Was Surpanakha a vamp or a victim? Was she a woman more hated than hateful? Indian author Kavita Kane delves into the infamous character of Surpanakha from the Hindu epic Ramayana. The best-selling author is famous for writing on lesser-known female characters from the Indian mythology as her collection of written books include Karna’s Wife, Sita’s Sister and Menaka’s Choice.
Now she has come up with another book and another character — one that has been blamed several times to be responsible for the fight between Ram and Ravana. But what really caught Kavita’s interest in the conventionally-disliked character of Surpanakha, she told SheThePeople.TV, “Exactly! That is why I was fascinated with her, starting from her name. Who would call their child Surpanakha?! It means the one with long nails. Metaphorically it meant she was a woman as hard as nails. How? And more importantly, why? That she was not born with that name made it all the more intriguing. If not born with it, she either achieved it or had it thrust upon her and that’s how I got my story.”
As we have our tight grip on mythology- when we talk about surpanakha, typically we start visualising this ugly woman- almost a rakshashni (demoness) who gets her nose cut by Laxman (brother of Ram) and complains to her brother — Ravana ultimately leading to the battle. Story-telling in many ways affects the way we form our opinions for characters.
Kavita is of the view and how her way of story-telling influences Surpanakha’s perception, “writing about Surpanakha, I was weaning away from her stereotypical image, not painting her to be a saint or a sinner: I tried to know the woman behind such an ugly name. Was she as ugly too?”
“Marginalised characters like Urmila or Menaka or Surpanakha are women of conviction too and have their own story to tell, a story we don’t know of. I like to tell their stories.”
For her other characters, she added, “Similarly with Urmila (in Sita’s Sister) and Menaka (Menaka’s Choice) where both are blurred shadows hidden in obscurity. By bringing them out and reintroducing them, they are given a face and voice, asking questions they want to be answered.”
Talking about her being a female writer narrating these hugely unordinary characters, the former Assistant Editor of Times of India, Kavita articulated, “The narrative changes the moment the spotlight falls on them and most of my protagonists have been either minor or overlooked characters. In Lanka’s Princess, it is Surpanakha who dominates the book, not Ravana though he is a more flamboyant and formidable character.”
Sita’s Sister had predominantly women characters with Urmila as the woman living her own private exile. Menaka’s Choice was more of a dual narrative of both Menaka and Vishwamitra running parallel throughout the book and in Karna’s Wife, the story is not about the wife at all, it’s the story of Karna told by his wife acting as a sutradhar (narrator) in the narrative.
Also Read: Revisit the Ramayana with Arshia Sattar
It is very obvious that Kavita is drawn towards female mythical character, but why is that? She replies, “Because our mythology is so fascinating! And it’s just not Draupadi or Sita who are strong women but almost all of them are. Be it Kunti, Gandhari, Tara or Mandodari. But marginalised characters like Urmila or Menaka or Surpanakha are women of conviction too and have their own story to tell, a story we don’t know of. I like to tell their stories.”
“I was weaning away from her stereotypical image, not painting her to be a saint or a sinner”- On Surpanakha
Kavita explained that theirs are silent tales, unheard and unsung. “These characters are part of the epic narrative but haven’t had the space reserved for them as they are minor characters but the moment the glare falls on them, they are seen as distinct individuals with a story to tell.”
Writing about mythology and historical incidents can be exhaustive some times. You try to be as close to reality, but really no amount of information is ever enough in such a case. About her challenges while writing these mythical characters she said, “Mixing fact and fiction is delicate and therein is the biggest challenge. How to enlarge these minor characters into lead ones- fleshing them out as rational characters without twisting facts to a believable narrative.”
Chopping of Surpanakha’s nose was one of the most violent episodes in the Ramayan
I love reading thrillers and essays. But am not too sure if I could pen one. I had this awful habit of writing to mystery authors and pointing out the flaws in their plot, including Agatha Christie! But the one book which had me stumped was Murder of Roger Ackroyd! And I pray each day I don’t get a pesky reader like me who singles out the mistakes in my book! That would be karma indeed!
BETWEEN FACTS AND FICTION
As I said earlier, I have to balance them gingerly. I flesh them out through the larger characters and events. Like Surpanakha being the sister of Ravana would have been quite similar to him as Urmila might have been like Sita. Or the differences and contrasts become the defining trait. Likewise, Menaka was largely was etched out through well known and well developed characters like Indra and Vishwamitra. Uruvi, though, was a completely fictional figure I took creative liberties with essentially because I did not want to corrupt the character of Shivaji Sawant’s Vrushali from the classic Mrityunjay. I would rather create another, someone who as Karna’s wife, love and conscience, could face and confront stalwarts like a Kunti or Bhishma and ask them questions which we as readers would have wanted to be answered.
LIFE IN 2017?
Writing another book!
Feature image credit- Twitter