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Friday, March 9, 2012

International Women’s Day

As a happenstance, an interesting caption popped up on the net: “What is there to celebrate around the world on International Women’s Day?”—an interactive conducted by The Guardian, UK. More than the caption, what one finds interesting are the responses some have posted under it: “Nothing because it all goes back to being the same on March 9”; “Nothing from our antipodeans?” 

Interesting, aren’t they? 

This predicament raises an open question: Can we [man and woman]not see each other as human beings, rather than seeing as the other? Should this happen, the scope to appreciate the underlying commonality between the two—'humanity'—increases. This, in turn, is more likely to make men look at women more appreciatively and vice versa. This is sure to open one’s heart to the other, rather than riveting it to one’s own kind.  

Once we start looking at ourselves as human beings, we tend to open up to a variety of experience, which is more likely to enable us to shun stereotypic behavior. As aping the past is forgotten, the chances of our becoming what we want to become stand increased.   

This needs to be thought over … certainly not as what Edward R. Murrow said, “many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices”… more importantly needs to be given a sincere try. And male or female, no matter who one is, what such thinking calls for is: “spirit of motherhood”.  

For, such spirit alone helps human beings in maintaining social relationships that are essential to keep the life going alright on this planet. It is essential for both genders to realize that they have to negotiate their way forward with the active support, that too emotional support, of each other. This becomes a reality only when they have mutual concern and love—in fact, it matters more than mutual respect. Indeed, a fair percentage of population does practice this philosophy. It is the aberrations in this practice that are causing all the heartburn and at times social outcry. If we do not break away from these aberrations, cannot make this number miniscule, they will continue to haunt mankind. There is a need for attitudinal changes in the society, which is possible only through proper education. 

All this reminds me of what Maya Angelou once said: “We cannot change the past, but we can change our attitude toward it. Uproot guilt and plant forgiveness. Tear out arrogance and seed humility. Exchange love for hate—thereby, making the present comfortable and the future promising.”

Else, as stated by someone above, tomorrow becomes yet another 'today'  --  same day. That certainly, makes no sense.

So, let’s give it a try.
*   *      *       *

On this occasion, a story originally written in Telugu by Volga (a.k.a. Popuri Lalitha Kumari), Telugu writer — Vimukta (The Liberated)—is posted here in English.

‘Volga’ is the pen name of Ms. Popuri Lalitha Kumari. She was born in Guntur in 1950. She took her Master’s degree in Telugu Literature from Andhra University. She had her share of political action: for sometime as a member of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and later as a participant in the naxalite movement.
 From 1973 to 1986, she worked as a Lecturer in Telugu at VSR and NVR College, Tenali. Currently, she is the General Secretary of Asmita Resource Centre for Women. She is a member of the editorial collective for vanTinTi masi (Soot from the Kitchen), a feminist publishing house, and is also a member of the Telugu advisory panel for National Book Trust of India.
She has to her credit three collections of stories—Rajakeeya Kathalu (Political Stories), Prayogam (Experimentation), and Bhinna Sandarbhalu (Varied Contexts)—seven novels, and two compilations of literary essays.
Indeed, it is her novel, Svecha that made her a name to reckon with in Telugu literature, besides winning her the prestigious Chatura Award in 1987. She has been exploring the feminine experience in her writings. She is today in the forefront of women’s movement. 
Image - courtesy:  

(The Liberated)
Original story in Telugu by Volga
Translator GRK Murty

Having finished the fourteen years of exile in the forest, overcoming in the process innumerable difficulties, and crossing the vast ocean, when Sita, Rama and Lakshmana returned to Ayodhya, the whole palace turned out to welcome them.
Except Urmila! 

The eagerly searching eyes of Sita could not find Urmila anywhere. The hug of mothers-in-law, pleasant enquiries, the friendly words of Mandavi and Sruthakeerthi, their services—none of them could enter Sita’s mind.

As quietness returned a little later, drawing Sruthakeerthi nearer to her, Sita whispered, “Where is Urmila?”

Sruthakeerthi’s face turned pale. On seeing her face, Sita became anxious.

 “What happened to Urmila? Is she all right?” 

Though she understood her anxiety, Sruthakeerthi didn’t know what to say. It had been fourteen years since she saw Urmila.

“Why do you stare silently? Where is Urmila?” Sita asked anxiously.

“I don’t know how Urmila is. I haven’t seen akka[1] since you left.”

Sita could make no sense of it. Wondered she might have heard wrongly. Said loudly again: “Sruthakeerthi, I am asking about Urmila.”

“I too am speaking about Urmila. After you people left, she didn’t appear before anybody. She didn’t come out of her chamber. Nor did she allow anybody in.” 

Sita was stunned.

“You mean none! Mothers-in-law too?”

“Didn’t allow anybody. Maid servants were, of course, going in and out. Entry into her chamber is granted only to Charumathi. She kept us posted about her welfare.”

Sita felt breathless. 

Without talking to anyone—without seeing any of her kith and kin, that too, for fourteen years…. How could she.... How wounded her mind might have been when she decided to stay like that? Fourteen years! Will she pardon Rama, Lakshmana and me?

“Did Urmila know that we were coming?”

Sruthakeerthi put down her head.

Sita made an attempt to immediately go to Rama but realized it was impossible to reach him for he was surrounded by ministers, brothers, and prominent personalities of the town.

In the meanwhile, Sruthakeerthi brought a lady to her.

“This is Charumathi.” Sita didn’t delay any further.

“Let’s go amma[2]—go to Urmila.”

“She won’t see anyone,” said Charumathi matter-of-factly.

“If she comes to know that the very persons, because of whom she had secluded herself, have come, she will definitely come out to see. Let’s go.”

With her eyes, Sita directed Charumathi to go. It appeared to Sita as though Urmila’s chamber was miles away. Despite her walking for long, it was nowhere near.

*  *  *  *  *

All through her exile in the forest, Sita constantly wondered how beautiful it would have been had Urmila too been with them along with Lakshmana. Sita used to feel that as Rama and Lakshmana wandered in the forest busy with their engagements, she and Urmila would have together enjoyed the beauties of the forest.

Why didn’t Lakshmana bring Urmila with him? Whenever she raised this topic, Lakshmana maintained a studied silence—never opened his mouth. 

It was all pell-mell when they were going to the forest. It was full of confusion.

Dasaratha’s ill-health, Kausalya’s sorrow—the whole palace was chaotic. Getting the consent of everyone to her going to the forest had in itself become a big task. It was only after crossing the Sarayu river and when her mind had relaxed a little, it dawned on her that Urmila hadn’t come with them. When Sita realized that Urmila hadn’t intervened in this whole affair, nor come to see them off, her anxiety increased. 

Driven by it, she used to repeatedly question Rama.

“Didn’t Urmila say, ‘I’ll come’? How sad she must have felt when Lakshmana was coming alone. Did she feel life in the forest would be frightful? If it was true, it would have been right if Lakshmana stayed back in Ayodhya; is it fair of him to come with us—for our sake—leaving her alone?”

Whenever Sita spoke in that vein, Rama used to console her with appropriate explanations. Urmila should stay back in Ayodhya to serve the mothers-in-law. Else, who would take care of Kausalya? Instead of staying back and taking care of Kausalya, who had been widowed and deprived of her son’s company, Sita had come to live in the forest. Who else did she have other than Urmila? For three mothers-in-law, shouldn’t there be at least three daughters-in-law? Importantly, someone must always be around to care for amma[3], Kausalya. 

Rama used to offer many such explanations.

There would be so many duties that needed to be attended to in the palace. As a queen, Kausalya used to execute them efficiently. Now, Kausalya had neither the strength nor the interest. Who could shoulder the responsibility, if not Urmila? 

“Sita, tell me—in this regard, isn’t Urmila more efficient than you? When we were in Ayodhya, didn’t amma assign more responsibilities to Urmila than to you?”

Saying “Yes,” Sita used to contemplate. Urmila was efficient in such public affairs. She could command with a mere stare. She knew all the duties of the palace. In this regard, even father used to praise her.

Father used to say, “You don’t have the kind of interest you reserve for archery and strolling in gardens, for the rest.”

True. Sita had no liking whatsoever for the duties associated with the palace and their execution. Playing in the gardens, practising archery, relaxing in the lap of nature—that was enough for Sita. Even after coming to Ayodhya, Sita did not evince any interest in taking over the responsibilities from her mother-in-law. But Urmila used to hang around Kausalya all the time.

For Sita, forest-dwelling proved to be better than living in the palace. Here, one gets people only to be friendly, to be courteous, but not to show off power. And that’s what was dearer to Sita’s heart. 

“It’s not necessary that what’s dear to you must necessarily be dear to Urmila. You are the child of Mother Earth. You are a nature-lover. Urban-living and exercising the power of palace might be dearer to Urmila.” Despite Rama’s best efforts to console her, Sita used to worry about Urmila.

After all, isn’t coming to terms with the separation from one’s husband the most difficult? 

Sita understood it well during her forced stay in Ravana’s custody.

Knowing that Sita is a lover of nature’s beauty, Ravana kept her in the Ashoka garden. Its beauty was beyond description. Such a beautiful garden could not be found either in Mithila or Ayodhya. Ravana could at the most yell at Sita madly, but daren’t stare at her face. He was most inconsequential to Sita.

Yet, having been abducted, sitting quiet, waiting for her husband to come and rescue her, became hell for her. 

Rama will come. He will kill Ravana. Sita had no doubt about it. But what she found most distressing was her having to sit quiet, doing nothing, refraining from using her ability to protect herself.

Once Sita asked Rama, “What is it that you like most in our relationship?” 

“To protect you always, just as the eyelid protects the eye. I alone should remove even the thorn that gets stuck in your foot. I must kill the wild animals that attack you. The very thought of my protecting you gives me more pride and joy than even my lordship over Ayodhya kingdom,” said Rama.

“I can protect myself. I am no inferior to you in archery,” said Sita smilingly. Rama’s face turned pale.

“So long as I am alive, there arises no need for you to protect yourself. Shouldn’t arise. You must look to me. You must look forward to the protection of my strong arms. If you can protect yourself, what am I for then? Promise me not to do that ever.”

Holding Rama’s palm in hers, Sita promised him.

Upon abduction, there was no other way for Sita except to wait helplessly in the Ashoka garden. Then, in that agony of separation from her husband, Sita often used to remember Urmila.

“How could Urmila endure it? My dear sister, why have you stayed there?” 

“Why that attachment to the palace?” She used to thus take Urmila with her in her agony.
Finally, Ravana was killed. The ‘agnipariksha[4] was also over. 

When Rama said proudly, “Ayodhya is awaiting the arrival of Rama and Sita,” Sita’s anxiousness to see Urmila heightened. 

“How happy Urmila might be. How beautifully she might have got her chamber decorated! How she would adorn herself for that minute when she would be in front of Lakshmana! After reaching the palace and saluting mother-in-law, I will go to Urmila along with Lakshmana. Handing over Lakshmana to Urmila and watching their merriment—even if it is an intrusion into their privacy for a while, I must first go to Urmila’s chamber, and only then shall I go to my chamber.” Imagining that scene again and again, Sita was enjoying herself immensely. And seeing her—

“Glowing with joy, how beautiful your face is, Sita,” said Rama.

“The very thought of Urmila’s joy made my mind, feel happy,” said Sita with a sweet smile. 

Rama too shared Sita’s joy. Seeing Lakshmana, both cast a smile that was loaded with meaning.

Seeing his brother who, for his sake, had put up with the separation from his wife for fourteen years, Rama’s heart swelled up in pride.

Drawing Lakshmana closer, Rama hugged him to his bosom.

Lakshmana was thrilled by the sweetness of this unasked-for-hug that he got from his brother. As Ayodhya was nearing, the hearts of those three turned into the sea at night that soared high at the rise of the full moon. 

So many thoughts, reminiscences—with amazing experience, with emotional upsurge, when she came to hug Urmila, she was not to be seen there. 

The news of the self-imposed exile of fourteen years by Urmila was heartrending!

*  *  *  *  *

All around, outside Urmila’s chamber, it was well decorated. But the doors of her chamber weren’t opened. Charumathi knocked gently on the door.

Amma—your sister Janakidevi has come to see you,” said she.

Sita’s mind was not in its place.

“How will Urmila be? What will she say? What will she ask me? What should I say?” Doors were not opened.

Sita herself called out.

“Urmila—It’s me amma your akkayya has come. I will tell you everything. Forgive us and open the door.”

The doors of Urmila’s chamber opened.

Urmila was in front of her. For a minute, Sita was stunned. It was not the same Urmila whom Sita had known. Previously, there used to be innocence in those eyes. Also a little royalty reflected in them. Her posture looked splendid and queenly. Now what was glowing in those eyes? Now there was an unknown harmony, grandeur in her body. What was that luster in her face? As Sita was recovering her senses, Urmila came forward, bowed at akka’s feet and comforted her by making her sit on a divan. 

“Urmila—I have been thinking of you for the last fourteen years. I have been grieving,” Sita’s eyes welled up.

“You might be angry with us.”

Urmila smiled lovingly and deeply.

“I am not angry with anyone.” 

“Then why do you stay away from everyone like this—if there is no anger, will you get locked up like this in a room all by yourself? Express your anger. Vent your fury. But don’t cut yourself off from everyone. Tell me what exactly happened, why are you doing this?” 

Urmila smiled.

“Shall tell akka—if not you, who am I going to tell? Except you, none can understand it. That’s why I kept silent.”

Sita looked forward eagerly.

Akka, at the beginning, I shut the door as I was angry.

“Without telling me, with no concern for my decision, not realizing that there was an entity called ‘me,’ my husband, thinking that his brother is everything for him, went away. I was flaming with anger on that day. I felt like revolting against the palace and turning it upside down. 

“Everyone was weeping for you three. None to care for me. Helpless anger—I didn’t want to see anybody. Started a non-cooperation movement.”

Sita’s mind tried to capture the Urmila of that day.

“When I started, indeed, it was with anger—but in due course of time,  it became a search for truth within me, by myself. Why so much anger within me, that too, one which could consume me? The all-destructive, all-consuming rage... Why this sadness? Of course, I know the reason. But without my knowing, I became anxious to look into that reason, deep into it. What is anger? What is sorrow? Why happiness? What is the relation between my body, its emotions and the anxiety that it generated within me? Like that so many questions—they engulfed me. I started watching my body, watching my thoughts and the anxiety that they generated. Even at the slightest disturbance to this observation, I felt restless. That’s why I sought solitude. Not loneliness, but solitude—solitude wherein I can converse within me, converse with myself.

“That conversation put me and the people related to me opposite each other. It showed the relations torn open. Every relationship, our father, you, Lakshmana, Rama, Kausalya, this way I dissected open every relationship, with everyone, to understand the sum and substance of it all. 

“When I loved you as akka, leaving me behind, when you went away with your husband, what kind of change was it that crept into our relationship—why did it happen that way? What is the basis of that chemical reaction which changed love into anger?

“Envy, hatred, love, courteousness—what is the difference between them? 

Is there really anything or is it the difference only shades of the same? How is shadow penetrating into light, and light into shadow? Which is light? Which is shadow?

“As one question after another emerged, I was overtaken by a kind of fighting spirit. I heard that our husbands waged wars to kill demons. I do not know if it has brought peace or will bring peace. But, from the war I waged against these questions, a great peace, joy emerged.”

That peace was clearly reflecting on Urmila’s face. Watching Urmila in amazement and listening to her words, Sita could well imagine the war that Urmila was said to have fought. A kind of distress set in Sita for Lakshmana.

“Urmila, Lakshmana had love for you—with him—”

Urmila interrupted Sita’s words.

“Going to meet after fourteen years. We both—don’t know—I have certainly changed a lot. Change is the indicator of life. It is the value that he gives for it that determines the future course of our life.

“I have acquired enough wisdom to question—of course, without hatred—about justice. My relationship with Lakshmana depends on ‘how he understands my wisdom, how much he respects it’.

“Will he, without renunciation of other rights and submitting himself to them, forego his right over me—don’t know—can’t say. Whatever might happen, my peace will not get disturbed. Now the issue is, whether the other man wants peace or not.”

Urmila could well understand the anxiety reflecting in Sita’s face.

She wanted to try—if revealing herself more on her own would calm down her anxiety… 

“I felt as though I understood everything when I recognized the authorityI had in every relationship of mine with people around me. For all ills, the path is ‘power’, akka—do you know another wonder? We must acquire this authority. And give it up. I won’t bow to anybody else’s power. I will not bind anybody with my power. Then I feel that I have liberated myself. Then all I have is only joy. Great peace. Immense love. Sympathy for everybody. 

“Pity, getting entrapped in the wheels of power—how people are crushed; not knowing the path for liberation, rotting with no peace, sorrow, hatred—

“Felt like telling everyone about the secret of this peace. 

“But who will understand this? 

“Will they, who understood my fourteen years of penance to find the truth as mere sleep, understand my words?

“They think that I slept. Do they know the difference between sleep and remaining awake? 

“Did they ever sleep peacefully? Were they consciously awake?

 “If they listen to my words, they might label my penance as sleep, madness.”

“No Urmila, your words sound beautiful. Really you did great penance.”

“I know akka that you will understand. That’s why I opened my mouth today. But akka—in your life, if you get a testing-time like mine, try to protect yourself from that test pushing you into ‘ordinariness’, into murk, from burning you with hatred and anger. Take the power over you into your own hands—give off the power over others. Only then will you remain for yourself. To retain ourselves for ourselves is not a joke—believe me.”

As Urmila was talking, a sort of calmness crept into Sita’s mind. Sita felt that she could not understand these many years of Urmila’s life in just one day. She told Rama about Urmila’s words. 

 “I only hope this power will not result in pain for my brother,” said Rama.

“It looks as though by merely watching Urmila, all sorrows would evaporate,” said Sita. Watching Urmila now and then, Sita was enjoying her words, her smile, her peace, her glow, her everything.

*  *  *  *  *

After Lakshmana left her in the middle of the forest, and when she felt as though in the middle of an ocean, Urmila flashed in her mind.

As her heart was crying in wilderness about a life full of separations and accusations, she was reminded of Urmila’s words. 

Without telling Urmila, Lakshmana went to live in the forest with Rama. 

Without telling me, Rama used Lakshmana to banish me to the forest.

Urmila, by practising ‘noncooperation’, penance or some such thing, saved herself.

“Own the power. Disown the power. Then you would belong to yourself. You would be left for yourself. We must remain for ourselves.” Umpteen times Urmila said these words in varied forms again and again. Those words have only relieved her anxiety about Urmila. That’s all.
Should she start a satyagraha[5] now? When will anger calm down? When will truth dawn? How—Immeasurable attachment to Rama. Love. How to get liberated from that Rama?

What kind of a test is it! What, after all, the agnipariksha is before this—she did know all kinds of archery. Never raised a war against anybody. Now she has to raise a war against herself.

War has started. How long would it continue?

*  *  *  *  *

“Ramachandra is doing Aswamedhayagam[6] amma. Sent the invitation. I shall go amma,” said Valmiki maharshi. 

Sita didn’t know that maharshi, after waiting a while for her answer, finally left. She was not in a state of noticing anything. 

“How could Rama perform Aswamedhayagam? Without me by his side, how?

“Who would sit in my place?” 

A blaze rose in Sita’s mind.

“Whoever might sit how does it matter? What way does it relate to you?”

Speaking thus, as though she read Sita’s mind, Urmila entered with a smile.

“Urmila – You!” Sita exclaimed.

“Yes, it’s me! Lakshmana told me that you are here. And I do know that the news of Aswamedhayagam would reach you. I could well imagine what kind of tremors it could stir in your mind. I came here to ensure that you will remain as ‘yourself’.”

Hugging Urmila, Sita made her sit by her side. After a long silence, and after several conversations flowing through that silence – 

“Is it Sri Ramachandra who is doing yagam,” asked Sita.

“Who else will do? Isn’t it emperors who have to do it?”

“Without me… how—”

“Why should that question come to your mind? Should it at all have arisen, it should have struck Rama? It should strike those who are getting the yaga performed. Isn’t it unwise to get disturbed by irrelevant questions?” said Urmila as though she were elder to Sita.

“You know. Tell me Urmila, who is sitting by the side of Rama?”

“I haven’t come either to suppress your blaze temporarily or to blow it up further. I came here to tell you not to crucify yourself with irrelevant questions.”

“But I am unable to swallow anything.”

“Don’t swallow. Indeed it should not enter your mind at all. You should get liberated from Rama.”


Sita sobbed inconsolably.

“How many tests, Urmilaa?”

“Every test is to liberate you from Rama. To restore you to yourself. Wage a war. Do penance. Look into yourself, peek till you see the ultimate reality of ‘you’—”

“It is too difficult amma.” Thus uttered Sita with great difficulty.

“It would be joyful too akka. Make an attempt. I shall leave akka,” saying this Urmila got up.

“So soon? Don’t you want to listen about my children? Won’t you see them?” 

“If they come to me, come to see me, I shall definitely see them.”

*  *  *  *  *

Urmila left as suddenly as she had come. But the blaze in Sita’s mind didn’t die down that suddenly.

The sparks of fire that were hidden somewhere deep in different corners, all those cinders suddenly started burning fiercely. As Sita was getting used to experiencing the pleasures of that fire, she learnt that they were to be put out.

It’s all fuzzy: her mind was tossed with conflicting questions—whether loving Rama is a joy, or being angry with him is a joy. 

It is not easy to catch hold of the joy that appears as pain in igniting one’s own anger, and blowing its flames. 

Nor is it easy to put up with the pain underlying the pleasure that comes out of loving Rama. The effort in getting liberated from Rama by overcoming these two too had become more of a torment to Sita.

Yet, Sita did that penance. 

She continued her churning till the stormy sea became peaceful. 

Slowly that peace overtook her fully.

Sita’s mind had become quite calm by the time Valmiki returned after attending the Aswamedhayagam.

Even after seeing Valmiki, it didn’t strike her mind to ask, “Who sat by the side of Rama in the yagam?”

After a few days, Valmiki came to Sita to tell her about a development.

“Rama accepted both Lav and Kush. Accepted Sita too. But Sita had to come to the king’s assembly and announce that she is innocent.”

Sita heard these words calmly. Heard with a smile.

She simply said, “Do you think it is that necessary?” 

Relieving herself cheerfully from even the bondage of children, she left for the abode from where she had come. 


[1] Akka—elder sister.
[2] Amma—respectful/affectionate way of addressing.
[3] Amma—in this context, mother.
[4] Agnipariksha—test of fire. In the Ramayana, when Sri Rama proclaims his resolution, “Which man descended from a great family can take back with confidence… a wife who has gone and lived for about a year in another man’s house?” leaving no room for Sita’s remonstrance, Sita turns to Lakshmana and says, “Build me a pyre, I pray you. Suspected and cast away by my husband,
I cannot, I will not, live any longer. Fire, consuming fire, is the only remedy for this woe!” and once the chitaa (pyre) is made ready, she walks into it. When Sita plunges into the sacrificial fire, Agni, the lord of fire, raises Sita, unharmed, to the throne, proving her purity.
[5] Satyagraha—a form of non-cooperation.
[6] Aswamedhayagam—Horse sacrifice. The king alone should perform the sacrifice. Its object was the acquisition of power and glory, declaring sovereignty over neighboring provinces, and for general prosperity of the kingdom.

* Vimukta, a Telugu story published in Andhrajyothi (Sunday) on March 7, 2010. 
Copyright permission for the translation has been obtained.

 Keywords: Volga, International Women's Day, Telugu story in English


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