Taking popular myth, lore and culture as the premise of this writeup, Soorpanakha is the sister of Ravana, belongs to a clan commonly identified as rakshasas, standing for the evil race in the deva- rakshasa binary of Indian mythology. Soorpanakha has always been described as ugly, probably because she took her mother’s rakshasini (demon) gene more than her fair skinned brother Ravana who is also the son of rishi Vishwashrava, the stepbrother of Kubera and therefore has rishi and dev blood in him. But it is also strange, since she was initially called Meenakshi believed to have eyes as beautiful as fish and only later called Soorpanakha because of her sharp nails.
The shift in the focus from one body part of Soorpanakha to the other from eroticising the eyes to weaponising the nails and embedding it in a name which is a kind of permanent labelling, speaks of a politics of its own which the article seeks to analyse.
Soorpanakha is a woman who dares to make advances towards a man. She unabashedly expresses first her attraction for Rama and then for Lakshmana, trying to woo the latter for which she is horribly and brutally punished. Lakshmana slays her nose. This could have several implications: but let’s take the popular lore first: we always imagine Soorpanakha as a defaced woman with a missing nose and a blood smeared face. So this is how a woman is punished if she expresses her infatuation, flaunts her sexuality. She is defaced and on top of it vilified. Because the idea of a woman with agency and will is intimidating.
There is also an indication of how rakshasas could change form so in fact the ugly Soorpanakha comes disguised as a supremely beautiful being but changes to her ugly repulsive self once attacked by Lakshmana. The transformation from seductress to demoness is interesting. What does it indicate? That a hurt woman can be dangerous and reveal her ugly self? But the ugly self is also the unconventional, the unorthodox, the non-hegemonic and the strong self.
On the other hand, if the slaying of the nose is considered to be a euphemism, the whole narrative is turned on its head. It could possibly mean that it is Lakshman and not Soorpanakha who made advances forcing himself on the latter while she resisted his advances. Nose is the symbol of female honour in many cultures and the slaying of it could suggest the losing of female modesty. But going back to the hegemonic narrative, where the nose is actually cut leading to defacement, not only is the punishment justified through popular retelling of the epic but also legitimised which perhaps, internalised over centuries, has become a part of our collective unconscious and is so deeply entrenched that the tradition of defacing women who resist, snub or antagonise men in some way or the other continues to this day even as one woman every day in India becomes the victim of an acid attack.
In both cases, what does Soorpanakha do?
She does not remain quiet, as is expected from an acid attack survivor or someone whose modesty is violated. She goes back to Lanka, to her brother, her family and raises a hue and cry about the injustice done to her, which is perhaps why she is vilified in mythology because vocal women can be dangerous. Her losing face or defacement could have been an immediate trigger for Ravana to abduct Sita, resulting eventually in the great battle which is the epicenter of the Ramayana. Seen thus, she could be even judged for being someone who instigated and started a war but so did Draupadi when she was insulted, which again implies two things.
Mostly mythological battles and wars are always the woman’s fault be it the Battle of Troy or the Battle of Kurukshetra or the Battle in the Ramayana. But here’s a woman, who unlike Draupadi, is demonised because probably Draupadi was passive and a victim and Soorpanakha was vocal and invited trouble.
We are all raised on a Bollywood culture of song and dance where the man chasing the woman and the whole notion of street harassment is naturalised and even glorified with the woman eventually giving in to the man’s persistent chasing. However Soorpanakha is different, because in this case, perhaps it is Lakshman who is the object of street harassment and that creates a dent on hegemonic masculinity, which justifies her punishment. Soorpanakha does not cringe and hide in shame. She does not wallow in self-pity neither does she magnify her physical pain; nor does she decide to end the story by ending her life. She plans an action-oriented approach to teach a lesson to the perpetrator of what is unmistakably a crime, which is obviously presented as otherwise. Perhaps that is why she is a rakshasini.
The hegemonic and popular versions of the Ramayana actually glorify Lakshman and his act of inflicting physical violence on a woman. Not only that, it is the act of violence which works as a catalyst in revealing Soorpanakha’s true rakshasini self. Does it imply that an ugly woman cannot desire a handsome man? Or is the implication of Soorpanakha’s transformation and degeneration into a state of utter physical ugliness deliberate to reinforce the binary of good and evil through a blatant manifestation of it at the level of bodily appearance?
What do we finally learn from Soorpanakha? And what do the myths want us to learn? My takeaway from this myth is certainly very different from what the myth would ideally want me to imbibe. Mythology would probably want us to internalise and normalise the passivity and docility expected of a woman to make her acceptable and desire worthy. But what Soorpanakha teaches me is that if you are a victim of mental, physical or psychological abuse in any form, you cannot recede in a shell and hide in a burrow. You need to holler from the rooftop and tell the world, you need to create a media hype about it even if it means having to undergo humiliation, incessant targeting, character assassination and prolonged and universal vilification and even if it means insinuating a war.
Even if it takes a thousand years, someone will get it. Someone out there will know you were wronged and write about it or make a movie or two. Isn’t that exactly what the movie Pink almost does?
I heard the story of an acid attack survivor, which led me to write a poem, which in turn led me to write this article. You could read the poem, Two Attacks, here.
Disclaimer: This article does not intend to hurt anyone’s religious feelings or sentiments. It is written from a purely objective and academic perspective, trying to trace archetypal patterns, actions and interactions which impact society and continue to be relevant in contemporary times.