Crossing the River – Summary and Analysis

Crossing the River or Aatraik Kadaththal is a short play written by Indian feminist writer C. S. Lakshmi who writes under the pseudonym Ambai. It is a one act play and therefore not divided into Acts. In fact it is not even divided into Scenes. The entire play is one long Scene and there is just one actor on stage with a white screen in the background. The only other input is in the form of voices that are heard and the shadows that play on the screen.

There is dialogue in the play but not between two or more people. A single character speaks on stage addressing the audience and at times addressing the voices that put questions to her. The only movement or action that happens on stage is the movement of this one character as she circles the stage while speaking or when she symbolically raises her arms to shoulder level to form a cross. The entire play is in the form of an interior monologue.

Summary and Analysis

Section 1

The play begins with a set of stage directions which tell us how the stage is set. The stage is bare. There is a white screen on the wall facing the audience. The light falls from above on one woman who stands with her back to the audience. Rest of the stage is in darkness. Her head is bent low and her hands also hang low. And then she speaks slowly.

We do not know yet who the woman on stage is. Her bent head and her hands hanging low, create an air of despondency around her. Light is being used effectively to focus on this one character on stage.

When the woman speaks she speaks in the first person and talks of a river being before her once again. The audience has to imagine that river and the white screen which the woman is facing can be a projection of that river in its physical sense on stage.

The woman continues to describe that river, speaking slowly. It is a clear river, revealing the sands beneath. An open river which reveals and hides at the same time. She goes on to list some of the things that the river is hiding — ‘the scratch of oars, the flowers that have touched the dead bodies, hiding the fury that bursts and destroys trees, plants, shelters, lives …’ It may be hiding many other things within it.

In the first section of the play itself the river has begun to acquire a metaphorical meaning. In the traditional sense, it is a metaphor for life. In life too some things are clear while others are hidden. The woman’s speech and the river’s flow are going at the same slow pace. Just as the slow flowing river hides within it the fury that wreaks havoc when it breaches its banks, so also the play will build up to unleash the fury that lies buried and hidden inside any being who may appear to be calm on the outside but may have buried within her/him the pain which comes from years of injustice and oppression.

Section 2

Another set of stage directions follow. There is some movement on stage. The woman turns her head to the right showing one side of her face to the audience and then bends her head back and lifts her face and walks backwards towards the audience taking two steps before speaking again.

Movement and action on stage is important for any performance. A stage cannot be static. It is a combination of action and dialogue that form the basis for sustaining the interest of the audience in a performance. One has to read meaning into every action that happens on stage. If the woman has shown one side of her face to the audience it may signify that she is about to reveal who she is.

She begins by asking which river it is that lies before her. Is it Sarayu? Yamuna? Ganga? Kaveri? Godavari? Narmada? And then she faces the audience and asks the most relevant of the questions. Does it matter which river it is? It is like any other river stretched like a snake with banks on two sides showing the way to faraway places like dense forests, mountain tops and waterfalls. She then walks to the front of the stage and continues to speak telling the audience how she has come a long way through forests with leaves whispering in the wind and the breeze caressing her face and touching her hair. She was happy and came laughing, thinking and then destroyed.

The identity or the name of the river does not matter according to the woman who speaks. All rivers are the same. The actors movement on stage adds force to her speech. When she faces the audience and asks ‘Does it matter which river it is’ she is addressing them directly getting them involved in the performance and forcing them to think. On the metaphorical level the identity of the woman also should not matter because she speaks for all women down the ages till present times.

The movement of an actor is an important aspect of his/her performance. Speech and movement together build up a character. The woman’s involvement with the audience continues as she walks to the front of the stage telling them about a time when she was happy. There was a time when she used to laugh, there was a time when she used to think but then with a sudden twist she brings us to the present moment when she says ‘destroyed I came.’ This generates curiosity in the minds of the readers and audience alike. What changed her from a carefree, happy person to the present dejected one? What destroyed her happiness or took away her freedom? Notice also that she continues to speak in the first person. The narrative is focused on just one person at this point in the play.

Section 3

A set of stage directions intervene. We are told that shadows appear on the white screen in the centre. Voices are heard – both male and female. One of the voices is similar to hers. There is also the whistling sound of the wind. The woman stands frozen -facing the audience.

The white screen is now being used to create an illusion of people surrounding the woman on stage. The shadows and the voices imply that. An atmosphere can be created on stage through the use of sound and light even when there are no physical props. The sound of whistling wind creates an eerie atmosphere. The voices put innumerable questions to the woman.

In this section of the play there are only questions being put to the woman on stage. ‘Who are you’ ask the voices. The question is reiterated and then the voices begin to describe the woman. The first observation is that she looks tired and there is sadness in her eyes. Her body is tired and her words come ‘limping’. Her voice is exhausted and even though she looks familiar her identity is unknown. So once again the question is put to her with an emphasis –‘ Who are you?’ This time however some guesses are made. The voices say that she reminds them of a face in Ravi Varma’s paintings, or even a statue in a temple. She even reminds them of the mother holding the holy child. The voices are unable to place her and ask ‘Where have we seen you?’ They ask her about the distances she has traversed to reach here.

The questions being voiced on the stage are also questions that are uppermost in the minds of the audience and the readers. Till now the identity of the woman has not been disclosed. We too want to know who she is. Her physical appearance however is being constructed in these lines of the play. We come to know that she looks familiar and reminds one of the faces in paintings or statues in the temples. What is more important is the fact that she appears to be exhausted and the sadness in her eyes tells us that she has been through much. Ambai makes a deft use of imagery here to create a character. She personifies words and makes them limp to convey the woman’s exhaustion.

Up until now the readers/audience do not know the identity of the woman. By comparing her to figures in religious paintings or the statues in temples the audience are being enticed to make guesses and are drawn towards the play. Through these comparisons Ambai however, is drawing attention towards objectification of women in society.

A curiosity regarding the woman’s identity is built up in the play. The audience have to be involved and have to remain interested. The question about the woman’s identity does provoke that interest in the audience and readers alike.

‘Where have we seen you? What distances have you traversed? ‘ ask the voices. Two things are happening in these last two questions. The first question emphasizes once again that there is an element of familiarity the woman. She is someone with whom the audience feels a connection. They have seen her somewhere. The next question while asking about the distances she has travelled to reach here also at the same time underlines the fact that this distance is not physical distance. It is distance in the metaphorical sense. It is distance through the ages. And that is why the familiarity. She is not someone who was there in our life just yesterday or the day before. She appears to be someone who has been there from time immemorial.

Section 4

The stage directions this time describe the woman circling the stage and speaking loudly as though making an announcement. At first she walks fast to the left and then she starts circling the stage looking at the white screen as she circles and speaking loudly at the same time.

As mentioned before any performance on stage cannot be static. There has to be movement on stage and in this particular section of the play, the woman who had been simply standing on stage begins to move. Her movement is in circles for two reasons. One is a requirement of the stage – she has to move but she cannot move out of vision. She has to remain visible to the audience. Hence her movement in circles. Ambai has however used this movement very skillfully to covey the strong agitation in the woman’s heart. The image of her going round and round on stage also expresses the fact that she feels trapped. She is not able to find a way to break her shackles and soar to freedom. She finally reveals her name.

The lines that follow reveal the identity of the woman. ‘I am Sita’, she says. Sita who entered the forest, got imprisoned in the forest and is now roaming in the forest.’ So far so good. But the tenor changes drastically when she speaks further. She calls herself the pawn, the cheated and says that she roams the forest because of ‘love, lust and politics.’ She is Sita ‘who has nothing’.

We are in the realm of fantasy here. When the woman reveals her name to be Sita, the Sita of Ramayana, we immediately know that we are straddling two worlds here – one of reality and the other of fantasy; one of the past and the other of present. The Sita of Ramayana has come into our contemporary world.

The woman discloses her name. Knowing that she is Sita we immediately understand why there was this element of familiarity with her. Who doesn’t know about Sita or who hasn’t heard of her, read about her? She has always been a part of our socio-cultural consciousness. We are all familiar with her story and with her image of being an ideal daughter, wife, mother. In the patriarchal narrative she is the epitome of womanhood. But that is a narrative written by men. What if it was written by women? Her words in the play throw a challenge to this hegemonic narrative that has sealed the fate of women from time immemorial.

The image of the always silent Sita, the uncomplaining, docile Sita, the Sita who was merely the shadow of Rama — has been deeply ingrained in the Indian ethos. It is obvious that Ambai is going to challenge this ethos and recreate and retell the story of Sita from her point of view.

In Crossing the River we get to see Sita’s story from a different angle altogether. As against a male rendition we are given a woman centric interpretation of events in this retelling of the age-old myth. The most striking difference is that in her retelling of the myth, Ambai gives Sita a voice. Her centuries of silence is broken! She speaks out against her victimization in a strident manner and recounts with bitter irony the events that hurt and humiliated her.

If Sita never uttered a word does it mean she never felt the pain and the suffering that was inflicted on her? Does her silence mean that she felt she deserved the treatment that she received? Ambai’s play takes a glimpse inside her mind and her heart. We understand now why her eyes are sad. She is emotionally wounded and she is angry too. She knows she has been a victim — as she puts it quite succinctly — a victim of love, lust and politics. The moment she utters these words she becomes every woman who has ever suffered due to the love, lust and politics of men.

If we try to explain these lines in the context of Ramayana however, we can clearly make the connection. At first she roamed the forest because of her love for Rama, whom she followed unquestioningly when he was exiled. Next she was imprisoned in the forest because of the lust of Ravana. Ultimately she was banished to the forest because of the politics which demanded that Rama being a king, should renounce his wife, his queen who is considered impure because she lived in the captivity of a man who was not her husband. Was Sita ever asked what she felt or thought? No!. She was merely a pawn in the hands of the powers that decided her fate. She felt cheated and humiliated. Ultimately everything is taken from her. She is left with nothing.

Ambai’s portrayal of Sita is certainly radical! For the first time we are seeing her from her own perspective, from a woman’s perspective. She never raised her voice against her oppression, her subjugation, her victimization. But that does not mean that she did not feel cheated and victimized. Ambai’s Sita however, is not a mute victim. She doesn’t lack agency and is vocal. She chooses to express her angst.

Suddenly what had always been Rama’s story becomes Sita’s story in this short play.

Section 5

A short two-line stage direction tells us that the woman stops speaking and raises her arms. The shadows appear again on the screen and the voices speak.

The voices now demand to know which Sita she is. Is she Kamban’s Sita or Valmiki’s Sita? Is she the Sita of Tulsidas or is she the Maya Sita who was ‘created to bear the pain and sorrow of the real Sita?’ Or is she the Sita who was made of gold to sit beside Rama so that the rituals that needed the presence of the wife could be legitimized? Then again, ask the voices, is she the Sita of the people’s tales or is she a Sita different from all of the above?

In this section of the play we are reminded of all the different versions of Sita that have come down to us through generations of writers readers. Kamban (who wrote the Ramayana in Tamil), Valmiki and Tulsidas all have their own versions of the Ramayana but Sita’s portrayal in all remains the same. The voices in the play refer to the Maya Sita drawing attention to the story that in actual fact all the hardships that Sita endured were borne by this Maya Sita and not the real Sita. The popular story that an image of Sita was crafted in gold to fulfil the requirement of the presence of the wife to legitimize rituals obliquely points to the fact that woman is important but can easily be replaced with just an image/object to fulfil a formality. There are many tales about Sita and the voices in the play who are asking these questions have sensed that here probably we have a Sita who is different from any of the earlier versions.

Section 6

A long set of stage directions project the woman replying to these questions and at the same time moving her arms, raising them to her shoulder level as if they were wings. At the end of her talk her arms remain raised to the shoulder level in the manner of a cross.

Once again movement on stage is brought through this one figure present on it. Her actions however are symbolically indicative of her desire to be free –free as a bird to fly to wherever she chooses to go. The woman is able to convey her aspiration as well as her desire just by her physical actions. Her centuries of subjugation however, is conveyed through the image of her being crucified at the altar of patriarchy. We have to remember that in her play Ambai is constantly moving from past to present and for contemporary readers and audience the symbolic associations of a cross are obvious. To the woman on stage it makes no difference which Sita she is. The question of her identity gets further complicated.

Does it matter which Sita she is – she asks? There is no real or false Sita. All are real and all false. In anguish she cries out that she is the Sita who was made up with words, bound in words and imprisoned in words. She is the Sita whom authority creates and dictates. She has always been told how to stand, sit or lie or think. She has been told that her Ayodhya is where Rama is. She has to go with him to the forest if he wants it and has to prove her purity through fire. She is the Sita who bears sons, she is the oppressed Sita, Sita of a kind.

In this section of the play the play begins its movement from particular to the general. Sita acquires the symbolic dimensions of being the representative of all the oppressed and subjugated women who have been victims of patriarchal hegemony. She chooses to speak for all of them. That is why she says ‘I am a Sita with many faces’ She has lived in all those women who have been victims like her ‘living through many times, many spaces.’ The mythical Sita is transposed to contemporary times. She becomes everywoman who has had to live her life according to men’s prescriptive commands ‘made up in words, bound up in words, imprisoned in words’. Society has thrown up many Sita’s but frustrated with the fate that society has confined women in, she lashes out in anger saying ‘I am another Sita, another Sita.’ She declares she is different and in this declaration is evident her resolve to forge her own way to challenge the hegemonic system and move forward to realize her dreams and aspirations that have never ever been acknowledged.

Section 7

Shadows cover the screen completely and come near her as if pushing her. The shadows here signify society that wants to prevent her from speaking and exposing an unfair system. Voices put questions to her again and demand to know who she is in truth. Is she a story teller, they ask? Does she have an identity? Does she have a place or other names?

The questions once again voice the ones that may be churning in the minds of the readers and audience alike. The question of identity is a crucial question. Identity is always linked with a name and a place. The mystery surrounding the woman’s identity deepens. Along with the voices we too are curious to know who this woman is.

Section 8

Once again the woman begins to circle the stage. As she circles she talks.

Addressing the voices she tells the that she occupies several places and has several names. She is Thataka, born and brought up in a forest, a forest being but called a demoness and killed in her own forest. Killed by an ‘authority called Rama, an arrogance called Rama, An ego called Rama, A politics called Rama, who humiliated her.’ She speaks the last words in anger and then folds her arms over her chest and stands at one end of the screen facing the audience. The voices however don’t stop and demand to know if she is Sita or is she Thataka. They even want to know if she is a woman or a man or even human at all.

The woman’s movement on stage in circles once again depicts or signifies her growing agitation. In these lines that she speaks she identifies with and assumes the identity of another victim like her – Thataka who was killed by Rama simply because she posed a potential disturbance to the sages performing yagna in the forest. As she understands, the forest belonged to Thataka who was born there and brought up there but Rama’s arrogance and authority turned Thataka into a demoness and killed her in her own forest. While talking about Thataka, Sita or the woman on stage, uses the first person pronoun and says that Rama ‘killed me in my own forest’. In other words she assumes the identity of Thataka by empathizing with her and holds Rama responsible for the injustice meted out to her. This clearly indicates that Sita is becoming a representative figure here of all those women who have been victimized and punished at the hands of powerful and egoistic patriarchs.

The fierce feminist in Ambai surfaces here in her strong critique of Rama through Sita. As against the popular valorization of him being godlike, venerated by all alike, we have here an alternative reading of the myth. In his treatment of Sita and in his authoritative and arrogant actions against beings like Thataka he emerges as an egotistical figure who has no compassion, is almost cruel and is very political.

Sita gives voice to the injustice of it all and her body language expresses her fury. When the voices ask her who she really is and whether she is a woman or a man or even human, their questions have metaphorical overtones. Sita has already identified herself with Thataka who was another victim. By asking whether she is a woman or a man or even human, the questions are opening the possibility of Sita becoming an ungendered being here and stand as representative of all who were oppressed or victimized by the system. The next section of the play carries this interpretation further.

Section 9

The woman on stage slides slowly across the white screen and begins to speak.

She says she is a woman, she is a man she is an object a thing that is ferreted out by rulers. Then she goes on to list all those beings and things that have faced annihilation, victimization and destruction at the hands of the powerful. She is Ravana if Rama so wishes,; she is Sambuga who gets destroyed; she is the horse who gets thrown into the ritual fire; she is the frog who dies by Rama’s arrow; she is the tree that is cut, the river that is bound, the girl child that swallowed poison as soon as it was born. She is also the bride who died in the fire and she is the stone that is broken down in places of worship because it has no hands, no mouth and simply rolls off. She compares herself to stone. Her life has turned into stone.

She sounds tired and leans back before speaking again.

‘I am you, all of you,’ she says, ‘all of you asking questions. I am the body of your questions.’

These lines dissolve all boundaries of gender and make Sita representative of all who have been victims of oppression. Not only do the boundaries of male and female disappear the ones between animal and human as also between animate and inanimate dissolve as well. There is space here even for the horse, the frog, the tree, the river, the stone all of which are seen as victims of destruction at the hands of the powerful and like Sita all of these have no voice of their own.

Section 10

This time the woman lifts her head and looks up. The light falls on her face. There is strength left still she says. She talks of crossing the river ‘to see a new world, to assume a new form, to create a new Rajya.’

There is strength
Left still
I shall cross the river I shall cross the river To see the new world To assume a new form To create a new Rajya.

With confidence she faces the audience looking ahead.

In the beginning of the play the woman had appeared on stage with her head bent low. Now at the end she is shown to be lifting her head. This is a symbolic gesture signifying the woman’s resolve to fight the odds and to win against them. ‘I shall cross the river’ she declares. She will break the shackles and emancipate herself. She will soar to freedom. The society might have oppressed and subdued her will through the ages. But there is strength left still in her. The river here becomes symbolic of her path to a new world, a means to a new form, a possibility to create a new Rajya which in all probability would not be Rama Rajya but a Sita Rajya – in other words a Women’s world, a world where there would be no inhibitions, no prescriptions. Where women would find their dignity, have aspirations and fulfil their dreams. Sita is resurrected here as the new emancipated woman who has the courage to forge her own way

In the end the shadows disappear, the white screen glistens in the background and the woman stands facing the audience with a bright face, looking ahead to freedom and to a new identity.

Ambai’s play Crossing the River is an attempt at a retelling of the age old myth of the story of Sita but from Sita’s point of view. Retelling of myths or relooking at the classics and rewriting them from the women’s point of view is an important aspect of feminist studies today. The image of Sita in the Indian socio-cultural consciousness sees a dramatic change here when Ambai gives her a strong questioning voice which strikes at the base of the pedestal of the supremist like Rama and shake it to the core by exposing and critiquing him.

The play revolves around the question of the identity of Sita which ultimately moves beyond the epic figure of Ramayana to encompass all who have faced oppression and subjugation.

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