Whenever I’m interacting with a story, I need some sort of strong female character to be involved or else I rapidly lose interest. When we read A Tale of Two Cities in ninth grade, Mme. Defarge quickly became my favorite character. I still have a good deal of sympathy for her, something that I suspect was not Charles Dickens’s intent when he created her character.1
In terms of the Ramayana, the obvious choice for my anchor in the story is Sita. She’s not the main character—that would be Rama—but in her own Helen-of-Troy way, all the action centers around her. Since I watched A Little Princess as a child, though, I’ve had some problems with her. For one thing, she leaves the protective circle that Lakshmana makes, thus winding up kidnapped and starting a war. Come on, Sita. You had to do one thing.2 Then there’s the whole jumping into a fire because her husband won’t take her back.3 As time has worn on, I’ve grown to like and sympathize with Sita. However, she is not where my true affections lie.
Over a year ago, when the Ramayana Ballet first moved to the indoor theater for the rainy season, I started paying a bit more attention and quickly noticed one character in particular. She wore red, so she was a bad guy, but she clearly sympathized with Sita. Which was interesting. I asked around and figured out her name: Trijata. At which point I turned to Google.
Trijata is Ravana’s niece, the daughter of Wibisana. She’s given the job of looking after Sita, and unlike the other people in Lanka, she takes a liking to Sita and tries to comfort her about the kidnapping situation instead of trying to convince her to marry Ravana. She’s not terribly important in the original story, but in Indonesia she tends to be fairly important.
Despite her importance, she’s not really popular, which I guess makes sense. It’s hard to compete with Sita. However, my love of Trijata remains steadfast and, honestly, the more I see her, the more I like her. Trijata is the only person who sees Sita as an actual person. Everyone else sees her as an object, either to be owned or to be protected.4
When Sita decides to organize a funeral pyre for herself, Trijata is the only one to express concern. In Prambanan’s episodic version of the Ramayana, which occurs over the course of four days during each month of the dry season, Trijata’s part is extended. She doesn’t just tell Sita to reconsider, she also asks Wibisana to do something. Of course, he doesn’t do anything, but it does show what lengths she is willing to go to on Sita’s behalf.
There is also another fantastic scene that some groups include in their performances but that ours never has. In it, Ravana gets so fed up with Sita’s endless denials of his advances that he pulls out his kris with the intention of stabbing her. Trijata stops him by grabbing his arm. Let me repeat, Trijata grabs the arm of her angry king and forces him to stop what he’s about to do.
Yeah. She’s awesome.
But, since I’ve thought about her for so long, I’ve also grown to like Trijata even more for what I see as some major character flaws. Yes, she’s the only character who treats Sita like a person. Then again, after too much thinking and too many performances, I think Trijata goes a bit overboard. She sees Sita as a person and she also sees Sita as perfect. She idolizes Sita to such an extent that, even though she does protest to Sita’s pyre idea, she doesn’t do much else. This is a girl who wasn’t afraid to get physical with the king. She could easily get physical with Sita if she wanted to, but she doesn’t, possibly because she trusts Sita’s judgement too much, even when she sees it as faulty.
And that only makes me love Trijata more. She’s flawed too, even amongst all her strength.
1I once wrote an extensive paper on Dickens’s treatment of female characters. Feel free to ask about my extended feelings on this subject.
2Of course, there’s all sorts of reasoning behind why she did this, stemming from the fact that she was the wife of a king and so had to do her duty.
3Again, lots of speculation can also be had concerning this choice.
4I like to think that Lakshmana is better than this, but ultimately he’ll do whatever Rama says.