human.
The Forest of Enchantments is no exception. It marketed itself as a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, but the book evolved into so much more as the plot progressed. I believe the book is an exploration of the Ramayana that gives the characters a human voice. The plot is the same as Valmiki’s Ramayana, barring a few surprises when Sita is in captivity. The perspective that Divakaruni offers, however, is one that makes the story a lot more enjoyable. You realize quickly that it is the women of the Ramayana who are ignored throughout the story, and the men who drive the tale with their decision-making and their alpha nature.
Divakaruni plays this to her advantage. It allows her to show the male characters in clear shades of black or white, with decision-making and emotional responses akin to the original epic. However, it gives her the freedom to build on the female characters. Sita, Mandodari, Kaikeyi and Surpanakha. We get to see the shades of grey, the emotional responses that make us, humans, who we are. As Sita is enamored by Ram, so are we, but as Sita agonizes and is frustrated by his decision-making, we are too. We are afflicted by the pangs of desire that Sita’s heart feel. Divakaruni shows us that at the heart of the Ramayana was a love story that forced a constant choice between duty and love.
The most poignant moments come at the end of the book. For me, the conclusion of the book makes it a must-read. The injustice Sita feels has been done to her comes to its fore, and you can relate to the range of emotions she experiences. That’s why this book is beautiful. As compared to the stoic tale the Ramayana is, there’s colour here. The rage of red, and the ache of blue: they’re all portrayed perfectly. I was left pondering how far we go for love, and what love actually deserves.
Some additional comments are reserved for the beautiful cover of the book, and the incredible typesetting. I haven’t been this enamored by a hardcover for a while now, and it will take quite the book to top this one – in terms of look and feel. This is a highlight of my year, and will prompt more reading into Indian mythology, I’m sure.