Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946). Part 1: Text

The first American edition (1947)

The work of Maurice Collis is well known in Myanmar (formerly Burma) but hardly at all in Europe or America, though he was once a celebrated author. Quest for Sita (1946) – his version of part of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana – is most famous in Britain for having been ‘illustrated’ by the writer-artist Mervyn Peake. Collis himself describes their partnership in the book’s preface as joint ‘quests’ to interpret Valmiki’s text, and the equal status of these quests is signaled on the dust jacket of the first US edition of 1947, which describes it as the work of ‘two master craftsmen’ and the pictures as ‘Drawings by Mervyn Peake’.[1] In his Preface to this edition Collis refers to the transformations undergone by the epic through the ages, whereby the story has been repeatedly modified in response to the new pressures exerted on it by the new experiences of successive generations. ‘Each writer,’ Collis tells us, ‘as he brought it to life again, tinged it with the colour of his own period and environment’, and he sees himself as following in this tradition. His aim, he says, was to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’, and his method ‘while preserving the main outlines of her history’ to ‘vivify it by passing it through his imagination, the course taken freely by his predecessors of Asia’ (p. vii). ‘The same,’ he concludes, ‘may be said of Mr Mervyn Peake, whose drawings are less illustrations of the text than a quest of his own to show Sita to us’. Quest for Sita, then, may be described as a joint venture that represents part of the ancient epic through the eyes of two European artists at a particular time in history. The artists may be from Europe, but for Collis they both participate in India’s commitment to the Sita legend, seeking to transplant it into a Western culture that has deliberately distanced itself from the culture and history of the subcontinent it has been exploiting for so many centuries.

Maurice Collis by Gérard Laenen

In this blog post and the next I will consider Quest for Sita as a collaborative artistic enterprise, rather than as a writer’s project which happens to have been embellished by an artist. In the process I hope to learn something about Collis’s neglected craftsmanship as a writer, while also learning how to think about the illustrator’s craft, which strikes me as having been equally neglected. I can’t think of a better book to use for the second of these purposes; first, because Quest for Sita contains haunting pictures which have been widely praised (though not often analysed) by both commentators and collectors; secondly, because the drawings seem to have a life of their own, quite distinct from the text; and thirdly because this is a book which has never been printed without its illustrations, so that Peake’s images seem to have been accepted as essential adjuncts of Collis’s prose. I should say at once that I didn’t at first expect to have as much to say as I do about Peake’s pictures; and there remains a lot more to say about them. To modify the old saying, a picture is worth much more than a thousand words, a truism that gives the lie to the usual perception of the relationship between word and image in book illustration, which tends to weight the collaboration very heavily in favour of the writer.

Abduction of Sita by Ravana, Prambanan temple, Central Java, ca. 900 CE

If Quest for Sita was a bid to bring the heroine of the Ramayana back to life, 1946 was a remarkable year in which to do it. Valmiki’s epic is revered and performed throughout the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia and China, and the whole of this region was in turmoil as the project took shape. According to Peter Winnington, Peake’s drawings were made ‘in the late summer and autumn of 1944’, while Collis’s text must have been written earlier.[2] Burma (Collis’s home of more than twenty years) was largely under Japanese occupation at the time, and the Burmese independence movement, which aimed to liberate the country from both Japanese and British rule, was at its height. Collis set his version of the story in China, also under partial Japanese occupation in 1944, and India, which was mobilizing huge numbers of troops against the Axis while continuing its own struggle for independence from the British. Peake’s drawings furnish the characters in the story with variations on the South-East Asian royal headdress known as makuta (magaik in Myanmar), linking the story back to Burma. The ‘colour of [the artists’] own period and environment’ pervades the project, in other words, and many of those colours are violent ones, well suited to a story of abduction, combat and rescue played out between gods, mortals, demons and monkeys in a landscape of mountains and magical islands.

Maurice Collis by Feliks Topolski

Maurice Collis was well placed to make the most of the Sita story in this context. He is often described as ‘British’ in accounts of him, but in fact he was an Irishman, the oldest of three brothers from Killiney, County Dublin. His father, a wealthy solicitor, sent him to Rugby School in England, and he joined the Indian Civil Service when he left university, settling in England after his retirement in 1934. All of this makes him sound like a thoroughgoing Unionist and a dedicated servant of Empire. But Collis was a nationalist sympathizer – allying himself to the Burmese as well as the Irish independence movements – and his behaviour as a magistrate in Rangoon got him in trouble for failing to toe the colonial line on several occasions. His book Trials in Burma (1937) describes three trials in particular where his judgments were at odds with those of the British expat community. In the first he failed to impose serious punishment for sedition on a well-known activist for Indian independence, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, when he spoke publicly in Rangoon; in the second he reprimanded a British merchant for failing to administer first aid to a servant he had fatally injured; while in the third he sought to impose a prison sentence on a British army officer who had knocked down two Burmese women in his car. The sentence was overturned by the High Court and Collis was effectively demoted, being sent as an Excise Commissioner to the remote port of Myeik, where he went on researching Burmese and Chinese history and culture. After his retirement from the Civil Service he wrote many books – novels, histories and biographies – as well as three plays. Many of his titles confirm his continuing interest in the workings of imperialism, from an account of the Spanish invasion of the Americas, Cortés and Montezuma (1954), to a history of the first and second Opium Wars between Britain and China, Foreign Mud (1946). As an Irishman, he saw British activities in the Far East with the sceptical eye of an outsider; and his consciousness of this outsider status may have been intensified by the fact that publications by the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party were widely circulated in 1930s Burma, as a route map to liberation from British influence.[3]

A few more things are worth mentioning about Collis. First, he had a pair of remarkable brothers, John and Robert, the first of whom became a pioneering ecologist while the second worked as a doctor with the Red Cross during the Second World War, notably in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and later with cerebral palsy patients in Dublin, including the writer-artist Christy Brown. Robert could conceivably have met Mervyn Peake in 1945 when the artist entered Bergen-Belsen with the aim of recording it in pictures (a task Peake found impossible, as he explained in a poem).[4] Maurice Collis, meanwhile, had a lifelong interest in the visual arts; he wrote books about L. S. Lowry and Stanley Spencer, and took up painting himself at the age of 67. It was this interest in art that first brought him together with Peake. He reviewed one of Peake’s exhibitions in June 1944 and was so struck by one drawing in particular that he invited him to draw pictures for Quest for Sita.[5] The friendship between them lasted for the rest of Peake’s lifetime. When Peake won the Heinemann prize for Gormenghast and The Glassblowers in 1951 he asked Collis to go with him to the prize-giving ceremony, and Collis later penned an ‘introduction’ to one of Peake’s exhibition catalogues, in which he comments that ‘His world is pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’. This unique ‘mood’ is what sets Peake’s pictures apart from Collis’s text in Quest for Sita, and Collis’s celebration, in his Preface, of the independence of Peake’s response to Sita suggests that it was achieved with the writer’s active encouragement.

Maurice Collis, Expulsion of the Foreign Devils

To describe Quest for Sita as a version of part of the Ramayana doesn’t do the book justice. It’s a narrative as much concerned with the international impact of the Ramayana as it is with the epic itself; and its stated intention to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’ endows Valmiki’s poem with the same kind of vibrant relevance to anti-colonialism in India, China and Burma as the Irish Revival had to the struggle for an independent Ireland. The book introduces the Ramayana to its Western readers in much the same way as James Stephens (another friend of Peake’s) had introduced British and American readers to the Irish literary heritage that underpinned the independence movement.[6] Quest may, in fact, have had a similar intention to Stephens’s retellings of Irish tales: to get the old stories into widespread circulation among populations that did not know them, and thus to lend those stories a symbolic and political reach they would not otherwise have had. And Collis underscores the unexpected link between the Indian and Irish contexts with the addition of a number of new episodes of his own, to supplement the new episodes added over time by his Asian forerunners.

In Collis’s book, the tale of Sita’s abduction by the ‘Dark Angel’ Ravana is set within a frame narrative that takes place near Chongqing City in Sichuan Province, China. A girl named Swallow, whose family are starving, is sold by her parents to a marriage broker, who plans to sell her on as a wife to any man willing to pay a good price. Swallow escapes from the broker’s clutches and is given shelter by the mysterious Sage of Wushan Mountain. The Sage believes he recognizes the girl from some former life, and she agrees to take part in an experiment whereby he sends her back in time, with the help of a meditation-induced trance or dream, to the period when they first knew each other. By this means the pair discover that they are reincarnations of the famous lovers Sita and Rama, having taken on their roles in a dream reenactment of the central portion of the Ramayana. When Swallow wakes from her dream at the end of the novel she learns that the Sage is also the son of the Emperor of China, banished from court after having been unfairly implicated in a plot against his father. The frame narrative ends with the Prince being reinstated as his father’s successor and returning with his new wife Swallow to the imperial court – though not before the girl has made sure that her parents and younger brothers will never starve again.

Pu Yi, the Last Emperor of China

The frame narrative isn’t set in any specific period in history, but it contains elements that would have been familiar to Chinese, Irish and Indian readers. The notion of a Chinese Emperor in exile might have called to mind the so-called Last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, who was deposed as a child in 1912 and later set up as puppet Emperor of Manchuria by the Japanese invaders. Royalty in exile was also a theme of Irish history, especially after the Anglo-Norman Invasion of the late 12th Century. Famine, meanwhile, was an abiding presence in British colonial history. The famine that drives Swallow’s family to offer her up for sale recalls both the Great Hunger triggered in Ireland by the potato blight of 1845-9, which was exacerbated by the refusal of the British government to intervene, and the famines that afflicted China in the nineteenth century, which were exacerbated by population expansion and the widespread use of opium. It was the British who forced the Chinese government into legalizing opium in the Opium Wars of 1839-60, as Collis explains in Foreign Mud (a book he published in the same year as Quest for Sita); so the British imperial authorities were complicit with disastrous famine events in China as well as in Ireland. The British were complicit too with famine in India, much closer to the time when Collis was writing. Churchill famously refused to relieve the food shortage in Bengal in 1943, resulting in around three million deaths. Collis makes no reference in Quest for Sita to the Irish, Chinese or Bengalese famines, but for readers who shared his anti-imperialist sentiments he would not have needed to.

Maurice Collis, Two Figures in a Garden

Famine drove the Chinese and the Irish to disperse across the world, where they often found themselves subject to racist abuse. Collis’s frame narrative works to counter such racism by elevating Swallow, the daughter of a starving Chinese farmer, to semi-divine status as the heroine Sita, before providing her with the most spectacular of fairy tale endings. The ending, in fact, represents the fulfilment of all her dreams – and from the start of the book Swallow is represented as an inveterate dreamer. In childhood she is always dreaming of Wushan Mountain, expecting some ‘Saint’ to come down from its slopes and whisk her away from her life of poverty. She later learns to her disappointment that Wushan is not the mountain it was, in terms of the sanctity of its occupants. An old man named Ho, who helps Swallow escape from the broker’s henchman, explains that the hermits living there now are very far from Saints, and that the mountain’s reputation has dwindled accordingly. Ho’s personality confirms his words, since his own claims to wisdom and holiness are decidedly suspect. He insists, for instance, that he has mastered magic in the course of his studies, but the only spell he ever casts is a feat of trickery whereby he changes Swallow into a boy by giving her male clothes, ‘a metamorphosis as complete,’ he adds, ‘as any that magic might have effected’ (p. 10). He then frightens away the broker’s henchman by telling him that the girl has transformed herself into a hare, which both suggests to the terrified henchman that she is a demon and proves, as Ho points out, ‘what excellent results may be obtained by blending the natural with the supernatural’ (p. 11). By this point in Collis’s story we may suspect that the world in which it takes place is one where spirituality and magic have been set aside in favour of pragmatism, as embodied in the sleight of hand that helps the poor survive in times of crisis.

But later Swallow finds that her dreams are not so far-fetched after all. Magic lurks everywhere in Collis’s novel, just beneath the surface of the present, woven through the fabric of the past. Swallow’s ‘metamorphosis’ into a boy is only the first of many episodes in which illusions play a major part, and each illusion conceals a reality more remarkable than the last, revelation opening out from revelation in a series of Chinese boxes. What seems at first, then, to be a story that highlights the slow decay of Chinese civilization over time, ends by insisting that the link between past glory and the suffering present is an active one, just as it was for the Irish literary revivalists in the days of British rule. One might see the book as an allegory for the work of looking closely into unfamiliar cultures before you judge them. The closer the European or American reader looks into the life of the starving girl we meet in the opening pages the more wonderful she appears, and the more remarkable the Chinese and Indian cultures that produced her.

Set of Chinese nesting boxes, c. 1930

Swallow herself resembles a set of Chinese boxes from the moment we first meet her, like the story in which she appears: one box hidden inside another in an endless series that continues to unpack itself until the end of the narrative. Despite her poverty at the beginning she is well educated, and can recite poetry to express her feelings (pp. 3-4), of the kind made popular in Britain after the Great War by the translations of Arthur Waley. She also feels ‘some hidden aspiration’ (p. 4) for better things even when she is hungry, the earliest clue to her mythical past and imperial future. The Chinese box analogy is reinforced when Ho brings her to meet his master, the Sage of Wushan Mountain, who gains from her face the impression of meeting again ‘one whom I had lost through my own fault in the mists of time’ (p. 22). After a time this impression recedes, but it continues to haunt the Sage’s mind as he gets to know her better. He describes it as ‘fantastical’, since she is only a ‘poor village girl in [a] blue cotton gown’, but nevertheless takes her on as his pupil, and increasingly sees resemblances in her not only to the person he first took her for but also to himself (talking to her is ‘like talking to oneself’, he begins to think [p. 23]). His desire to uncover her past identity is part of a drive to discover his own, since he senses they are closely linked; and Swallow in her turn senses that she knows him as well as herself, being convinced that he is ‘sane and wise’ despite their short acquaintance (p. 27). Her spiritual journey to the past, then, is a journey both into herself and into him, and takes her to a place where disguises and false appearances are everywhere, and where seeing through them is a necessary act of heroism. Collis’s stress on disguises and false appearances in his frame narrative, in other words, echoes a theme in the portion of the Ramayana he retells, and implies that knowledge – of the sort he himself acquired of Chinese and Burmese language, art and history – leads to the recognition of equality between previously unevenly matched elements: communities, individuals, genders, in the frame narrative; humans, gods, demons and animals, in the Ramayana.

Sita

At the same time, knowledge in this book is hard to obtain. The Sage’s doubts about Swallow’s past identity, which he tests by sending her back in time, later find an echo in Rama’s doubts about Sita’s loyalty, which he tests by subjecting her to trial by fire. Even the nature of the place and time Swallow travels back to in her trance is left uncertain. We are informed in the heading of chapter 10 that the period she enters is the ‘Golden Age’ of Hindu myth, but Rama’s brother Lakshana casts doubt on this designation (p. 44), and his doubts turn out to be justified. In the following chapter we learn how Rama was banished from his father’s court through the machinations of his wicked stepmother; and later his wife Sita, who went with him into the wilderness, is captured by the Demon King Ravana and taken to his island stronghold of Lanka – later Sri Lanka – from which Rama and his brother Lakshana must set her free. Lanka represents an illusory Golden Age in miniature, which substitutes lavish ornamentation and wild orgies for enlightenment and impartial justice. From a distance the island appears as ‘golden, glittering, bodied with green, rising from the foam’ of the Indian Ocean (p. 118). And it is full of gold. Ravana likes his monstrous followers to wear ‘gold coloured’ skin to hide their true forms (p. 76); he drinks from a gold chalice at his orgies (p. 78), and promises his Amazon warrior women beautiful youths with ‘dimpled golden skins’ as a reward for good service (p. 84). So obsessed with gold is Ravana, in fact, that at one point his prisoner Sita compares him to the ornamental carp in his palace pond:

Sita waited by the goldfish pond, watching the scarlet shapes as they glided under the white locus. The faces were as if masked, like masked dancers in a supernal drama, for the thought in their eyes was not of this world. Their orbs stared coldly, monstrously, like dragon-masks. To the little denizens of the water they seemed dreadful for all their splendour of gold. Such was Lanka, both gilt and demonic, with its shimmering sea and white battlements, its palace of women from all the heavens, and a dragon king of many metamorphoses. (p. 129)

Gold, then, is a suspect mineral in this version of ancient India, and it is for Rama and Sita to find a way to bring about a true Golden Age in place of Ravana’s false one. Sita herself points this out at one stage, when she recalls the miniature Golden Age the couple experienced in their hermitage before her abduction, but goes on to say that this too was not the real thing. ‘That the Golden Age be extended to all the earth,’ she tells her friend, the vulture Sampati, ‘Rama must fell Ravana’ and return to rule his father’s kingdom (p. 120). But this is hard to achieve, since the material gold of royal courts and marriage brokers – as against the spiritual gold of enlightenment – continues to exert its fascination on the young couple, and ends up by competing with spiritual gold throughout the middle portion of Collis’s text for control of their souls.

Maurice Collis’s house in Sittwe, Myanmar

Spiritual gold is much harder to acquire than material gold in Quest for Sita, and as easy to use as deceptive gilding for bad intentions. In the frame narrative, as we’ve seen, there has been a decline in Chinese sanctity in Swallow’s lifetime; but sanctity proves equally elusive in the age of Sita. From the start of the Ramayana section, the notion of holiness is used to put a gloss on political scheming. When Rama’s stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi, coerces his father into naming her son as heir to the realm in Rama’s place, she chooses to reinforce the king’s decision by sending Rama and Sita into exile, setting them up as religious solitaries in the ‘woods of the anchorites’ (p. 38). In token of their new pseudo-religious status the Queen has them clothed in the distinctive habits of the ‘anchorites of the forest mountains’ (p. 42); but this fails to conceal the couple’s true identity, since even dressed in these humble garments they remain ‘as beautiful as denizens of the Golden Age’. Ashamed of his weakness in acceding to Rama’s exile, the King then exposes his sense of the disparity between their high birth and their new role by urging them to carry various luxuries into the wilderness: servants, ladies, soldiers, gold, their favourite dishes. Rama refuses, desiring to prove himself a genuine anchorite, not a fake one, and thus to certify his obedience to his father. The King, however, sends a box of clothes and jewellery after them, so that Sita at least can dress like a princess, even in exile (p. 42). And predictably, this box of clothes and gold is the couple’s undoing. The events that lead to Sita’s kidnapping begin after she has opened the box of clothes to try on the dresses they contain. At once a wonderful gazelle trots out of the forest, whose distinctive markings – the colour of its hide ‘gold splashed with silver’, its rainbow tail like that of an exotic breed of goldfish (p. 54) – reveal its status as bait for unwary princes and princesses. It’s in pursuit of this goldfish-gazelle that Rama leaves his place by Sita’s side, swiftly followed by his brother Lakshmana, sent after him by Sita to rescue her husband from a seeming attack by ferocious demons. The Princess, then, is partly responsible for her own abduction, having been distracted from her religious duties by the sumptuous garments sent by the King. And this distraction could have been anticipated from the start of the central section of Quest for Sita. Not long before this episode, she and Rama were assuring each other, like the banished Duke Senior and his companions in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, that the wilderness is a better place than the royal palace. Rama told Sita that the ripples that embellished her wrists as she bathed in a pool provided ‘Livelier bracelets […] than ever [she] wore’ at the royal Court (p. 33); while Sita in turn assured her husband that the tree under which they were sitting resembled ‘the scented parasol they used to hold above us’ to mark their royal status. Despite their obedience to the King’s command, in other words, the couple kept seeing the royal court through the mountain landscape as if through a window, which suggests that their minds were not attuned to the life ascetic.

Dancer

Ravana seems to mock this failure to commit to a religious existence when he appears to Sita, soon after the episode of the gazelle, in the unlikely guise of a ‘religious mendicant’ (p. 58). This apparent monk keeps making inappropriate remarks about Sita’s beauty before revealing himself as the Demon King and whisking her off in his magic chariot. Once in Lanka, the religious mockery continues in the entertainments Ravana chooses for Sita’s amusement. At one point his dancer-sprites reenact the seduction of the saintly ‘anchorites of the Black Desert’, each dancer transforming herself from anchorite to seducer and back again to anchorite in ingenious imitation of the constant struggle between body and mind undergone by hermits:

That at certain moments a dancer in jewels and girdle, by force of expression, pose and some inner identification, took on sufficiently the appearance of an anchorite, wrestling against the very lasciviousness which her form represented, was far more potent in suggestion than if she had remained a temptress. To see the anchorites, each a naked sprite, writhing, staring, overcome and, turned pursuer, darting, leaping; and, at the moment of the leap, to see the sprite again, seductive and smiling; to see all this in the self-same dancer, was to be confused, nor to know whether the transformation was by art or magic, an imagined or a real metamorphosis. (p. 80)

This dance in fact replays the adventures of the royal anchorites, Sita and Rama, as an inner conflict. The couple’s dual identities both as prince and princess and as holy hermits set them radically at odds with themselves, a state of mind Ravana hopes to exploit as he seeks to lure them into his power, as he has lured many others before them.

Dancer

But there’s another side to the dance of the sprites, which predicts the eventual outcome of the continuing contest between Ravana and the royal couple. The dancers, we’re told, have ‘some inner identification’ with the anchorites they mimic, and this suggests that they too are undergoing some sort of identity crisis, torn between their ostensible work of seduction and a secret sympathy for the targets of their sensual assault. And as Sita’s captivity goes on she inflicts a similar identity crisis on her demonic captor, drawing him slowly but surely away from his lifelong obsession with lust and conquest towards a reluctant but growing delight in her inward beauty. As a result, by the time he confronts her rescuer, Rama, Ravana is no longer simply a demon; he has ambitions to transform himself into the ‘King of Heaven’, having been converted by Sita’s goodness ‘from a dark angel into a god of light’ (p. 115). He shares Sita’s state of being split between one kind of existence and another, but with this crucial distinction: neither kind of existence he courts is a legitimate one, since as a demon king he is prone to aggressive attacks on neighbouring kingdoms, while as Sita’s lover he seeks to supplant her lawful husband. Sita’s incongruous interest in royal clothes, by contrast, is an expression of her genuinely royal status, and anticipates the moment when that status will be restored. Sita is never at any point as divided as Ravana is, so that the likely end of their contest can be predicted from the start.

Surpanakha 1

The two-way struggle between Ravana and the royal couple over which shall convert or transform the other is set in motion by the very first meeting between their houses. The first member of Ravana’s household to visit Rama in his hermitage is Surpanakha, the Demon King’s sister, who approaches the prince with the clear intention of replacing Sita in his bed. At the same time, this intention triggers an inner conflict which reveals itself in constant changes to her appearance:

Staring at her face they saw that the features were not constant but fluctuating, as if formed of a mist or substance that ran together, so that now they saw a beautiful, now a hideous face, an expression languid and subtly smiling, or, again, horrific with starting orbs, a grimace so twisted that an eye would be carried to the middle of a cheek, a double face, or a face and the shadow of a face. (p. 47)

Surpanakha 2

Surpanakha’s weirdly mobile, Picasso-esque features (amusingly visualised in Peake’s second portrait of her, reproduced here as Surpanakha 2) provide an index to her uncertainty as to who she is and what she wants. On the one hand she wishes to take Rama back to Lanka, where as her husband he will regain the status he lost as anointed heir to a powerful monarch, though the monarch in question will be her brother. On the other hand, as Rama points out, this seeming restoration of the prince to his former status will in fact transform him utterly, since it will make him the successor of his father’s ‘opposite’, a Demon King. To become Surpanakha’s husband he will have to betray his true wife, Sita, and thus place himself ‘past reason’, succumbing to the permanent instability to which Surpanakha herself is subject, and so ceasing to be Rama, the man she desires. Lost in this maze of contradictions, Surpanakha quickly loses what stability of form she once possessed, launching into a frenzied ‘dance of enticement’ which merely exposes the lurking ‘shadow of her monstrous self’. And the dance concludes with a fierce attack on her rival, Sita, in ‘the full horror of her form’. The attack confirms her desire to supplant Sita as Rama’s wife, while at the same time revealing how incapable she is of filling that position, of becoming the wife whom Rama loves in his current identity as the unimpeachable Prince of Ayodhya. Her inward self is radically at odds with her seductive outward appearance, and she is finally unable to conceal the disparity between these component elements of her being. Rama’s brother Lakshmana wounds her as she attacks, and her defeat predicts (again) the defeat of her brother Ravana, destroyed by the man he wishes to replace in Sita’s affections, the man who, in the end, he wishes to be, in spite of his lifelong quest to become his ‘opposite’.

Ravana describes himself a number of times in the text as the Lord of the Three Worlds – that is, of Paradise, Earth and Hell, as Collis explains in his play Lord of the Three Worlds.[7] As we’ve seen, the Demon King supports his own claim to all three regions by transforming his island fortress into a false Paradise, and by seeking to impose his will on the earthly mortals Rama and Sita while maintaining control over his fellow demons in all their manifestations. But his island Paradise keeps revealing its hellish true colours – for instance in the pink-snouted crocodiles that lurk in its moats (p. 73) – and his own efforts to represent himself as a worthy rival for Prince Rama keep being undermined by his obvious preference for booze-fuelled orgies over faithful love. For all his continuing efforts to hide his real motives behind a veil of illusion he only succeeds in revealing his demonic nature more clearly as time goes on.

Hanuman and the Fish Princess, 19th-c. wayang kulit (shadow puppet figures) from Java

Meanwhile, Sita’s vision becomes increasingly piercing thanks to her affinity with the inhabitants of the true Paradise, as against Ravana’s fake one. This affinity reveals itself in her growing friendship with the animal messengers of the gods, the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati and the monkey Hanuman. When first abducted by Ravana, Sita finds her vision distorted by his powers of enchantment, because the white umbrellas that shade his chariot have the property of making her see with the eyes of her captor: ‘As she came beneath their shadow, it was like entering the portal of another world, for the [earthly] cottage was suddenly distant and less real, and the landscape of a different colour’ (pp. 65-6). But by the time she reaches Lanka she sees things more clearly, largely thanks to the intervention of the heavenly vulture, divine Jatayus (p. 53). Sita’s instant recognition of Jatayus when she first meets him, knowing him at once for an authentic denizen of Paradise (‘her instinct told her this was truly Jatayus’, p. 52), established the link between them long before Ravana came on the scene, and the link is confirmed when Jatayus is mortally wounded in the attempt to rescue her from her abductor. Even after his wounding Jatayus is able to set Rama on the right road to rescue Sita, so that his vision continues to work in her favour up to the moment of his death. After his demise his attachment to her is passed on to his brother Sampati, who performs the crucial office of reporting to her the real events of the final battle between Rama and Ravana, even as Ravana’s enchanters seek to persuade her that Rama is dead and Ravana victorious. Meanwhile Hanuman the warrior-monkey, who visits her while she is imprisoned on Lanka, adds to the birds’ clearness of vision a sometimes unsettling clarity of discourse. It is Hanuman who first informs Sita that she is to blame for her own abduction, as ‘It was Hanuman’s manner,’ Collis tells us, ‘to be a little blunt’ (p. 96) – not to say misogynistic, since he insists that her calamitous longing for the wonderful gazelle is merely an illustration of ‘the nature of women’, who ‘must have pretty pets and pretty presents, and continually urge their husbands to supply them with these’ (p. 96). Despite his anti-feminism, however, Hanuman shares the vulture brothers’ accurate perception of Sita’s loyalty, and defends her against the false testimony of Rama’s eyes – which seemed to see her embracing Ravana in his chariot – by affirming that he ‘sat and saw how she repulsed the demon’ (p. 144, my emphasis). In the end it is clearness of vision, rather than prowess on the battlefield, that proves the deciding factor in the combat between heroes and demons, and in Collis’s story it is women rather than men who chiefly possess it.

Sampati, a sculpture in Sanam Luang, Bangkok, Thailand

The vision of men is always being blurred by their expectations and desires. Ravana’s increasing recognition of Sita’s qualities, for example, combines with his desire to possess her as his wife to prevent him from seeing clearly that their marriage would destroy what he most admires about her – her integrity. Rama, meanwhile, has always loved Sita for her integrity, yet is easily deceived by Ravana into believing she has been unfaithful to him. Even after he has killed Ravana, he remains enthralled to the demon’s trickery long after Sita, Sampati and Hanuman have been released from it. This is not entirely Rama’s fault. Before embarking on the final battle, Ravana instructed his enchanters to trick Sita into putting on a ring engraved with his and Sita’s names ‘entwined in an everlasting knot’ (p. 125); and after the demon’s death Rama takes this ring as proof positive that she has turned against him. At the same time, Rama refuses to accept the testimony of the immortal vulture and the plain-speaking monkey that his wife is as he has always known her to be, unwavering in her commitment to her husband. Even when Sita chooses to undergo trial by fire to prove it, Rama sees the trial itself as evidence of her betrayal. In his eyes the flame through which she walks takes on ‘the form of a man’, who ‘leapt with her high into the air and disappeared’ (p. 145), thus enacting a second abduction. Sita, on the other hand, experiences the walk through fire as she has been taught to do by the anchorites of the mountains. For her, the flame is a kindly man who wraps her protectively in his cloak, and instead of suffering loss or blurring of vision, as Rama does at this point, she rises with the burning stranger – as if on the back of an immortal vulture – to a place from which she can see everything in the universe: ‘vast blue horizons, distances incalculable, as between star and star’ (p. 146). Her state of enlightenment brings with it a ‘sense of freedom’, and it’s with this liberating knowledge of her position in time and space that she wakes again as Swallow on Wushan mountain.

Lady Lavery as Cathleen Ni Houlihan by John Lavery

Collis’s decision to tell his tale from a woman’s perspective is another link between his book and his Irish background. Ireland was famously embodied by Yeats and Lady Gregory in their play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902) as a homeless old woman, whose homelessness connotes the disenfranchised state of her country under British rule. The play ends with her transformation into a young girl, who departs from the household that sheltered her ‘with the walk of a queen’.[8] Swallow’s poverty and homelessness equate her with Cathleen, and she too turns out to possess qualities that make her worthy of royal status: beauty, but more importantly intelligence, which for the Sage of Wushan and his father, the Emperor of China, makes her a worthy wife for a prince, whatever her birth. Her elevation from poverty to queenship also parallels the life of Collis’s favourite figure from Burmese history, Queen Ma Saw, the protagonist both of his fantastic novel She Was a Queen (1937) and his play, Lord of the Three Worlds (1947). Ma Saw started life as a farmer’s daughter and ended as Chief Queen of Narathihapate, King of Burma. Her royal husband has much in common with King Ravana: headstrong and self-indulgent, he is prone to deadly rages and rash actions which can only be controlled by the sound advice and gentle persuasions of his Queen. Like Ravana, too, he dies when a foreign power invades his country. Ma Saw, who is never in the seat of power herself, although she is highly influential in affairs of state, withdraws into obscurity at the end of both play and novel, and her status in both cases aligns her with the status of Burma as Collis was writing, awaiting the moment of its liberation from forced marriage to Britain. Swallow, too, and her alter-ego Sita, could be seen as standing for the hope of independence in Burma and India, just as Cathleen stood for the dream of an independent Ireland. Her eventual assumption of an imperial title confirms the potential of both countries to assume an equal status with the global Empire that controlled them for so long.

Maurice Collis, Three Figures

In Collis’s hands, then, the abduction of Sita becomes a promise of liberation, both for his heroine and for the many Asian cultures that had welcomed her into their hearts. The end of his book represents a series of liberatory gestures, akin to the flinging open of the lids of many boxes. Sita escapes from Ravana through Rama’s victory, then frees herself from Rama’s suspicions by walking through fire, after which Swallow frees herself from Sita’s influence by casting off the trammels of sleep, then liberates herself from confinement to the Sage’s hermitage and finally makes herself independent of her parents by sending them a gift of money to support themselves for the rest of their lives. These gestures of independence recall the exultant ending of James Stephens’s nationalist fantasy The Crock of Gold, in which the imprisoned Irish people, from school children and clerks to prisoners and factory workers, find themselves liberated from their bonds in a triumphant ‘Happy March’, a parade or dance in which mortals and fairies join together to break the mental and physical shackles of their occupied country. Indian independence came in the year after Quest for Sita was published, 1947, and Burma’s in 1948. Quest for Sita remains a powerful statement of European solidarity with the movements that led to these enfranchisements. In my next blog post I’ll consider what, if anything, Peake’s drawings may contribute to that statement.

NOTES

[1] Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.

[2] G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 202.

[3] ‘As Ba Maw points out, the writings of the Sinn Fein leaders were as eagerly studied in Burma as those of Lenin and Sun Yat Sen’. Louis Allen, War, Conflict and Security in Japan and Asia-Pacific, 1941-52 (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2011), p. 12

[4] See Mervyn Peake, ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 133-4.

[5] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 201-2.

[6] I’m thinking here of Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales (1920) and Deirdre (1923) as well as The Crock of Gold (1912).

[7] When Queen Sawlon sees that her husband, King Narathihapate, has assumed the style of ‘Lord of the Three Worlds’ in Act II she tells him: ‘That you should be invincible in this world, I can bear, for there is Paradise. But if in Paradise too you were Lord, where could I hide? Not even in Hell, for over that domain also would you lord it.’ The Lord of the Three Worlds (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), p. 55.

[8] Collected Plays of W B Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 88.

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