Interview With Charu Walikhanna, Author of "Sita Returns: Modern India Through Her Eyes"
on Sep 22, 2022
Dr.Charu WaliKhanna, a former member of the National Commission for Women (NCW), is a leading human rights lawyer who currently practices in the Supreme Court of India. She founded the Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar (SAFMA), an NGO with Special Consultative Status with the ECOSOC of the United Nations, which works towards advancing the cause of vulnerable and marginalized sections of society, especially women.
Frontlist: The idea of bringing Sita to the 21st century is a unique one. What was your train of thought while formulating this idea?
Charu: I have always been fascinated by Sita, who has been usually portrayed as a chaste, self-sacrificing, submissive, and beautiful wife. I felt that full justice had not been done to her character. To me, Sita was a fiercely independent woman, who dared to challenge social norms and the shackles of patriarchy, while making her own choices with courage and dignity. She did not allow her life situation to choose for her, nor did she let the abuse dishearten her. Sita had a mind of her own, and she even went to the extent of rebuking her husband that he was not ‘man enough to take his wife along in exile. She delivered a powerful discourse on non-violence, compelling Ram to promise that he would never kill anyone without extreme provocation.
I wanted to call attention to all these facets of her personality so that young women of today can identify with her and her struggles. On one hand, modern Indian women are becoming stronger and more independent; but on the other hand, they are still cowed down by the norms of patriarchy and society, and under a microscope on a daily basis. It is a never-ending struggle to keep proving themselves: the constant agnipariksha and fight for validation and respect. So I thought of the idea of Sita returning thousands of years later to know the condition of women.
Frontlist: You mention that today’s women have to face several agniparikshas. Can you shed light on some of them?
Charu: Whenever there is a mention of women in ancient India, often quoted are the stories of their valor, and how they battled insurmountable odds to save the honor of their family and kingdom, a favorite example being the Rani of Jhansi. Today the modern Indian woman is also a symbol of courage and resilience, yet on a daily basis, she wages a never-ending battle of constantly having to prove her worth. While juggling the role of being a mother, daughter, or wife along with her professional career as a working woman simultaneously, she is expected to conform to the various cultural and moral attributes a woman is supposed to have. The agnipariksha begins even before her birth when medical tests are conducted to eliminate the chance of a female child taking birth. If born, often she is rejected even by her own mother, who may deprive her in terms of nutrition, health, and other opportunities to grow. The young girl is constantly put on trial, even for a simple thing like playing a non-traditional sport. World champion boxer Nikhat Zareen, speaking about her struggles in a conservative society, said people ridiculed her choice to become a boxer as a girl, and her mother cried who will marry her. Unsurprisingly in contemporary India, women are expected to conform to society’s standards of how to eat, dress, talk, walk or even sit. Victim-blaming, harassment for dowry, being trolled online, abused, and facing slut-shaming are the new normal.
Quoted in the book is the former President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, who said, ‘We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs…We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear.’
Sita underwent two trials by fire, the ordinary Indian woman faces trials every day.
Frontlist: With all these beautiful poems in the books, which one is your favorite?
Charu: Not one, I actually have two in mind. The first one is the inspiring poem written by Serena Williams, a leader who changed the world of sports and how brands see women. Her words are quoted in the Introduction:
‘She turns her disappointment into triumph.
Her grief into joy.
Her rejections into approvals.
If no one believes in her
it does not matter.
She believes in herself.
Nothing stops her.
No one can touch her.
She is a woman.’
I’m an incurable romantic and believe that love is a strange propelling force, which makes one break all rules; a universal emotion cutting across boundaries of time, age, and place. My other favorite piece is from the chapter ‘Adolescence’ where quoted are dohas from Shri Ramcharitamanas by Goswami Tulsidas:
‘A unique moment transpired when two infinities met and occurred a fusion of body, spirit, and soul. As if they were one. Sita was overcome with a heady mixture of feelings on first setting eyes on Ram. Her mind and body were reeled with intense love, attraction, and exhilaration as if struck by a bolt of lightning. Energized, an inner sparkle heralding romantic love was overtaking her senses. A feeling like she had never felt before.
Beholding the beauty of the two princes Sita’s eyes were filled with greed, and rejoiced as if they had discovered a long-lost treasure. Her eyes became transfixed at the sight of Ram, and her eyelids forgot to blink. Swooning in a state of ecstasy, she felt as if her body had lost consciousness. Inexplicably overcome by a breath-stopping feeling of passionate love for this man. It seemed as if a Cakora bird was gazing at the autumnal moon. Receiving Ram into her heart through the passage of her eyes, she cleverly captured him by closing her eyelids.
Both Ram and Sita are equally love-struck and the intensity of their love is indistinguishable.’
Frontlist: Can you please press upon the expectations and the place of women in our society, and provide further explanation on the grounds on which you would challenge them?
Charu: In independent India, women can vote, women can work, and women can do everything that their male counterparts can do. Yet, women face harassment, in both public and private spaces; they don't have the liberty to choose their own life partners; in addition to other forms of discrimination like less pay and lack of opportunities. It is the woman who is expected to bow down before the expectations of society or choose between family and career.
While counseling victims of gender-based violence, and advising them not to let society’s expectation and beliefs dictate their lives; I realized that their inferior status is so ingrained in their own subconscious, that they end up perpetrating those unrealistic expectations of society themselves.
Throughout history different types of unrealistic expectations have been placed on women, ranging from how they should look or what they should wear, to how they should act, behave and think. Most women even today are constantly fighting against the pressure to fall back into the stereotypical mold of how a woman should be. I am glad that among the new generation there is a growing recognition of the need to defy stereotypes, for the first step towards overcoming the negative expectation is to become aware of them. Today more and more women are expressing themselves freely, and the freedom to be yourself and ‘do your own thing’ is getting more normalized.
I exhort women to believe in themselves and recognize their own inner strength for every woman like Sita has the ability to decide for herself, who she wants to be and what she wants to do or how.
The fight for validation and respect will continue until we are closer to achieving a gender-equal and safe world for women.
Frontlist: What message would you like to give to women who wish to channel their inner Sita today?
Charu: The courageous and dignified Sita epitomizes the struggle of women throughout the world. Every woman should find strength in the knowledge of her own uniqueness – self-confident, self-disciplined, and selflessly upholding her self-respect.
Sita’s exercising of her own agency is often not given enough credit. Here was a woman who appealed to her husband to let her share his fate in exile, and could influence him to change his stance on violence. Given that she predates all our notions of feminism, I think these actions are definitely commendable.
Further, Sita’s offer of agnipariksha after the battle was not an act of self-annihilation, nor that of surrendering to the whim of an unreasonable husband. On the contrary, her coming out of the fire unscathed was proof of her defiance in challenging her husband’s aspersions and revealing his flawed judgment.
When a pregnant Sita was abandoned deceitfully in a cruel manner, placing her and her unborn child’s life in jeopardy, she demonstrated to the world that it was possible for an abandoned single mother to not only survive, but successfully raise children.
Each one of us has the power of Sita within our unique skills, talents, and abilities. We only need to recognize and channel them to overcome barriers and find the right path to move forward.
Frontlist: Can a modern woman with flaws ever relate to Sita the goddess?
Charu: We all have flaws. However idealized, Sita also had her flaws. Her yearning for the golden deer, for which she had to pay a heavy price later, was a turning point in the whole epic. In today’s consumeristic world, there is an increasing preoccupation among young women with materialism, a desire accelerated by social media, brand consciousness, self-obsession and craving to be socially accepted. It is important to understand that this unceasing pursuit of material goods can destroy one’s sense of contentment.
Frontlist: The parallels between ancient times and the modern age are uncanny. Can you explain what hasn’t changed and comment on what has?
Charu: Yes, the parallels are uncanny. But sadly patriarchal mindsets still need to embrace the changes of this modern age marked by technological innovations, urbanization, scientific discoveries, and globalization.
I’m a bit cynical and believe that we are still stuck in a time warp, specifically in rural areas, where girls are being educated and developing ambitions, for the parent's marriage is more important than the girls’ aspirations. While I take pride in the history of India, I cannot deny this unpleasant part of our vibrant past that permeates our current day-to-day lives.