The Missing Queen is an imaginative re-telling of one of the oldest epics in human history, the Ramayana, set in a contemporary Ayodhya (although the actual time period isn’t specified) and re-invents it with a unique perspective. As Ashok Banker points out in one of the blurbs, Indian bookshelves have recently become glutted with half baked mythological retellings (including, I should add, his own turgid and banally verbose version of the Ramayana), but Arni’s version stands out as fresh, gritty, and above all, real. To begin with, from a narrative point of view level, it’s told through the character of a young journalist in search of Sita, the eponymous missing queen. This provides a refreshingly novel perspective on an oft told tale and allows the author to explore important themes in feminist literature, the role women are assigned and are often forced to play by an inherently patriarchal society, as well as simultaneously exploring the notion of media/press and personal freedom in an Ayodhya that is clearly a totalitarian state.
The Missing Queen stays very much within the liberal feminist tradition, in the sense that it explores how the feminine is constructed as a reflection of the masculine construct. Postmodern feminist theorization would argue that it resides within a non-multivocal modern functionality, without observing or disturbing the teleological forces that underpin such a super-structure. It doesn’t push the edge, in other words. That perhaps is one of the few failings of the book, it points to socio-political fault lines but doesn’t really challenge them or push the limits in any way. It avoids religion almost entirely as well. You could argue for a sense of misandry, but that might be pushing it, I think. The author, in her own words, doesn’t want to be the next Salman Rushdie.
Still, The Missing Queen is strongly feminist, the entire plot is told from a feminist perspective centered around a valiant attempt to discover, or perhaps more properly uncover, a feminine archtype, the wronged woman. Like Draupadi, Sita is portrayed as the helpless victim, wronged by the world and particularly by men. This is an important point that a lot of reviewers seem to have missed, the book clearly replaces the modern feminist search for the ideal man (Sex in the City, Bridget Jones’s Diary etc) with a search for a much more important universal principle: truth as beauty, personified by Sita. The price that perfection has to pay, again, personifed by Sita and typified by an autocratic Ayodhya. Still, that locates it squarely within the realm of ‘gender feminism’, as does its unapologetic ‘tale of the marginalized’ point-of-view, looking wistfully out over at ‘equity feminism’ without quite making it there*. Tangentially, but very interestingly, this brought home a rather striking similarity between the Iliad and the Ramayana. In both stories, war kicks off because a beautiful, aristocratic woman is abducted from her home allowing her self-righteous male relatives their casus belli. Still, I digress. But the parallel nature of arch typical myth is more than a little interesting.
Nevertheless, all that aside, is The Missing Queen worth reading? Mostly, yes. It’s well-imagined. The archetypes of myth are cleverly translated into modern stereotypes – Ram as the teflon-sincere uber-politician, Laxman as his puffing, overweight bureaucrat sidekick, Valmiki as the ‘official biographer’, Suparnakha as a Lankan rebel leading the LLF (Lankan Liberation Force) in a clear tip of the hat to the LTTE and the Naxals, and so on. There are some lovely (female) characterizations, Kaikeyi as the scheming, pearl and chiffon clad dowager/queen in particular. The only slightly jarring note was The Washerman as a sort of cliched mafia-don head-basher crossbreed villain, the run-rabbit-run type. The story cracks along quickly and inventively, and there are quite a few little gems of dialogue and observation scattered through the narrative.
On the downside, there are a lot of potentially explosive socio-political overtones but Arni has been careful to brush the edge of the polemic without actually crossing any lines that could or would offend the religious far-right in India, as reinventing a beloved epic in India is not without its dangers. Still, the parallels with Naxalism, of a Lanka left raped and destroyed, and an Ayodhya-shining media campaign to cover-up glaring discrepancies of wealth and power ring unnervingly true with contemporary India. You could argue, though, that the sense of salvation built into the narrative is ultimately self-defeating, violent rebels as the avenging remnant of a genocidically eradicated population are unlikely saviours. As another reviewer put it, the book falters under its own sense of reinvention. But again, it is a modern reinvention, not a postmodern one, and it does a great job of shearing the Ramayana of its religious patina and baring the ugly, mostly unasked questions underneath – is history only written by the winner? What really happened to Ravan? What really happened to Sita? And as any good, originally slightly naive and idealistic (but quickly disabused of such notions) journalist would do, the protagonist of the book attempts to ask and answer these questions. This is where the book shines, its contemporary relevance. Certain themes are eternal – love, loss, the quest for the truth – but the way Arni plays on them resonates strongly with todays consumerist and patriarchal world, and the hopelessness of the deprived and marginalized.
Most importantly though, The Missing Queen is a good, quick, if somewhat incomplete read. It’s certainly entertaining, occasionally engrossing, and rarely if ever wince-worthy, an important benchmark for mythology derived contemporary thrillers. The Da Vinci Code stills hold my record, although I recently read Matthew Reilly’s Scarecrow, and that might’ve inched ahead now.
* I should probably mention here that I’m personally acquainted with the author, we’ve been friends for a long time. We’ve had many an entertaining argument over a bottle (bottles, on a few occasions) of wine about mythology, and occasionally on feminism, with me often taking the side of right-wing Hindutva-ism to play, I should hurriedly add, devil’s advocate.