Exploring India's rich, complex fairytales
It was Book Week at the elementary school where I taught in Delhi, India. The third grade's theme for dress-up day was Indian mythology. When my girls came to me disappointed that they had to dress as princesses from the ancient stories, I was surprised. Indian princesses dress in silk and traditional ornaments, and most little girls love that! But their concern was the character. 'Why do the boys get to be heroes like Arjuna and Rama? Why can't I be a heroic woman? What did the princesses Draupadi and Sita do anyway?'
I dove into my memories for an appropriate character and then gathered my class and told them the story of the princess Chitrangada from an eastern kingdom of India. She was a skilled fighter and horsewoman, as good as or better than warriors in her kingdom. She eventually married the greatest warrior prince Arjuna (becoming one of his many wives). The girls (and boys, despite themselves) listened wide-eyed. On dress-up day, we had a couple of Princess Chitrangadas replete with armor, swords, and other battle gear.
But I was left wondering. Is a heroic woman always a battle-worthy one?
To understand where the girls' questions arose, and the need for Chitrangada's story, it's important to know that the Indian/Hindu epic mythological tales Ramayana, The Story of Rama and the Mahabharata are always told to children as male-centred stories. The prince is the hero and the story begins and ends with him. The princess is merely a natural aspect of the story—a prince finds and protects and loves one or more women along the way.
We don't spend much time on how Princess Sita felt or what Queen Draupadi thought. We don't start the stories with the women, nor do we end the stories with them. I suspect it's because the very stories themselves have changed as patriarchy grew stronger over the ages.
I wondered what the Story of Rama would sound like to little Indian kids if it didn't begin with Rama. What if it began with his wife, Princess Sita? I read several versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to re-tell the stories of the princess in each. This is what I learned:
A true princess can live the plainest life possible because the gown and slippers don't matter.
Being a princess as the Disney consumer product definition goes meant nothing to Sita. Sita loved her husband Rama so deeply that when he was exiled from his kingdom, she chose to stick by him, leaving the wealth, the luxury, the princess status behind and living the harsh life of an ascetic woman in the forest. No beauty products, no rose and milk baths, no maids attending, no crystal-ware. For 14 years she washed her own clothes, grew her own food, cleaned her own hut, and slept on a mud floor happily, because she loved Rama, not his title. Sita was in a unique position: According to the rule of the exile she was not bound to leave the palace. But she chose to—that was the strength of her love.
A princess is a queen in the making. And a queen knows how to say 'no.'
After two exiles, one with Rama and one alone as a pregnant mother, and after bringing up their twins alone, Sita grieved at her husband's inability to trust her. When he refused to stand up for her and humiliated her by doubting her virtue in public twice, Sita said, 'Enough!' Perhaps the first feminist story ever, the Ramayana does not end 'happily ever after.' Sita walked away without looking back. Your 'no' is a valid choice. Make it when you need to.
A princess never relies on advertisements. She knows she is beautiful.
Watch Indian television for 30 minutes and you'll witness the frightening number of advertisements that bombard young Indian girls with fairness skin products. Being milky white as a means to a job, a date, a husband is promoted heavily in print and televised media. I have met eight year olds who felt ugly because they are dark-skinned. I have spoken to girls in Delhi schools about Princess Draupadi who was dark-skinned yet was perhaps the most coveted woman in Indian mythology. 'Princess Draupadi was miles from fair, but did that diminish her beauty? I have brown skin, and I'm proud of it. You should be too,' is what I tell them.
A princess does not cower in a corner when she is abused. She raises her voice and fights for justice.
Nothing could be more the need of the hour in India than the fire of the female spirit. Princess Draupadi was a queen when she was dragged to court and stripped. Her warrior husbands did not stand to protect her, for they said they were bound by a code of honor (patriarchal, no doubt). Draupadi cursed, fumed, and demanded her rights as a queen. For 14 years she waited, never allowing the memory of her abuse to be snuffed out. She was the catalyst for the greatest war in Indian mythology and her insult was avenged.
Indian stories have passed through the oral tradition down centuries. The more I read, the more I'm convinced that they have changed over time, and not for the better. We have much to re-claim and many princesses to bring back to life. Not the Disney ones. The real ones that lived in a real world just like ours, with all its light and shadows.