Posted by Lydia
A rose by any other name
would get the blame
for being what it is:
the color of a kiss,
the shadow of a flame.
~ Tanith Lee, The Silver Metal Lover
I originally published this story in 2012 under my pseudonym Clarisse Thorn. It is a short retelling of the Ramayana, a Southeast Asian story, in my own style, and from my own agenda. I have loved the Ramayana for almost my entire life. I was inspired by English retellings starting when I was a little girl, and I used to pretend to be its main female character in neighborhood games. Yet I began to rethink my relationship to it as I got older, and I’ve come back to it over and over through the years. Even today I’m in a very different place with it from when I wrote this story ten years ago.
Although many Westerners have never heard of it, the Ramayana has been told and retold across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other areas of Southeast Asia for thousands of years. In recent centuries there have been retellings across the West. In many places it is treated as a religious story, in others more like folklore. My hope is that my retelling might inspire others to consider how they relate to this extraordinary story and perhaps bring them back to it in a new way, as I have come back to it again and again. I will include further notes about my sources at the end of this post.
Once Upon A Time…
Surrounded by light, I hang outside the world, immersed in recent memories. I observe her — facet, reflection, echo of myself — at a distance. Sometimes I feel her pulse within my own, I catch my breath with her pain, and she is closer than a lover. But sometimes it’s as hard to understand her as to grasp memories of myself from eons past. Before the second Age, for instance. Or before Narayana.
My eyes are molten, my jewels are lamps. A wealth of perfume pours scent from my hair. Aglow, I await my husband.
My father told me to hide my face. “Beauty such as yours,” he said, “might as well be a sin.” So I practiced modest pretense. I glanced away at just the angle for sun to catch my golden eyes, to shimmer down my ankle-length hair. I gave small smiles and breathy laughs. I sweetly accepted the inevitable compliments. I loved walking publicly; I looked careless in the grace that inspired poetry, inspired suicides. Still, I remember one day that I was glad to be inside.
The flying chariot was a legend. That was how I knew him, rather than from his appearance, for I hadn’t expected him to be beautiful — as beautiful as I. I stood at the window of my father’s palace, framed in alabaster worked filigree-fine; stood dazzled by King Ravana’s noble profile. He passed overhead, and his mocking laugh lanced straight through me.
As the demon lord looked down, I stepped away from the window, pressed my forehead against cool marble. Hiding my face more truly than ever before.
I seemed unable to breathe for the rest of the day, drifting ghost-quiet through the carpeted palace halls. My instructors praised me for defeating a music lesson early, and I made my escape to gather rumors.
His son earned the name Indrajit, whispered the courtiers: Indrajit, who defeated the thunder god. But the father is simply immortal.
The guards shifted uneasily, muttered: His giant of a brother could destroy us on his own. But Ravana’s armies were last seen far from here.
Surely Ravana was passing by, they told each other. Surely. Surely.
In my room late that night, warmth lay over me in heavy layers. I still could not breathe. I combed my hair, sought comfort in my mirror, but even my reflection failed to calm me. Wide awake, I stood at my window and watched the stars. I wondered where the warlord had flown.
Words pressed at me. I hardly knew what they were, yet by dawn I had to write them down:
Need you like
Fear, I need you like
Thirst as if lost in the desert; I dream that I’m
Thirst drowns me, and you are the rain;
Only want you, I
Need you like sunlight and poison and pain.
The calligraphy flowed from my hand without pause. The completed page was flawless. I folded and concealed it, and only then was I able to sleep.
Does she know the rules that bind her? Does she see the world that blinds her? Although my memories are lit by my own sacred clarity, I cannot tell.
I became known for that window. Over the years, as I gathered suitors, they passed below to seek a glimpse of me. When my father decreed that only the man to draw an impossible bow would win me, the hopeful procession slackened only slightly. It was for me to reveal a wistful half-smile from my shadows. It was for me to thrill them with the barest turn of my head.
No one asked why I chose that place to stand.
When legendary Prince Rama came, I saw his leaf-green eyes slanting at me all the way from my father’s gate. My maids flitted and fluttered, but I returned the look directly, against my father’s training. Listened with only half an ear as servants offered me Rama’s tale.
His gaze seemed knowing. Your loveliness captures other men, Rama told me silently, but it’s not enough for me. Never before had I felt the delight of a man looking past my face. Doubt tantalized me. Could I fascinate him, this elegant hero, as I fascinated everyone else?
I met him in the garden, my beauty gleaming through a fine white sari. His muscles flowed like flame. His lips were full. Violence lay silk-quiet under his surface. But I outshone him as I outshone everything; and as the court behind me sighed over his allure, I focused on his eyes.
Other men’s eyes would deepen, drink me like cool water. Yet Rama’s were flat as he said: “How generous, for such a princess to stand at the window and share her glamor with the world.”
“When you say it that way,” I replied, “you accuse me of vanity.”
Genuine interest came sharp. “Am I wrong?”
“A beautiful girl has no choice but to be vain.”
My father came to greet him then. I cast down my face, slipped back to my window while the court was enchanted by the visiting prince. A crescent moon rose as I finished writing. Starlight illuminated the careful words:
I want to be sure, when you see me, that I
Nod and smile softly —
Frame my reactions, my heart, with
Adroit disengagement and distance.
Tell me — I want you to tell me you’re seeking to
Understand everything I’ve kept
Apart. Say you can’t tell what I’m
I am unknown and
Obscure, exotic and
Of course I loved Rama: The perfect Ksatriya icon. A deep-voiced commander, with hair that smelled of the lush season and eyes like sunbeams through a forest. His hands lit fire where he touched my cheek, my shoulder, my back. He would have taken me as queen regardless of his feelings; I was too rich a prize to resist. But I thrilled to the chase of this blazing warrior, and so in the end he loved me.
As I had been the ideal princess, so was I the ideal wife. I charmed, flattered, and kept to myself behind the facade of perfection. Only to my husband did I grant glimpses: To his nearly clairvoyant green eyes. “Tell me a secret,” he would say, and sometimes I would, though most often I laughed and diverted him.
With Rama — and, sometimes, his brother-guardian Lakshmana — I challenged them, I argued when they were wrong, and I also gave more than I ever had. Never quite everything. But my husband never asked for everything.
Is it my own thought, now, or did she think it then?: No man in Narayana’s world truly desires to know his wife.
Too perfect, was Rama, and even perfection cannot protect against jealousy. A stepmother schemed to have him sentenced to fourteen years’ exile in the forest. I followed him. Rama claimed I had the right to stay behind; I merely smiled.
Rama never sought another wife, and I never doubted him. Women gave him sidelong glances, then saw me and knew better — though one pretty demon came boldly and declared her desire. When I laughed politely to show the demon her place, she pinned me with a measuring look. “I am Surpanakha, sister to Ravana,” she declared. “You can go with my brother when I go with your husband.”
“Never,” I said immediately, so Rama would glare at her and not me. I saw too late that his anger went deep; I saw that, dreadfully, he smiled. I lowered my head, made myself small. Knew well to step away while Rama and Lakshmana teased and gave her hope.
After they cut her ears and nose and breasts, sent her weeping through the woods, I joked with the men about her antics. The three of us went off in high humor, and never thought to connect her to the deceptive golden deer.
Of course Rama chased that impossible creature as soon as I saw it. None of us imagined that it was truly an illusion, a lure. Lakshmana and I, accustomed to Rama’s sportsmanship, exchanged glances and laughed in his wake. “He’ll do anything to prove his prowess,” Lakshmana said, but the humor shifted quickly when we heard my husband’s scream of pain.
I gestured to Lakshmana — panic racing in my veins — that he must go. Of course he went.
My pulse kicked against my throat. I was heart-stoppingly aware of how lovely I appeared. That my loveliness would seem accidental, for I was dusty with poverty, clad modestly in much-mended garments. A few old jewels and precious ornaments shone, absurdly vibrant, alongside the flowers in my hair. I tilted my head so my sun-colored eyes caught the light.
I was posing for him; I could not help posing for him. He was still the most beautiful man I had ever seen.
“King Ravana,” I said softly. “The stories claim you have twelve faces.”
“Because men refuse to grasp complexity,” he said. He leaned forward, down, from where the chariot hovered. His eyes were quite black. Like my husband, Ravana looked past my face. Yet where Rama judged, Ravana merely nodded and offered me his hand.
“I love my husband,” I told him. “I won’t come freely.”
“Alas,” Ravana said mildly. The chariot swept low, his arm swept around me. I pushed wildly against his chest like a trapped animal, then fell against him as we rose.
As soon as I could stand properly in his chariot, Ravana released me. Didn’t touch me again. Trembling, I undid my jewels, dropped them for Rama to find.
Ravana managed our course and watched me do it. Said nothing.
The demon city of Lanka was made from improbable spires and silent minarets, and doors that opened onto walls. Staircases spiraled, narrowed into nothing, ended in empty sky. Almond trees grew cloves. Many demons were kind. Some watched me sit in Ravana’s garden, as men once watched me at my window.
The food was very spicy. I was fed well, ate little. Hunger made me wakeful at night and short-tempered during the day. I could have gone anywhere within the demon city, but I had no energy to explore.
King Ravana came to see me every morning. If I chose to ignore him, he let me. He did not make the obvious claims: That exhaustion and thinness failed to lessen my beauty. That Rama had forgotten me.
At first I remember that I cried, screaming at Ravana for forcing me there. He was unmoved, saying only, “I won’t force you again.”
Every other monarch insists he has all the answers. But even Ravana’s city was a question.
Ravana’s attempts at persuasion were smooth, my rejections graciously accepted. Eventually, they were formalities between us, as established as greetings and farewells. They framed wandering conversations and verbal games.
“There was once a guru,” Ravana told me one morning, “who had a vision of his next life. He saw that he would be reborn a pig. So he called his favorite disciple and said: ‘Listen, this is very important. In a year I will die. Soon after, I will be born as the fifth piglet to that sow over there. I will be black, with a white star on my forehead. You must kill my new incarnation at birth, for I would truly hate to live as a pig.’
“The disciple nodded his head, and the guru was satisfied. All came to pass as the guru had foretold; and the disciple, with a deep breath, fetched a knife upon the black pig’s birth. But just as he stood to slaughter the pig, it cried out in a human voice. ‘No!’ it pleaded. ‘I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what being a pig would be like. It’s wonderful! Just let me live.’ So of course the disciple left the pig alive, and it died a contented natural death many years later.”
“If you’re trying to tell me that I will realize my desire after accepting your advances,” I smiled, “the answer is still no.”
The demon lord smiled as well, but shook his head. “That’s not what I meant at all.”
As the time passed, I began to explore the streets of Lanka, for I feared that when Rama came I might otherwise be too weak to move. I had scant will to walk far, but I passed mean alleys lined with solid mirrors; I passed glorious plazas tiled with shattered ones. The roads were protean, and I rarely walked the same one twice. Hovels and elegant manses changed places when my back was turned. Yet I was never lost. The packed throng of demons always gave me space. I never saw a demon woman acting like a whore, or a wife.
When demons spoke to me, I asked how they hoped to defeat my husband. Some shook their heads, some laughed. Some said, “There are battles that must be fought,” and yet they said it so solemnly, it didn’t sound gallant.
In the webbed reflection of one square, I saw a girl at my feet, thinner than I had been since I grew breasts. Without warning, I recalled her words: Sunlight and poison and pain.
The brave monkey King Hanuman came to me that night: Rama’s emissary. He brought me my husband’s ring, and tears streaked my cheeks as I accepted it. To escape, Hanuman set fires through Lanka. The demons worked to quench them all night. The inferno dried my tears as quickly as they came; I stood at the edge of the flames, and I knew I deserved to step into them.
As always, Ravana offered me a sweet drink in the morning, but I took only water. It was only a few hours after Hanuman’s fires, yet mercurial Lanka seemed untouched. “You have never forced me,” I said to him.
“And I never will.”
“At home, they say you are cursed.” I became aware of a strained, accusatory note in my voice. “They say that if you force a woman, it will be your death.”
The thought seemed to amuse him. “Men imagine their worst selves in demons,” he said. “To claim that if I don’t rape, I must be enchanted? It says nothing of me. Quite a lot about men.”
As far as I knew, he had never lied to me. I watched him, watched those inscrutable eyes swallow light. “When I was young,” I made myself say, “I saw you. Flying above my father’s home.”
Nothing showed but polite curiosity. When I paused, he gestured that I should continue.
I was shaking, now. “I wanted you,” I whispered. “And you took me.” I leaned forward so my hair fell and curtained my face. Rama would have pushed my hair away, reached out and grabbed my chin. He would have met my gaze and searched it, demanding to understand.
Ravana left my hair alone. His voice was gentle and sad as rain. “It was my crime, Sita,” he said. “Not yours. You are the most ideal wife this world has ever seen. Most perfect of women, you did not ask me to take you. You looked at me with desire, but desire is not consent.”
“Men seek to make you responsible for what they do,” Ravana said. He still did not move toward me, though pain welled under his words. “They do the same with demons. But, beautiful Sita, I will never do that to you. My desire, my actions, are all my own.”
Fire spread through my mind. I thought of the monkey king racing back to my husband.
“Maybe I’ll walk out of Lanka,” I said finally. My voice was hoarse. I tried to remind myself of my lawful marriage. I tried to imagine Rama’s face. “I could do it the moment you leave this garden. None of your people would stop me.”
“Maybe you will.”
I turned away. After a while, he left.
When the demon king was killed, Lanka screamed and groaned. All mirrors turned the color of rust.
I dressed carefully; it would not do to look alluring. I had saved the flowers from when I was kidnapped. Now they were brittle and dry. They suited my painful slenderness, my wrists and ankles so delicate they seemed about to break. I wondered if my fragility would protect me. (From what?)
When monkey warriors came to guide me, I prayed that I would not step over Ravana’s body on the field. Demons lined the streets and bowed as I left. Ravana’s sister Surpanakha, whom my husband once mutilated, gave me a sorrowful smile from her balcony; I knew she pitied me.
I was not sure what she feared. (What I feared.) My husband had come to free me, and I had been faithful.
Rama did not smile as I approached, but I did not allow myself to falter. Hanuman led his soldiers in a raucous cheer, but their jubilation trailed away as Rama crossed his arms.
“Unknowable woman,” he said coldly. “You have been with my enemy.”
“Not by my will.”
“I cannot see truth in you. Lakshmana, light the fire.”
Lakshmana avoided my gaze. The silence was absolute.
“I have been dying for you,” I said. “There is no man for me, except you.” I tore dried flowers from my hair; I crushed them in my hands. I could not seem to stop crying, though I knew it would not save me. “Why did you fight this war, if not to bring me home?”
“To avenge my honor.” Spattered with blood and sweat and muck, lightly wounded, he yet seemed like a prince inviting me to dance when he motioned to the pyre.
She doesn’t remember what happened in the flames, but when I imagine the moment her pain was worst, I hear Ravana’s voice. “You are the most ideal wife this world has ever seen.”
I was on my hands and knees. Naked; Agni the fire god burned away my clothes, but not my glossy hair. Rama raised me tenderly to my feet, laid a cloak across my shoulders. “I hoped you wouldn’t burn,” he said, and the animals again erupted in cheers. I had never imagined that I could emerge alive from such a thing. I looked into his depthless green eyes and saw Narayana, the world.
My innocence was proven, Rama’s triumph complete. In that moment, Rama was revealed as perfect: He glowed with godhood. The army stepped back in awe. Lesser deities crowded the sky and sang his praises. My husband’s mind and body were human, however; they could not express Narayana for long. Afterwards, he remembered the moment no more than I recall the fire.
In my mind’s eye, I watch Rama struggle with the knowledge of himself as a god. He sets it aside. Everyone bows. No one asks if this means Sita, too, is a god.
Not even Sita.
As I had been the ideal wife, so was I the ideal queen. I advised King Rama well, and oversaw the fortunes of the kingdom he defended. None could stand against his strength or my diplomacy. I created festivals for art, music, dance; Rama’s country was known as the most glamorous in the world.
Age, of course, only increased my beauty.
There were always rumors about the demon king. Though I had come through fire, many spoke ill of me. She lived in the home of her husband’s enemy. Some listened silently to the talk; some pointed out that I was taken unwilling, and that Ravana never forced women in bed. Everyone knew that the pyre had refused to burn me. But the rumors came back again and again.
“Tell me a secret,” my husband said one night, as we lay in our lamplit bed.
“None left to tell,” I murmured. Love had loosened my limbs and warmed my belly.
“And yet I’m never sure I know you.” Rama rolled over and rested his head on my chest, smiling at me. “There must be something you have never told me,” he said.
My hesitation betrayed me. “Please,” he said, and took my hand.
“Ravana,” I said, and my husband tensed. I reminded myself that I loved and trusted Rama; I reminded myself that I had never known another man. That Agni had witnessed for me. “Once, when I was a girl…” my voice halted, skipped. “Before I ever met you. I saw Ravana and felt desire. But he never touched me, my love. He was kind.”
“Is this your last secret?”
“It is my last,” I confirmed, and my husband kissed me. His hands ran down my body, bringing fire.
The next time rumors of Ravana surfaced, my husband banished me to the wilds. I never again lived as his wife.
Our children composed his Ramayana.
I wait for him, one step beside the world. Images of our incarnations swirl around and through me; I am thinking only of one. A fraction of my beauty made Sita the loveliest woman the world had ever seen. A fraction of my blazing light would overpower all Agni’s fires.
When Narayana emerges, he takes a moment to consider me before he speaks:
“Lakshmi, my only love. You are angry.”
“The Ramayana inspires the world, my queen.” He says it as if I should be proud. “The story will last through every Age.”
“And its lessons with it.” I bite off the words.
“I cannot help how the world is.”
“You are the world. You could change it if you chose. But only Ravana seeks to take it apart.”
It is a measureless moment. Narrowly, he assesses me. I wonder if I expected better from him.
Finally he says, “I am the world. You cannot walk away from me.”
“Unless I don’t want this world.”
For the first time, something shifts in those shallow eyes.
“You don’t know what you want,” he says. “And neither did Ravana.”
“Maybe not.” I think of sitting with Ravana under a sweet-smelling tree. I recall the story of a guru reborn as a pig. “But he will allow me space to learn.”
He seizes my wrist. “Ravana is dead,” he snaps.
“So are Rama and Sita,” I remind him.
I have loved the Ramayana since my parents read me the abridged version retold by Madhur Jaffrey in her book of Indian legends, Seasons of Splendor. The tale is named for Rama, who is one incarnation of a god named Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, sometimes called Narayana. Rama is almost always the main character. However, as discussed in the fascinating book Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in Southeast Asia, there are versions of the Ramayana that focus on other characters — including Rama’s wife Sita, an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. And there are versions of the story in which Lord Ravana, the demon king, is the hero, rather than Lord Rama.
Many Ramayanas was published in 1991, edited by Paula Richman, and is free to read online as well as available for purchase in hard copy. While confirming the title of Many Ramayanas, which is a collection of nonfiction essays, I learned that Richman also published a 2008 book called Ramayana Stories in Modern South India: An Anthology, which compiled the stories themselves.
An Indian friend also pointed me towards a 2016 novel called The Liberation of Sita, by Volga. I have not read this book yet, but from descriptions it sounds like the author made similar narrative choices to the ones I made here.
I am grateful to my Indian friends who have discussed their perspectives on this story with me. I am also grateful to an American friend of mine who studied a Hindu spiritual tradition and recently introduced me to some deeper spiritual readings of the tale. This has been especially meaningful to me because I experienced a spiritual awakening in 2016, which was after I wrote “The End of an Age.” That awakening began a journey that gave me new, and more complex, lenses for the story.
One particular lens on Lord Ravana that I currently think about a lot is that, in some traditions, it is said that Ravana chose one of the fastest paths to enlightenment, as his unconscious self chose to hate God (also known as Narayana, the world). The general idea here is that hating God, although it is an extremely painful path, can enable someone to reach enlightenment ten times faster than most other paths, and that this is why someone might follow it despite how terrible it is.