Review by Laura Dennis
Sita, a young Indian-American anthropology graduate who writes copy for MetLife, marries Pierre, a French-Vietnamese businessman. His work takes them to Norway, where she struggles to adapt, despite or perhaps because she has a talking mongoose named Nenn, a son named Lars, and a new friend, Mona, who seems to be the only other woman in town who is not white. Behind her in America, Sita has left her parents and her two closest friends: Micah, a fellow anthropology student who has immersed himself in Quechua, and Bhoomija, an artist who wants to clear a path for a “generation of newer, even freer brown girls.” This summary of Rashi Rohatgi’s Sita in Exile, the winner of the 2022 Miami University Press Novella Prize, is insufficient, as most plot summaries are, yet it also contains many of the threads readers will follow as they move through this lyrical, complex exploration of belonging and exile.
Thread is a key word here, given that Sita knits everything from blankets to sweaters to hats. When Mona asks Sita to tell the story of her scarf at the end of the first chapter, the tale of the garment unfolds alongside that of Sita, moving back and forth in time, sometimes missing a stitch or two, sometimes unraveling. While literal knitting errors can be made right, the same cannot necessarily be said for the protagonist herself: “How long had it been since she had been well? How much of her life needed to be unpurled before she could be rendered anew?” Throughout the text, Sita hesitates between fully settling into her new home and returning to America and to Bhoomija, her floundering, semi-estranged childhood friend.
While Pierre seems to thrive in their new environment, Sita struggles to learn the language and finds the food flat and tasteless, even as she gains weight, feeling “skinless as a jellyfish, though fleshy as ever.” She also has an uneasy relationship with Mona’s partner, Morten, who prefers to call her Stella and who, “[m]ore than anything else…was white.” In a world so different from anything Sita has known, the appearance of a talking mongoose or rose apples growing in the polar North somehow seems less strange than it otherwise might.
Mythological elements in the text enhance the sense of uncanniness. Stories of Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana, parallel those of the character Sita’s life in explicit and implicit ways. Related Hindu festivals and rituals also punctuate the text, combining with Norwegian, French, and American holidays to give a sort of rhythm to Sita’s life and the narrative alike. Yet time in this novella is also strange, distorted, moving between past and present, reality and what may or may not be hallucinatory delusions. On the one hand, certain cues ground the reader in a specific timeframe that is just post-COVID lockdown, post-invasion of Ukraine. On the other, the reader accompanies Sita in her struggle to make sense of what is happening. Is the pain of exile sufficient explanation for her unsettling thoughts, or does she suffer from post-partum depression, as Pierre and her former professor seem to imply? The wildly varying amounts of sunlight from one season to the next––we are, after all, in the Arctic––also play a role.
Despite containing just 138 pages, Sita in Exile is not necessarily a quick, breezy read. Rohatgi opts not to use italics for the terms that some readers may not know, nor are these terms defined. Although I personally have some cultural background that rendered these elements somewhat less opaque––Scandinavian roots, children born in India, two years in France––there was still much I did not know. I realized, however, that I did not need to; if I felt the need to define or clarify anything, it was up to me to do the work. This serves the text well, for these references, along with the fluidity of time and voice, both replicate Sita’s disorientation and give readers agency. Like the protagonist herself, we can choose how to read the world created in this work, decide what meaning we want to make.
Sita in Exile by Rashi Rohatgi
Miami University Press 2023 $17.00
Laura Dennis is a college professor and co-editor of book reviews for MER. She has published book reviews and her own creative work in a variety of outlets, including MER Vox Quarterly, Still: The Journal, Change Seven, Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable, Bluff & Vine, Northern Appalachia Review, and Kentucky Philological Review.