This is the first installment of a trilogy composed by Somrita Mishra, Aishwarya Dasgupta and Susmita Paul, with illustration from Subarnarekha Pal, who have come together to revive some previously unheard female voices from the Ramayana. Read them, hear them, re-think with them.
I am Soorpanakha, the woman whose nose was cut off as punishment for desiring a man. You, the reader, have heard the stories of the men, the “his-stories”. You have read of me being a slut, who threw herself at a man, who refused to be the docile, dutiful woman. Today I will tell you my story, the “her-story” that you have not heard. I am an old woman with few years to live but before I die, I want to write my story, my truth. Nobody should have the right to snatch my tale, to usurp my narrative. So, hear my story dear reader. Hear my truth.
I was born as Meenakshi, the beautiful girl with fish shaped eyes. My mother refused to see me as an equal to my brothers, Ravana and Vibhisana; I was the unwanted and neglected girl who should have faded away into the shadows. But I refused to fade away; I refused to be overshadowed. I fought all the rules designed to confine and suppress me; I rebelled. In a fit of anger, I slashed at Ravana’s face with my hands and, furious, he labelled me “Soorpanakha”, the girl with sharp nails. My mother deplored my anger, my rebelliousness, and my desire to dominate. She threatened me, punished me, cajoled me; she repeatedly warned me that any girl as sharp-tongued and wild as me would have a brutal life. But no training or punishment could cow me into submission. I remained Soorpanakha, the girl with sharp claws.
I grew up to become a fiery and candid woman, calling a spade a spade, angering many a man with my sharpness. Everybody was convinced that Soorpanakha was incapable of love. No man could win her heart and no sane man could want her. But everyone was wrong. I too desired love; I too yearned for affection, both emotional and physical. The society I grew up in refused to grant physical desires to a woman; a woman was supposed to be sexually fertile but never desire sexuality. A woman was an object, a vessel to be owned and filled by man. I was the non-conformist, the woman who wanted emotional and physical satisfaction. I wanted to be desired by a man as an individual, as a unique and lovable woman. The society I lived in did not allow a woman to love or desire. But I wanted to both love and desire.
Many people believed and still believe that what happened to me was deserved by me. Perhaps, dear reader, you are of the same belief. It is so easy to blame a woman, to vilify her, shame her, and blemish her reputation. But did you, dear reader, pause to consider what act of mine could justify the grievous assault on my body? What act of any woman justifies her mutilation? My story, dear reader, will tell you the truth of that horrifying day; my tale will narrate my humiliation, my violation. You have been told that I brought my punishment on myself. Perhaps I did. Perhaps my life changed forever the day I saw them, the handsome and popular princes, Ram and Lakshman.
The day dawned clear and pleasantly cool. I wandered across my forest paths, as was my usual habit, trying to forget my mother’s dire words that I was a woman doomed to misery because of my violent nature. I had after all never forgiven Ravana for killing my husband just because he belonged to a different race. I regularly fought with Ravana and had yesterday injured him quite seriously. Furious and frustrated Ravana challenged me to find another “respectful” man who would marry me. Angry and grief-stricken, I had, since last night, taken to wandering the forests bordering my father’s kingdom. Today was a particularly beautiful day. As I wandered aimlessly, suddenly I saw three people eating ripe, succulent mangoes. Drawn to the smell of the fruit, I glimpsed a tall, handsome man sitting majestically apart from the other two, eating grapes. Seeing him I felt a strange fluttering in my heart. I felt the kernel of desire in my heart, buried after the death of my beloved Vidu, stir.
I approached him hesitantly and, to my utter surprise, he smiled at me. Shyly I spoke to him. He was pleasant and charming in his conversation and slowly we moved away into the clearing. I suppose you have guessed, dear reader, what happened next. I am not going to apologize for what happened. I was attracted to a man who reciprocated my affection and whatever happened afterwards was mutual. What baffled me was the coolness of Ram afterwards. He refused to recognize me or even acknowledge me. I might as well have been a woman for hired sex. Enraged I clawed his face and in a swift move his brother, Lakshman, cut off my nose. Bleeding profusely, I ran from there, horrified at the sheer cruelty of men. My bleeding face enraged my brother Ravana to commit another violent act on another helpless woman. A war began and our clan perished.
Tell me, dear reader, what was my fault? What justified the cruel assault on me? Why was a mutual act seen as me hurling myself on Rama? Some writers went a step further and turned me into a desperate, characterless woman who, after Ram, seduced Lakshman. To what ends can male writers go to vilify and perjure a woman? These questions are yet to be answered for me. Our clan has been vanquished, my brothers are dead; I live on, an old, scarred woman who refuses to die without telling her story. I cannot subvert the epic narrative that has marginalized and shamed me. But I will never be forgotten or silent. The next time you read the Ramayana, be ready to hear my voice. I will be by your side every time you hear the story of Lord Ram; I will be the whispering doubt urging you to question the man’s truth. When you pray to the Lord Ram, remember what he and his brother did to a woman simply because she refused to bow down before male domination. I, Soorpanakha, will live on in every modern woman who refuses to submit to patriarchy, who charts her own path and wins. I am Soorpanakha and I am immortal.