The Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are a huge part of our culture and society. So much so that quite a few books have been written as their retellings. Screenwriter-producer-turned debut author Smriti Dewan’s book ‘Urmila: The Forgotten Princess’, which released in April this year, is one such new addition to the mytho-fiction genre in India. As the title suggests, the book is a retelling of Ramayana through Sita’s lesser-talked-about sister Urmila. Sharing more details about the book, Smriti told us in a candid chat, “A huge problem with feminist retellings of Ramayana is that it is usually told through Sita’s perspective. In this story, her’s is not a very reliable narrative according to me… I feel Urmila’s story has a lot to say and it is not written about much. My book is not a feminist perspective but a female’s perspective.”
Talking about the inspiration for writing this book, she said, “I’ve always been interested in the Indian mythology and I wanted to do something in that space– either write, produce or direct. In fact, I had originally planned to pitch this story for a TV show in 2014 that showed the parallel lives of Urmila and Sita but things didn’t fall into place. Then in 2019, I was watching the movie ‘Lajja’. There is a very potent dialogue in the film where Madhuri Dixit is playing Sita and she refuses the Agni Pariksha. She says, “I could have also sat at home like Urmila and not followed you to the forest, but I did not”. I felt it was unfair to Urmila because she spent almost all of her Grihast life, which is supposed to be your time of marital bliss and period of child bearing, waiting for her husband to come back from exile. It was a sacrifice which isn’t looked at enough in our culture… It was Manish Gupta’s Hindi poem ‘Urmila Ka Vanvas’ which triggered me to finally write this story.”
In recent years, many books have been published in the mytho-fiction genre. From popular Indian authors like Amish Tripathi, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anand Neelakantan, Anuja Chandramouli to new emerging talents, writing mytho-fiction retellings has become a trend in the publishing industry. Agreeing to it Smriti said, “It has become a trend but I’m thankful to it. For a long time we only had Ramayana and Mahabharata which was shown on Doordarshan or the Amar Chitra Katha narratives. We missed out on different perspectives of the story in India.“
But retelling an epic comes with its own challenges. “These are characters which already have some image in the public’s mind. Breaking that mould and making them be seen in a different light was a challenge to write as you don’t want to hurt people’s sentiments at times,” Smriti revealed. The author also said that she read the classic Ramayanas– including Valmiki’s Ramayana, Adbhut Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana– and ‘Saket’ a poem by Maithili Sharan Gupt along with modern retellings as a part of her research. “I deliberately didn’t read Kavita Kane’s book ‘Sita’s Sister’ because I felt it would influence my writing. I plan to read it now,” she shared.
Talking about being a debut author during the pandemic when the world is under a lockdown, Smriti said that she had been fairly lucky in getting published by Bloomsbury.
The author has previously written scripts and produced shows for television. Talking about the shift from writing for TV to writing a novel, Smriti said that writing a book provides much more creative freedom. “Meanwhile, writing such a long narrative, compared to scripts, challenges your confidence,” she told us.
While the book is a fictional retelling, it’s noted that there are a few modern terminologies used in it. When we questioned the author about it, she explained, “I wanted politics between kingdoms in the story to reflect the politics between the countries that we have today to make the story more relevant in our times. So that was very deliberate. Also the fact that Ram-rajya has become such a big political subject today, I felt it was a good opportunity to just look at what Ram-rajya was supposed to achieve. Ram was a great potential king but every great man or leader has to make sacrifices in their personal lives.“
The author now plans to write a historical fiction novel. “It’s the story of Buddha’s wife, Yashodhara whom he abandoned when she was pregnant,” she said.
Title: Urmila: The Forgotten Princess
Author: Smriti Dewan
Publisher: Bloomsbury India