A Daughter is Born

I am on a journey this year to travel in the footsteps of Sita. Literally, I shall be visiting the modern-day places associated with her. Metaphorically, I am reading various translations and versions of Ramayana in a bid to explore Sita’s tale. I would love it if you came along for the journey. Do help me in my mission to better understand Sita. Sita, the wife, the queen, the single mother. Sita, the warrior, the learned one, the feminist. 

This post is the second in the ‘In the Footsteps of Sita’ series.

As the year galloped forward, and March slipped into April, I made the trek to Nepal to visit Janakpur, Sita’s birthplace. Embracing Colette’s ‘You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm,’ I set off with more energy than good sense. My heart trilled at the thought of setting foot in the land of Mithila, where a king and queen of ancient times celebrated an orphan girl as their own, and where they raised four princesses to be confident and wise sages, powerful and strong women who would wed only equals. I imagined green fields and quaint temples, echoes of kingly palaces, and memories in the air of the pre-wedding romance between Ram and Sita.

Ah well, foolishness has unexpected disappointments and rewards as I was to find out.

To rewind, the story… (summarized from Devdutt Patnaik’s Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana.)

Once upon a time, more than seven thousand years ago, there lived a king called Janaka with his queen Sunaina. One year, at the start of the sowing season, with much pomp and ceremony (think background music of bells, drums and conch shells), the king was invited to be the first to plough the land with a golden hoe. As he tilled the rich field, he suddenly stopped, for he espied a tiny golden hand reaching out from the earth. The dark soil revealed a baby girl, ‘healthy and radiant, smiling joyfully, as if waiting to be found.’ The farmers were convinced that she was a gift from the earth-goddess. Janaka ‘places her close to his heart’ and declares her to be Bhumija – daughter of the earth, Maithili – princess of Mithila, Vaidehi – lady from Videha, Janaki – she who chose Janaka. He called her Sita. ‘Fatherhood, said Janaka, springs in the heart, not from a seed.’

Janaka becomes a father
Janaka becomes a father. Wall mural at the Janakpur airport.

Janaka and Sunaina go on to have a biological daughter, called Urmila. The king’s brother also had two daughters, Mandavi and Shrutakirti. Four princesses, but no princes in the land of Videha! Meanwhile, over in Ayodhya, the childless King Dashratha had engaged the services of the sage Rishyashringa, to father not one but four sons (more on THAT story later). Our man, Janaka, was offered advice to avail of Rishyashringa’s ‘services’ but he politely declines saying that instead of submitting to the desire of sons, he chose the destiny of daughters.

Yay for Janaka, is what I thought. As the tale unfolds, there is more evidence of the kick-ass father and guardian he is, to his daughters and their cousins. The four sisters go on to marry Dashratha’s sons. Sita to Ram. Urmila to Lakshman. Mandavi to Bharath. Shrutakirti to Shatrughan.

Coming back to my modern-day quest, the first alarm bell went off in my head when I read about the preference of sons of the Nepal Hindus, something that Parusharam, my guide on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek confirmed. Following the same traditions as their Hindu brethren across the border in India, sons are responsible for the cremation of their parents and for ensuring the peace of their departed ancestors. Which sort of makes it an imperative to have sons – as much as to further the bloodline, as to ensure that ghostly souls rest in peace. In pukka British style (Nepal prides itself to have never fallen in the hands of the imperial rulers, unlike India whose history, present and future carry indelible marks of being a British colony) the Nepalese believe in ‘one heir, and one to spare.’ While Parusharam and I despaired over the tradition, we also agreed that things were changing on both sides of the border.

As I travelled through the country over the next few days, the halcyonic image of Janaka’s prosperous and happy palace receded even further. The signs of deep poverty and crumbling infrastructure were all too evident. Landing in Janakpur in the middle of a transport strike, I took a cycle rickshaw along a tarmac road which ended at a track made of rocks, mud and dust about 500 metres from the airport. I heard tales of corruption, years of unstable government and read more on the history and culture of Nepal. The more information I absorbed the more my heart’s song quietened down. Reports estimate that over 12,000 young women and girls are trafficked into India – sold into labour to be exploited, or to become sex workers – every year. The border between India and Nepal is long and porous with only 14 check points, making smuggling mere child’s play.  Middle East and Malaysia are some of the other destinations of hapless Nepalese girls and women.

I thought back to the survivors of sex trafficking that my sisters in law and I have been meeting over the past couple of months (as part of our community services initiative) and my heart further broke at the immensity of the problem, the magnitude of invisibility that women can suffer. Orphans lured into the sex trade with promises of love or jobs. Young girls sold by parents. Women tortured by their husbands and families before being bartered. What are these forces that make humans believe that women are ‘objects’ that they are but ‘property’? The words of Princess Sultana Al Sa’ud from Jean Sasson’s Princess echoed in my grey hotel room:

“But we Saudi women are not the only people who need your help. As I learn more about the status of the women worldwide, I have made the… discovery that women the world over are ill treated…Young girls from Laos and Cambodia and Thailand are forced into the sex slave trade. Female babies in China are left on hillsides to survive…American women are often murdered by jealous boyfriends and husbands. I am often sorry that I know such things, for this knowledge makes me ill with grief.”

After a silent weep, I forced myself to step out of the hotel room to walk to the Janaki Temple, supposedly built on the very spot where Sita was found by the long ago Janaka. As the sun set behind the temple and I perambulated around to admire the wall murals painted by the local Maithili women, I heard the faint whisperings of a heart song. I sat in the temple courtyard to have a good think. The bright patterns and colours of the saris of my local sisters swirled around me, their bindis and sindoor a strident vermillion. Amongst the sweet smell of lamp oil, a thousand voices, and the chanting of the priests in the distance, I heard the cry of a baby girl next to me. Her mum was shy, and her grandmother took charge of the conversation with me. As we exchanged pleasantries, and I wrote some more, images of other girls came to mind, of mothers and fathers. Of my friend – a single mother- who fought the world and the legal system to adopt a girl child. Of the couple friend, who have a biological son and an adopted daughter. Of another set of amazing parents, who want another daughter in their family – and are choosing to adopt. Of a sister, whose deepest desire is to be a mother to a baby girl.

Janaki Mandir
Janaki Mandir, Janakpur

As I sat cross legged on the floor of the temple, I prayed to the Goddess, that she stands by her daughters, the ones found, the ones still lost, those abandoned, those who in battle, both orphans and princesses. I wished more power to the modern day Janakas and Sunainas that adopt girl children and celebrate the birth of girls – whom they shower with love, to whom they teach wisdom and compassion and raise to be creative and independent women. I whispered, with all my heart, Sultana’s prayer, “We must all work together to bring change to this earth. We must persist until every female child is welcomed as joyously as a male child.”

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