Monday, May 4, 2020

The Forest of Enchantments - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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! (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



I have to start this review with a disclaimer—I am not Hindu, and I realize that the Ramayana is a Hindu religious text, as well as an important epic in the cultural consciousness of the South Asian nations of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the South-East Asian countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Also, there are many, many versions of the Ramayana, and I have read just this one. Some other disclaimers—I have done some research into the Ramayana, both about the original epic and some other versions, as well as looked at some of the basic ideas and themes that the Ramayana addresses and teaches. However, that being said, I realize that as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (you may know us as Mormon), and as an American, I am probably totally unqualified to take on the Ramayana. Therefore, I’m not going to do that in any way. I am only going to discuss The Forest of Enchantments as I see it presented to me in this form, which is as a historical novel. Any cultural misunderstanding or religious misinterpretation is due to the fact that I am a complete outsider who was handed a book to review that happened to be a very important religious and cultural text to many people. I did what research I could in order to not be completely in the dark, but I think I’m actually completely in the dark to this other than just reading it for pleasure and as a very interesting historical and cultural novel. #sendhelpplease

When I was an undergrad in college I took a World Religions course. Because there are so many world religions, we couldn’t spend much time on any one, but as Hinduism is a major world religion, we did spend time on it, and although I did not read the Ramayana then, it was discussed briefly. Reading The Forest of Enchantments was an interesting and eye-opening journey for me, and I have to think that although the Ramayana is familiar for those who are Hindu, they would also find this to be an interesting and different take on a very old and very familiar epic.

There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. First and foremost, I really enjoyed the story being told by Sita, who is the female protagonist. Because most religious texts from all religions are told from a man’s point of view, they’re obviously missing perspectives, experiences, and insights from women. We all know that no matter who is telling the story, there is a little bit of variation, even if the storyteller tries to stay as close to the facts as possible. There is just a different perspective that comes from each person. Having a woman’s perspective, especially with a story so old, was of great insight for the reader. We were able to see what it would have been like to not only be a part of the other side of the story, but also feel what Sita might have felt when she was faced with the troubles and strifes she was. The middle to end of the book actually involves Sita being separated from Rama, and so telling the story from her perspective was an interesting take and a nice alternating viewpoint from the norm. I think Divakaruni also did a good job of developing peripheral characters that have probably not gotten as much airtime as they have in the past, and this helped me understand their motivations and viewpoints.

I really enjoyed the storytelling and the writing in this book. I think it speaks to Divakaruni’s ability to write and tell stories that she could keep a person like me—who knows very little about the religion or the Ramayana—interested and engaged. I really liked the descriptions of the settings, the story, and the way of life. It takes place so long ago and in a place I’ve never been to, and yet I felt like I could see and understand the settings and surroundings and cultural context. I even spent some time looking up pictures of where this would have taken place in order to feel like I understood the foliage and actual surroundings of the forest where Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana were exiled to. It really was an interesting story told in a very accessible, tangible way. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Plus—and this is important to me—the cover itself is gorgeous. The colors are so pretty and vibrant; it has gold leafing on parts of it, and I loved the painting. Seriously, it was a very eye-catching book.

Ultimately, a religious text is supposed to teach us something, whether it be about how to become more God-like, or warn us against certain behaviors, or just to show us how to live. I can see how the Ramayana would do this, and although I didn’t relate to the characters religiously, I certainly understood the moral quandaries that the characters were faced with. I think it’s good to be challenged and faced with reading about situations that help us think and consider outside of our normal comfort zones.

There are books written about female Biblical characters that I have read (I’m thinking of the Orson Scott Card “Women of Genesis” series that includes Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel & Leah, and The Wives of Israel, although there are others that are based on the Bible and The Book of Mormon, which is another book of scripture used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Reading the “Women of Genesis” series, even though it is technically historical fiction (as is Forest of Enchantments) really gave me new insight and perspective into what those Biblical female characters possibly thought, and I think that Forest of Enchantments was similar. Even though the author can’t know exactly what the woman is thinking, it is nice to at least have some speculation and give her a voice. If you have read the Ramayana, or are part of a cultural or religious culture that reads the Ramayana, I think this would definitely be an interesting story for you. If you are not one of these people but enjoy historical fiction, religious texts, or even learning about other cultures and their culturally significant stories, I think you would enjoy this book.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some light sexual content, but I would consider this book to be clean.

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