From heroin to India’s first heroine: Indian American author Sini Panicker speaks about her debut novel

Sini Panicker, author of "Sita: Now You Know Me"
Sini Panicker, author of “Sita: Now You Know Me”; Photo by Bala Chandran

Sita: Now You Know Me was published by Rupa earlier this month.

Indian American author Sini Panicker’s debut novel Sita: Now You Know Me was published earlier this month by Rupa Publications India. A chemist by training, she works for the U.S. government as a heroin profiler. The novel is about the journey of Sita from the Ramayana, India’s first epic poem in 24,000 verses, written by Sage Valmiki. The substantial silence of Valmiki on Sita has been exploited by countless writers and poets since the time of the epic. Sita: Now You Know Me follows this much traveled path, but with an intimate portrayal of Sita in her most human, imperfect yet appealing form.

Born and raised in Kochi, Kerala, Panicker holds a master’s degree from University of Kerala and another master’s from American University in Washington, DC. She lives in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC.

In an exclusive interview with the American Bazaar, Panicker spoke about the book and her career, among other topics.

Since this is your debut novel, let us talk about you first. Who is the author of Sita: Now You Know Me? What can you tell us about yourself?

Well, let me start by saying that I have no real connection to the world of literature. I haven’t studied literature. I have never had a chance to be a part of it. I read books when I can — and that’s the only connection. I immigrated to the United States in my twenties, after getting a master’s degree in chemistry. I am a scientist by profession. My employer is the U.S. government; the Department of Justice, to be exact. I am a wife and a mother too, and we live in Northern Virginia.

Your book bio says you are a heroin profiler for the US government. What does it mean?

Sita Now You Know MeThe US has been fighting this curse for a long time-with drugs and narcotics. Any narcotic, or any type of illicit drugs manufactured anywhere in this world, often finds its way to the U.S., ultimately. Heroin has been one of those narcotics for a very long time. In order to fight the trafficking and distribution of these drugs in the country, the government tries to identify the sources of production, via chemical testing and profiling. So, that’s what I do. I lead a group of scientists to do this unique job; to determine the source of US heroin.

Sounds like it is a cool job!

Yes, it is. My work is a fantastic field of amalgamated applications from organic chemistry, forensic sciences, case investigations, and intelligence information. I cannot ever say that my job is boring. It can be very stressful and challenging at times, but there is never a dull moment.

How did you get to the Ramayana and Sita? What prompted you to write this novel based on India’s epic poem?

I have always wanted to write fiction. But I never made a dedicated attempt at it until Sita. And Sita, she happened sort of unexpectedly, to be honest. Year 2017 was very devastating for me. I lost both my parents in Kerala. My mom died in January of that year, and dad in December. The pain and loss I suffered in 2017 were in the backdrop when I began to work on this novel in 2018.

Then there was something else; #MeToo. Year 2017 was a difficult, and, yet, a strong and great year for women in the US. The movement gained strength, and it became very effective as well. It was all over the media, all the time. I had several serious discussions with friends and family members in our gatherings about it. And without any direct or related thought processes, Sita began to surface in my mind during some of those discussions.

That’s an interesting trigger …

Well, because of some apparent and not so apparent reasons. First of all, Sita is India’s first female protagonist, from the adikayva (first poem), the Ramayana. And yet, she continues to be with us; she is still present among us. In fact, she has never left! Millenia have passed. Unbelievable progresses in philosophy, science, and technology have advanced the human civilization since her time. But she is still here, isn’t she? Because the women are still being mistreated on this vast earth. Every single day. They suffer from inequality and harsh judgment, from punishment and torture — despite all this advancement. And Sita still epitomizes us, all of us, all women, irrespective of our time or place.

Personally speaking, I have always stood for, argued for, and worked for an equal opportunity, an equal voice and respect for girls and women, in my own limited capacity. Perhaps that’s why Sita rose in my mind subconsciously, with the background of “MeToo”.

And yet, all this being said, if you had asked me, let’s say, prior to 2018, if I ever would consider writing a novel based on an epic, about Sita or any other character, my emphatic reply would have been, “No, not a chance!”

Why would you say that?

I would say that mainly because of my life in the U.S. When you live in India, regardless of religion or faith, the epics are so entwined to the day-to-day lives there. The epics are the primary sources for stories in children’s books. For adults, they represent metaphors, analogies, and life’s lessons. The epics are like air and water in India — they are everywhere! They are present in our thinking, in our debating and reasoning. We find strength in dealing with life’s miseries by finding parallels to the lives of gods and goddesses. Take a look at Rama’s life. Or, Sita’s. Or, Krishna’s. If those gods suffered so much, obviously, we meek humans can deal with ours! There is a subconsciously derived comfort in connecting our microcosmic existence to the macrocosm, because of the epics.

But when you live far away, in a foreign land, there is no connection like that to our epics. At least, it didn’t exist for me. I haven’t thought much of the epics for two decades or more. Over time, I forgot a lot of stories my grandmother told me in my childhood. Obviously, I remember the major ones, but forgot a ton of sub-stories. I felt I lost the connection I had, to the epics. I am thankful to my sister-in-law Valsala Sekhar; her conversations sparked my interest again.

So how did you write this book? How did you get re-connected to the epic? Is it more difficult to deal with a subject like Sita when someone has been living outside India for as long as you have done? Or does the separation and detachment of the diaspora life make it easier to handle such a subject?

The answer includes both yes and no. Yes, the separation and detachment of the diaspora life made it difficult for me. As I said earlier, I was far removed from the epic. And once Sita took a “permanent residence” in my mind and sort of demanded that I write her story — she was very persistent! — I felt I had no choice. I began to read the Ramayanas. I read a few. The more I read, I became convinced that I wouldn’t be able to write this novel. Because, first of all, I have a very challenging job. Time is a limited commodity for me. And secondly, I have never even written a short story! I have published some poems in Malayalam, and some articles. That is the extent of my writing until then. And here I was, with a plan and an attempt to rewrite the epic Ramayana! It terrified me, to my core. That is why I prostrated at the feet of Sage Valmiki, in my mind, over and over again. I was terrified. I am still not over the shock, to be honest, that I did write this book.

That said, once I started, I found the story to be flowing so freely, and so effortlessly, from my mind. It was a beautiful and blessed experience.

I also believe that the separation and detachment of the diaspora life made it easier as well — to review and analyze the Ramayana in my own distinctive way. The distance helped me to gain a new perspective on the story and its characters, well known to billions of people. It helped me with my attempt to tell Sita’s story as a human story, without any divinity attached.

While we are on this subject, I would also like to mention that two diaspora writers — Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Amit Majmudar — released Sita novels back in 2019. I read their works toward the end of that year, after I submitted my manuscript to Rupa. Both are outstanding novels and these authors took their own unique approach to tell Sita’s story. I also read Vayu Naidu’s Sita’s Ascent. This London-based author explored the Ramayana in her distinctive way. There may be more works out there, that I am not aware of.

Because of your day job, you don’t have a lot of time. What was the writing process like? Did you write daily? You said that the story sort of flowed well once you started…

When I was doing the background research on this novel, I anticipated that the writing alone would take me years, to finish. It didn’t! I finished the first draft in four months. I dedicated all my weekends (without fail) and several weeks of my vacation time, solely for the first draft. To my own surprise, I discovered that I am a very disciplined writer, with a plan for every day’s work, and I wrote from dawn to dusk. Then I revised the manuscript a dozen times or more, prior to my work with Rajni George, a freelance editor. The overall process of revision took another six to seven months, mostly on the weekends.

But let me tell you — the switch that happened every weekend for me — from the world of narcotics that I was fully immersed in five days a week, to a distant time and place in the ancient India — was an extremely difficult and yet, an awesome experience! In addition, it was a total challenge to sit here in Virginia, surrounded by all the electronic gadgets and amenities of this world, to go back to 2,000 or 3,000 years in the past, to where the ox carts or wooden ploughs are the cool inventions! I struggled sometimes to reconcile the world in my head, to the one around me with the iPhone, WhatsApp, Netflix, Kindle and so forth! The struggles also reminded me of the point I made earlier-about the disproportionality in advancement, let’s say in science and technology vs. women’s rights and opportunities.

As you know, there are hundreds of books out there based on the Ramayana. Why would a reader be tempted to pick yours, to read?

Yes, there is this saying that our mother earth is struggling from the weight of books originated from the Ramayana! There are far too many books. No doubt. So, why would I add one more to the pile, right? As I said earlier, I felt I had no choice. I had to write this Sita’s story.

We have heard of Sita all our lives. We feel confident that we know her. But do we know her?

If you read this book, you will know her intimately. This is a Sita you have not met before. And that’s why I ask the readers to give this book a chance.

My original plan was to release the book in the U.S. As such, I wrote it accordingly, in a simple narrative style. This is a book for the universal reader. You don’t need to know anything about the ancient India or the epic to read this novel.

My last point is about mythology and associated books in the US. The field is related to Greek, predominantly. Indian mythology is equally fascinating and we need more books, especially fictional works, to attract readers from here.

You have made some changes in the story. What were your reasons for them?

There has been a wide interest in modern, woman-oriented retellings of the epics, and of this epic in particular, spanning countries and borders. I followed the same track; but I also wanted my novel to be distinct and detached from the others. I have kept the epic’s storyline mostly intact, but I have changed some events and subplots, added new scenes or twists, and altered a few characters as I needed. In addition, this is mainly a human story. Some changes were made deliberately, to accommodate this framework.

And finally, I wanted my novel to be appealing and engrossing to modern readers. Time shall tell if I have succeeded in this effort.

What is your final statement to the readers out there?

Please do not ignore this novel as another re-telling of the Ramayana. Give a chance to this Sita! Get to know her! Get to know her time and ancient India! I hope your journey with her will be interesting, satisfying, and a rewarding experience for you! And many thanks in advance to those who will make that journey with my Sita!

What’s your advice to first-time writers?

I am a beginner myself; so, I don’t think I am qualified to give advice. But if I can say one thing, it will be this: find a story that is close to your heart, a story that you are very passionate about, as your first project. You have to be extremely passionate about your work. That is the key! Then only you can give your thousand percent to it, which will be demanded of you! So, follow your heart, and work hard! That’s all I can say.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.