Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Book Review: The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.


Book: The Forest of Enchantments

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (CBD)

Pages: 372

Publisher: Harper Collins

Read On: Hardback edition picture above

How Long it Took Me To Read: 3 days

Plot Summary: The Ramayana, one of the world's greatest epics, is also a tragic love story. In this brilliant retelling, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni places Sita at the centre of the novel: this is Sita's version. The Forest of Enchantments is also a very human story of some of the other women in the epic, often misunderstood and relegated to the margins: Kaikeyi, Surpanakha, Mandodari. A powerful comment on duty, betrayal, infidelity and honour, it is also about women's struggle to retain autonomy in a world that privileges men, as Chitra transforms an ancient story into a gripping, contemporary battle of wills. While the Ramayana resonates even today, she makes it more relevant than ever, in the underlying questions in the novel: How should women be treated by their loved ones? What are their rights in a relationship? When does a woman need to stand up and say, 'Enough!'

Review: CBD's books are somewhat of a place of comfort for me. In her characters and the worlds they inhabit, I often find myself soothed and reminded of stories told in my family. It is a place I am familiar with. Maybe, it has something to do with being a Bengali and reading her books take me back memories of aunts and grandmothers and summers spent in Calcutta. I have read everything she's ever written, barring I think The Mistress of Spices- which for some reason doesn't quite appeal to me- needless to say, I am a fan.

Like everyone else, I read The Palace of Illusions and loved it. It wasn't a surprise that I did. The Mahabharata is my favourite epic/story/tale of all time. I will forever and more want to read different versions and interpretations of it. And to see that world from Draupadi's perspective. I WAS SOLD. I haven't read the book since it first came out and I really need to give it a re-read. I am sure I will love it now, as much as I did back then.

My enthusiasm for this book wasn't nearly as high. Simply because I am not The Ramayana's biggest fan. To me, this epic feels like a sermon. A lesson in needless self-sacrifice and full of sanctimonious characters, none of whom I grew to care about. Plus, as a modern thinking woman, I find several aspects of it deeply problematic.

So why did I pick this book up?

Good question!

First up, this is one the most gorgeous books I've seen in a long, long time! It is stunning. A work of art. I am so happy I got this book, a hardback and didn't opt for or rather wait for the paperback edition to come out.

Secondly, I'd read anything CBD writes. I love her work and I was curious to see if, after reading this book I felt differently about the characters of the Ramayana. Though, truth be told, I knew that I wouldn't change my mind in a big way, I just wanted to see if my dislike for them softened a bit.

And did it?

Maybe...

Things I Liked: 

1. The writing as expected was wonderful, the place and time and these legendary characters were all done justice to.

2. Sita- we see her whole entire life in this book. From her early childhood, idyllic and full of kindness and good people to her days in Ayodhya and it's many complicated and shifting equations and to her seemingly hard life in the forest during her exile and the year she spent in Lanka and the heartache after. We see her navigate these different periods of her life and see her evolve yet remain the same person she was raised to be. So in so many ways the Sita you see here and get to know is so much more relatable than you'd imagine. I found her more real and less Goddess and more flesh and blood woman. She was still incredibly virtuous but her thoughts were surprisingly realistic. I felt like we saw a much more nuanced Sita. She was so much more than a wife of a God, a Queen or a woman who comes across as a damsel in distress. She was a woman wronged, a wife abandoned and a single mother raising her twin boys in the middle of the forest, she had to have been more than just a woman pining away for her man.

3. The men in this book and honestly in the original epic have got to do better. I absolutely loved how Ram and even Lakshman were depicted in this book. Maybe, that's because it completely matched with how see the two brothers. While their devotion to each other is commendable, I always found it a little unnerving and honesty, a bit much. It's like there was no room for anyone else in their lives. Ram in particular always seemed a little too good to be true. So pious and so right and so good that he never seemed human to me. And in this book, we see him flaws and all.

4. The pace of this book was pretty fantastic, for all that it covers, it does so swiftly and yet doesn't compromise on content.

5. I really appreciated that we stayed with Sita throughout her life and didn't unnecessarily deviate off to see Ram's journey. I was kinda dreading that we'd have to read about Ram and Lakshman's adventures in trying to rescue Sita. But I was so happy to see that those parts of the story were not focussed on.

6. There were some portions of the story I preferred over the others. The Ayodha bits were fun, simply because we met the Queen mothers and delved into their backgrounds and tensions among them. I liked how Sita navigated her new home and how she found her place in the palace. The exile portions were interesting too, especially seeing how what seems like an out and out punishment to some, might just be, even fleetingly, a respite from royal responsibilities.

7. Lanka and it's people and seeing the havoc wrecked upon them was perhaps my favourite portion of the book. Seeing these so called monsters through a human lens was fascinating and interesting.

8. The book, apart from being focussed on Sita, also looked at other important women in the epic and gave them and their stories some importance, instead of leaving them as mere footnotes in the great story of Ram. Women like Mandodari, Surpanakha, Urmila, Kaikaiye and Kaushalya are all fleshed out and reading about them was truly enjoyable.

Things I Didn't Like: 

My edition had two typos. One towards the end was a minor one where someone's name was misprinted. This was no biggie.

But in the very beginning of the book, it said that 10 years after their wedding Ram was exiled. I think it was meant to be 10 months and not 10 years. This mistake might really throw off a reader who doesn't know the epic well enough.

I also felt like there was a lot of foreshadowing throughout the book, so in in some ways this book just assumes that you know the Ramayana, which was fine for me but might be slightly off-putting for a reader who comes into this book not being well-versed in their study of Indian epics.

Rating: 4/5

This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year and I overall really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.


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