Sexual Violence and Science Fiction
Subversion of Patriarchal Norms Through the Metaphor of Mythology in Indian Science Fiction
“While speculative fiction has not yet fully realized its transgressive potential, dominated as it has been White Man’s burden in outer space—there is still a strong undercurrent of writing that questions and subverts dominant paradigms and persists in asking uncomfortable questions.” (“A Speculative Manifesto” 202)
Advocating Vandana Singh’s above quoted remark, this paper attempts to vocalize the social issues and activist concerns associated with women’s bodies by considering three short stories— “The Good King,” “This, Other World,” and “Sita’s Descent”—from Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana. In these SF short stories, Sita’s character becomes a metaphor of subversion in modern Indian society as the authors aim to substantiate and reinterpret Sita’s character from a different lens. Considering Sita as an emblem of subversion, the paper discusses how her character mutates into an ordinary woman, meta-human, and AI nebula in the above-mentioned short stories, respectively. All the scientific mutations are significant, and these mutations not only keep the myths alive, but continue to compress the truth as well (Disch 22). The core connecting question in this paper manifests as: How does Sita becomes a metaphor for the #metoo, #ownvoices, and other social movements of India?
Mythology and Its Contemporary Efficacy
#Metoo, #ownvoices, and other social movements related to feminism emerged as a crucial part of historical discourse in India. The revolution transpired through media, Twitter, and other social media forums; this became crucial as powerful men were exposed by the women who were oppressed by these men. As Jhalak Jain states, “It began in October 2018, with multiple women coming out with their stories of sexual abuse, harassment, rape and, misconduct.” Sita becomes a metaphor for contemporary Indian women who were confronted with sexual abuse, workplace harassment, and rape. Traditional Indian mythology, thus, is not only used as a historical tool to bring contemporary utility, but it is used with creative liberty to compound upon a few factors on how the rebellion could bring a downfall to the most powerful and corrupted men. The usage and contextual meanings of this metaphor lie in knowing its utilities and the roots in the great epic, Ramayana.
Anil Menon, in his essay titled “The Speculative Ramayana,” comments on the varied versions of Ramayana written by different authors and considers different types of narratives. In addition, Menon says: “One radical retelling is of special interest. TheChandravati Ramayana, composed by a sixteenth-century female bhaktin, barely concerns itself with Rama” (2). The most accepted and widely read version of Ramayana was written by Tulsi Das. The story follows the pattern of any other religious fantasy in which there is an avatar of God who stands against a Monster/Daityas/Rakshas and this avatar rescues the bhaktas (a spiritual devotee) from the ill-treatments of the monsters. In similar trials, Ramayana portrays an esteemed set of events wherein Sita (a goddess, a manifestation of Laxmi) and Rama (a god, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu), takes an avatar (form of human being). Sita is a victim but she is interrogated about her purity and has been accused of infidelity. These acts are similar to what happens today: the victim-blaming and oppression of a woman who has suffered. Thus, the mistreatment and misconduct of patriarchal keepers become questionable in this tale. These two situations create a similar political climate, close to giving a voice to the marginalized in not only ithihas (Indian history) but relevant in the contemporary Indian environment. Nivedita Menon also comments on how the modern Indian laws do not favour the abused/victims and how they confront the Indian society. Thus, this binary is evinced and analysed through the scientific mutations in Sita’s character. In the story, Rama and Sita (avatars of Lord Vishnu and Mata Laxmi, respectively) get married. They are sent away for an exile of fourteen years. Rama is accompanied by Sita and Lakshman. Surpnanka, Ravana’s sister, is seduced by the charm and beauty of the princes, Rama and Lakshman. Surpnakha’s face, including her nose and ears, are disfigured by Rama and Lakshman. Ravana, Surpnakha’s brother, abducts Sita after deceiving Rama and Lakshman by creating illusionary images. Rama rescues Sita and kills Ravana, the Demon king. Rama, Sita, and Lakshman return to Ayodhya but Sita is interrogated about her purity. Thus, when asked to give agni-pareeksha (an ordeal of fire to prove her chastity before she returns to Rama as a wife), she gives agni-pareeksha but has been proven ‘pure’ and truly faithful to her lawful husband by Agni Deva. She leaves the mortal Earth and is voluntarily absorbed into the Earth. Thus, the victim-blaming and victim-mistreatment, which has its roots in ancient India, begin to emerge. The goddess or god, symbols of idealistic vision of an Indian society, negotiates with the patriarchy in multiple ways by scavenging the beliefs of mankind.
Myths act as tools to endorse as well as compress subjective truths, which are subject to change from era to era. When the truth started to gain this popular meaning of ‘meaning’ in itself. Thomas M. Disch also addresses the idea of truth, explaining: “Myth aims at maximizing meaning, at compressing the truth to the highest density that the mind can assimilate without the need of, as it were, cooking. (Extending that metaphor, natural philosophy—science would represent truth in a less immediately ingestible form—dry lentils, so to speak.)” (22). In this case, the subjective truths come from distinct communities of women who attempt to raise voice against the patriarchy—whether it is related to marginalized sections of Indian society or the urban class. Activism and resistance have taken the shape through this massive feminist movement.
Sita as Metaphor of Defiance against Victim-blaming and Victim-shaming
Abha Dawesar’s “The Good King” begins with the reinterpretation of the great mythic tale, Ramayana, in a futuristic world. Ravana has a utopian kingdom, and using the pre-eminent scientific temperaments, he attempts to deceive Sita through virtual illusions, disguising himself as Rama. During her abduction, she is raped, abused, and mistreated by Ravana in different universes and in different time zones. But the fate of mythology has been creatively used to subvert the patriarchal norms of the great epic. Sita challenges and confronts traditional victim blaming and abuse when she, as a goddess, resolves to leave her mortal body and rebel against mistreatment, and she asserts her individualism and dissolves the ties of marriage:
He besmirched her. The demon in him started to rage. Upset, shaking, equally furious, Sita took up his challenge. She was pure and chaste and she was going back to Earth. Inside it. The tectonic plates shifted; the land cleaved. Sita was swallowed. (“The Good King” 60)
The scientific mutations within mythology have been constructed to showcase the rebel in contrast to the most powerful man, the hegemonic construct of a man who was placed at a higher pedestal. Nivedita Menon assesses the legal claim of how the understanding of rape by the patriarchal society has disabled not only women’s freedom but has given the rapist the opportunity to marry. The victim-blaming and commodification of women’s bodies seems to be obvious even when the just laws could protect them. Thus, the voice of Sita, who fought against her mistreatment, becomes the voice of modern Indian women who strive to rebel against their own injustices. Considering some instances from Seeing Like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon claims:
In the feminist view, the raped woman does not lose her honour, the rapist does. For instance, the campaign against the rapists of Bhanwari Devi coined the slogan Izzat gayi kis ki, Bhateri ki, meaning it was not Bhanwari Devi who lost her honour, but the village defending the rapists. Bhanwari Devi—this Dalit woman who was raped by upper caste men as a punishment for trying to implement the government’s law against child marriage in her village-is a heroine for the movement. Bhanwari Devi is the dignified and public face of the campaign against sexual violence against women. (116)
Sita as Metaphor of Non-compliance to Social Orders of Patriarchy
At the mention of her name Rama’s face closes. Sita, of Clan Janaka, sister-cousin to Boss Gui of the Kunming Toads. Chinese and Thai and Indian, her genes are the best Kunming Labs could produce. A meta-human, interfaced with cross hatched Other, she is the Queen to rule the houses of both Janaka and Ayodhya. (213)
Furthermore, when Rama rescues Sita from Ravana, she responds to him:
“What brings you to this place?”
“I never asked you to.”
“You are my wife.”
A single perfect eyebrow rises, and she laughs. Her voice is different, a recital when she says: “Divorce proceedings initiated by confirmatory data packet, registered Tong Yun, Mars, approved by trans-colonial Belt by-laws, Asteroid Vesta, date-”
She recites a string of numbers, colons, sub-clauses and legalese. They mean one thing.
“Unmade a long long time ago”
“Can fuck themselves”, she says, with sudden savagery. “I am not a toy, a thing made for a purpose. An I-loop needs no reason but reason.” (154)
In this particular instance, Sita asserts individualism, self-love, and her own choices over the construct of marriage and goes against the conventional practice of reproducing. Through scientific mutations of power in a SF narrative—where Ravana assumes a place of an AI and Sita is a meta-human, she is already in an inverted structure of the futuristic dystopian society. This endorses Nivedita Menon comments in Seeing Like a Feminist on how the bond of marriage (which emerges out of the social order of patriarchy) binds a woman through only her predefined roles and duties. She brings light to the fact that Indian women’s unhappiness remains invisible in a marriage but her duties as a wife are only the ones she is accountable for. Menon writes: “There is no explanation available for the woman’s unhappiness at her changed state. Can a woman just go back home saying simply: ‘Idon’t want to be a wife, Idon’t like this job?’” (Seeing Like a Feminist, 44-45).
The reinterpretation of Sita’s character is employed as the epitome of revolution against the Indian patriarchal society whose goddess steps up to understand the hierarchy and rebel against it. “This is what a family is supposed to be; as a wife, you are supposed to give up everything that you thought you were; we have expectations of you, which you are supposed to fulfil. This is marriage” (43). The existing ‘expectations,’ ‘roles,’ and ‘maternal duties’ are taken into account while changing the centre of this story/epic.
Sita as Metaphor of Dissent against Courtly Injustice
“Sita’s Descent” by Infrapramit Das proposes a distinct scientific mutation of Sita’s consciousness stored in an AI nebula constructed by Laxmi, a scientist who works with a team of scientists in Bangalore; the evolution of her consciousness takes place within the mythic tale. The mythic tale is revised, and Ravana and Rama (who are seen as the most powerful) play their roles in a cosmic drama. But Sita refuses to play her ordinary role as defined in Ramayana; she rather assumes the role as the one who wants to destroy humankind for victim-blaming and mistreatment. Laxmi says in regard to the creation of Sita:
I realize once again that I am talking to a part of myself. I wrote and programmed Sita’s personality. I rebelled against the idea of a partial enactment of Ramayana in space, using these multi-billion-rupee constructs that I helped design. In some strange way Sita is trying to honor her namesake. She is doing what I would have done, if I lacked sympathy with the human race, if the only thing I could calculatedly detect was the legendary injustice evoked by any flaming. (162)
But she refuses to reconcile or settle for any injustice, she rather declares herself as a ‘Martyr.’ The consciousness in the story is used as a metaphor in order to evoke a rebellion against men, which generally happens in the sexist courtrooms (qtd. in Menon, Seeing Like a Feminist 116-117). Though the roles of other goddesses are also pointed out in other sections of the story: “We have Kali, we have Durga. Sita is not a destroyer. You are not a destroyer.” (163). Thus, #ownvoice is alluded to in these narratives. To support the notion that myth is used to subvert norms, Sami A. Khan in “Goddess Sita Mutates Indian Mythology into Science Fiction: How Three Stories from Breaking the Bow Reinterpret the Ramayana” says:
With gendered violence still a ruthless reality, the writer speaks up on behalf of all women who are victims of patriarchal setup and refuse to undergo such fire—ordeals. Still, Sita the AI does not seek vengeance. When reminded that she is not a destroyer and innocents must not pay for the sins of a few, she chooses not to engage in a similar gender power—play and exiles herself from this very binary. (20)
Mythology might be used as a tool to expand the truth, state the truth, or subscribe to the subjective truth through a different dimension. Sita’s character as a symbol evolves in these science fiction narratives; therefore, the meaning of the symbol and context of its use rotates within the contemporary period. Concepts like meta-humans and AI nebula not only focus on the scientific contingencies of the short stories but reinterpret them as a way to resurrect the futurisms which welcome a world of dystopia. It chooses to raise the most uncomfortable questions within the historical discourse of India. Other stories from Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana like “The Other Woman” by Manjula Padmanabhan and “Oblivion: A Journey” by Vandana Singh project the historic gendered oppressions throughout the mythology in India. These scientific temperaments and mutations subsidize the elements of newly constructed myths which could be juxtaposed within the contemporary culture and socially and politically mutable world. Besides, these novel myths blur the boundaries among culture, caste, and geographical differences by drawing mythology close to global issues.
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Simran Gindwani completed her undergraduate studies and postgraduate studies in English literature from DU and GGSIPU, respectively, in India. She is a writer and an independent research scholar. Her area of research lies in mythology, science fiction, and postmodernism. She presented in a National Conference of Science Fiction Studies organized by the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies on Mythology in Indian Science Fiction. Besides this, she has published a paper on posthumanism titled as “Eternity of Posthuman Intellect and Algorithmic Sentience: A Hybrid of Reality, Memory and Consciousness in Japanese Visual Culture” in Consortium: An International Journal of Literary and Cultural Studies.