. . . . . .  



History tells us more about Sita (the misjudged consort of Lord Rama) and about Smt. Kasturbai (the suffering spouse of Mahatma Gandhi) than we know about Smt. Jashodaben (the invisible wife of PM Narendra Modi).

These three form a pious trinity whose loyalty to their often unfeeling husbands personifies courage, the quality John F. Kennedy defined as ‘grace under pressure’.

Sita’s fidelity to her husband Rama remained intact throughout the fourteen years she spent in exile with him, the last as a prisoner of the demon king Ravana in Lanka. Even after her return to Ayodhya and despite her protestations of purity, Rama sent her into a second exile. She spent fifteen more years in the hermitage of the sage Valmiki who taught her twin sons Lava and Kusa (deemed founders of Lahore and Kasur) the Ramayana he composed.

Persuaded to rejoin her husband in Ayodhya, Sita found herself under suspicion yet again. She appealed to Mother Earth which then obligingly swallowed her.

The cacophony that greeted the original return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya reverberated on 22 January this year. Ramabhakts expect a restoration of Rama Rajya – a halcyon age ‘marked by peace, prosperity, and harmony’. [The equivalent for Muslims is the Raisat e Medina.] Some though felt that Sita should also have been venerated for her uncomplaining devotion to Lord Rama.       

When I visited Ayodhya and the ruins of the Babri masjid in 2005, I stayed in the guest house of a temple dedicated to Sita. It was built by a matriarch of the Orchha royal family and serviced with food and fresh bathwater every day, as if Sita and Rama still lived there. Its other occupants were an uncontrollable troop of monkeys, given free rein for being descendants of Rama’s monkey ally Hanuman.   

Another Sita of sorts was Kasturbai Gandhi, M. K. Gandhi’s loyal wife. She endured endless humiliation at his hands, estrangement from her children, and even accepted his unilateral decision to become a brahmacharya. Shamed by him into forgoing salt and pulses, she died, swallowed by his insatiable ideals.  

Gandhi, like his idol Rama, was a less than a perfect husband. He wrote of Kasturbai that he ‘expected obedience from her’. In his memoirs, he admitted: ‘She was very obstinate. In spite of all my pressure she would do as she wished. This led to short or long periods of estrangement between us. But as my public life expanded, my wife bloomed forth and deliberately lost herself in my work.’

The poetess Sarojini Naidu described Kasturbai as ‘the living symbol of Indian womanhood. Never once did her feet falter or her heart quail on the steep path of perpetual sacrifice, which was her portion in the wake of the great man [she] followed with such surpassing courage, faith and devotion’.  

Kasturbai and Gandhi spent 62 testing years together. Indian PM Narendra Modi and his wife Jashodaben have spent ‘a total of about three months’ out a three year period of cohabitation, after which he abandoned her for a political career with the RSS.

A reticent person, she revealed in a rare interview that ‘when he told me he would be moving around the country as he wished, I told him I would like to join him [.] He used to spend a lot of time in RSS shakhas.’

Spurned but not divorced, she has lived a frugal life, surviving on a teacher’s salary and now on a modest pension. She knows Narendra Modi almost as well as his enemies: ‘I will not say anything against my husband. He is very powerful [.] I am afraid of the consequences.’

All three - Sita, Kasturbai and Jashodaben - symbolise the role selfless wives are forced to play in misogynist societies. They have yet to be acknowledged as private martyrs, eclipsed by publically glorified heroes.

Legend has it that Rama (sans Sita) ruled over Ayodhya for 10,000 years. Since then, his devotees believe that mere recitation of the Ramayana ‘brings prosperous families, wealth and grain in abundance, lovely wives, supreme felicity, and complete success in all undertakings’.

The Ramayana recounts how the monkey king Sugriva accompanied Rama on his return to Ayodhya, taking with him nine thousand elephants carrying monkeys ‘in the form of men’.

On 22 January 2024, no monkeys were visible during the pran prathistha of the new Rama temple. Apparently, they have no place in the second Rama Rajya. Nor have Indian Muslims who are faced with a trinity of cruel choices: expulsion to wherever, conversion without integration, or forced sterilization?

The Congress party dare not object. It still has Sanjay Gandhi’s ‘gruesome campaign’ of compulsory sterilisation (mainly of Muslims) in 1975 to answer for.   



[DAWN, 8 February 2024]




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08 February 2024
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