Tracing Sita’s footsteps

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At the age of 11, Samhita Arni’s first book The Mahabharata — A Child’s View was already being translated and published in many languages. Her second book, a graphic novel, Sita’s Ramayana, offered a fresh mythological tale from Sita’s perspective. Now Arni is back with The Missing Queen, in which a journalist is on a quest to find the missing Sita.

“Sita keeps coming back to me. Even after two books essentially on her, I think I still cannot grasp her completely. For me, she continues to be a bit illusive,” says Arni. Wearing a white suit she adjusts her one handbag, two sling bags, and confesses, “I believe I am obsessed with mythology.”
The Missing Queen is not just about mythology. Arni likes to call it a speculative feminist mythological novel. A stylish noir retelling of the Ramayana — the Ramayana happening in today’s world. “The story is told from the perspective of a young journalist who wants to find out what exactly happened to Sita, Ram’s absent wife whose abduction triggered the war with Lanka,” says Arni. The search for answers takes the journalist to a war-devastated Lanka.
What prompted her to write the book were the many different versions of the mythological epic and their various revelations. “South has its own version while Patwas have their own take on Ramayana and Mahabharata. In some versions Sita is so submissive that she has only seen Laxman’s feet because she never looked up at him, and in others she emerges as a very strong-willed person. I was intrigued by different aspects of her personality,” she says.
Though her quest to understand Sita continues, Arni insists she is not anti-Ram. She considers him a man faced with hard choices.
Mythology is timeless, believes Arni. “I think many readers of myths feel a personal connection with these myths. The epics and myths are just as relevant today as they were in previous ages, and that’s what makes them timeless and perennially popular,” she says.
Born in Chennai, Arni grew up in India, Indonesia, Italy, Pakistan and Thailand. At the age of four, she started reading mythology when she was growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, where her father was posted as a Foreign Service Officer. By the age of eight, and just before the Babri Masjid demolition, Arni started writing her own version of Mahabharata in her diary. Her mother, Kanchana Arni collected her writings and illustrations and sent them to the publishers.
With three epic sagas to her credit, Arni laughs when asked if her next book will also be based on mythology. “There are other things I would like to write about. Maybe a romance, a thriller or science fiction,” she says.
Arni is an ardent reader and her favourite writers change every week. Right now, she says Ian Rankin, Neal Stephenson, Isaac Asimov, Barbara Tuchman and Gore Vidal are the writers she admires the most.
She has worked as an assistant director, a magazine editor and a scriptwriter. Just back from Afghanistan where she was working with Tolo TV, part of the Moby Media Group, Afghanistan’s largest media group and TV network, Arni says Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was one of the most popular serials there. “When Mihir died, fans cried for days there. And when I started working, I realised that it is necessary for every episode to have about 10-minute slots that would make audience cry,” she says.
Sharing her experiences, Arni says that reality in Afghanistan is very complicated and she finds it fascinating. “However, I am not sure if a book will come out from my experience there. Right now, I am just back from Kabul and on vacation. No projects in the offing right now,” she adds.

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