Thursday, March 15, 2018

How many Women have to DIE because Men won’t take NO for an Answer?

Ashwini, an 18 year old student was publicly attacked outside Meenakshi Engineering College, Chennai where she was reading Commerce, by one Alagesan, and left to bleed to death with a slit throat. This appalling crime is all too reminiscent of the Chennai techie case, where young Swathi, an Infosys employee was hacked to death by her stalker at the Nungambakkam Railway Station in 2016. Further back in time, a couple of decades ago to be precise, Sarika Shah, another Chennai college student lost her life after she was manhandled, and became yet another victim of eve teasing. And these are only the famous cases in one of the relatively safer metros in India that managed to capture the imagination of a fickle public notorious for its collective ADHD syndrome. There are too many women out there whose lives have been snuffed out, and without the faintest hope of justice being served because too few give a crap. After all, isn’t it simpler to blame the victim and declare that she got what she deserved instead of taking the tortuous trail to ensure a perpetrator is apprehended and punished?
The right thing to do as always is ridiculously complicated given that this pestilential problem is very much like the second labour of Hercules. The one where the monster is a Lernean Hydra. Every time, you lop off a head, a dozen more seem to replace it despite valiant efforts. We have tried tying women to the home and hearth, draping them in yards of fabric, imaginative interpretations of chastity belts that have not been limited to female genital mutilation, and brainwashing them into believing they must embrace virtue, virginity, sacrifice and self – denial to protect themselves but all to no avail. The monster continues to prevail and worse, the damn things spew their poison everywhere, damning the living and the dead alike. Be it Ashwini, Swathi, or Sarika, the overriding impulse of the misogynists and masochistic pigs out there has been to frame a narrative where the victim’s character has been besmirched and their killers are depicted as tragic, romantic heroes whose crime de passion has mitigating and extenuating circumstances. Duh! After all there are females involved and aren’t they all flighty, faithless floozies who are good for little more than fornication.
In Ashwini’s case, the moral police/ moronic poltroon brigade have been stressing on the fact that she was in a relationship with Alagesan for two years before choosing to end things. The latter of course, couldn’t believe her temerity in dumping him and has been harassing her ever since. She filed a police complaint when he forcibly tried to tie a ‘thaali’ around her neck and ‘make her his wife’. But of course, the actions of Alagesan are being portrayed as perfectly understandable whereas Ashwini is depicted as the heartless diva who smashed a man’s heart to smithereens.
Which of course begs the essential question – so what? So what if a woman is a whore, a prick tease, a seductress, a temptress, a gold – digger and whatever filthy epithet that is usually hurled at her when she is a victim of rape, abuse or murder? SO WHAT? It still does not give those of the masculine gender the right to kill them or hurt them in any way! (Psst! The law says so, I looked it up.) It is as simple as that and yet too many men have trouble allowing this fact to penetrate their thick skulls. Numbskulls!
The loss of a life, especially when cut down so mercilessly, not surprisingly leads to massive outpouring of outrage and hard as it is to believe, that’s about it. Furious articles are written about the event, twitter and facebook timelines catch fire as arguments and counter arguments heat up. Then, unless Bollywood stars, Cricketers, Politicians and depraved Godmen are involved, the entire thing fizzles out and we all move on. Till the next big crime against women happens and then we all go around the mulberry bush again. Rinse and repeat.
Enough is enough. Let us not take to social media to vent our righteous anger and frustration. Instead it is time to think long and hard about actually making a difference. What we need is not indignant rants but good old fashioned action -  CCTV surveillance, better lighting, well trained cops and enforcers to patrol the streets and make sure that it is not so damnably easy for women to be abducted, raped, molested, stripped, set on fire, stabbed to death or have acid thrown on their faces. Equally important, men and women, let us stop exonerating the male of the species of crimes and making ridiculous excuses for them every time they do dastardly things fuelled by ego and rage, while always assuming it is the females who err. Finally, let us resolve to please do whatever it takes to make absolutely certain, that years or decades from now, we are not stuck in a cataclysmic loop, where girls get killed because boys can’t suck it up and take no for an answer.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Published Author’s Tale of Terror

What can I write about my big fat experience on getting published? Firstly, it is so much more fun to narrate it as opposed to actually living it. Working on your first book can be an incredibly terrifying and challenging experience, especially when stringing together every single sentence that goes into its making can be an arduous ordeal that begins to feel like you are attempting to scale Mt. Everest armed with nothing more than words (which have the alarming tendency to pull out of your reach just when you need them) and wit (which you assure yourself is something you actually possess not something you imagine you do). The torment is exacerbated when it entails fighting debilitating insecurity, crippling uncertainly and chronic fear every step of the way. Occasionally there is the sanguine belief that a chapter you have just completed is pure genius but the feeling vanishes after the first reread. I could go on of course, but recollecting past traumas can oftentimes recreate the trauma resulting in an uncontrollable urge to reach for anything that is sweet, deep fried or both and that is hardly conducive for good health or an enviable body. 
Of course, the terrors and tribulations of the writing process pale in comparison with the horror show that is getting published. In a nutshell, it feels like swaddling your new-born whom you love to pieces in cover letters and sending it to reputed publishing houses to be mercilessly scrutinized, desultorily examined, callously ignored, and ruthlessly rejected. Rinse and repeat. Having been put through the wringer once too often, with your self – esteem in tatters, you catch yourself contemplating the merits of flushing yourself down the toilet and putting an end to the unceasing misery. 
At the precise moment when dejection has climbed to dangerous levels, there is an email in the inbox from a self-proclaimed self – publishing giant offering you the chance of a lifetime! Which of course is to pay for the privilege of getting published. The stink of fraud is a formidable thing and you fight the urge to sell your kidney on the black market to raise the money demanded, having deluded yourself into believing that you could be the next self – published phenomenon right behind E. L James. Fortunately good sense kicks in and you decide to send temptation into the spam folder and sign up for kickboxing classes instead. After all, something drastic needs to be done to preserve the remnants of your sanity. Besides shrinks charge a bomb and you can’t shake the feeling that Freud, Adler and Jung would have retired in despair after being attacked by the bats in your belfry.
Then one fine day, when you are considering a change in career ruminating on whether waitressing in Manhattan or joining the bomb squad would be a better fit, the Holy Grail is suddenly within your grasp. An acceptance email has arrived from a legit publishing housing and you are over the moon with unspeakable, almost vulgar joy. Your belief in God and Satan, Astrology, Palmistry, Tarot Cards, Green Parrot Fortune Telling, Voodoo, Black/White Magic, and Shamanism is fully restored and you feel on top of the world. Nothing can stop you now! FAME, FORTUNE and glorious SUCCESS are going to be your lot in life. You can feel it in your bones! And to paraphrase Harry from Harry met Sally - when you realise you want to spend the rest of your lives with these three sultry sirens, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.
So you wait for the magical change in your hitherto humdrum existence. Then you wait some more. And wait and wait. Finally, the editing begins and studies had they been conducted on this particular field would reveal that this is akin to having a root canal and your haemorrhoids removed at the same time. Going over the manuscript with a fine – tooth comb and discovering to your chagrin that no, the friendly editor certainly does not think your baby is perfect, can be somewhat disconcerting to say the least. Then there is the proofing to be done and you go back and forth till you are convinced you are caught in a dastardly time loop that is going to play out over and over again till the end of time. Finally, the publishers slap on a beautiful cover which may or not be exactly as you envisioned, since though you were told your inputs are invaluable it turned out it mostly wasn’t and the book is off to print.
When the book/baby is finally in your arms, the delivery pains fade into the dim reaches of memory and all that remains is pure exhilaration. Your happiness is complete and you are already toying with the idea of doing it all over again even though the three sultry sirens are still being coy and playing hard to get. But you are determined to seduce them and become a household name with their help even if it kills you. That ought to be a sobering thought but it isn’t, simply because you believe or need to believe with all your heart that ultimately it is going to be worth it.
This article was originally published by Author's Channel.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Too much and yet Too Little

Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is something of a chore to read. An ambitious undertaking with a sprawling narrative composed of gossamer threads, delicately often barely interwoven together, this novels spans across four decades from 1970 to 2010 and seeks to capture the defining historical moments in the troubled transitional period of a nation as it attempts to find its place and conscience in a brave new world, still carrying the scars from an ugly past while dealing with the horrors of the present. It is loaded stuff and ought to have felt like a sock to the solar plexus. Except it doesn’t. 

            It must be confessed that I was tempted to close the book forever on multiple occasions after wading laboriously from one chapter to the other and feeling that the struggle wasn’t really worthwhile. Coovadia flits and floats though the lives of a bunch of characters from different social spheres –passionate thinkers who are unwilling to die for their beliefs, crooks who steal with varying degrees of charm or integrity, artists who need to believe their work matters, corrupt politicians, opportunistic business men, activists, and musicians, their stories set at different points in the time period he seeks to cover. By simply skimming over their tales with airy dialogue that starts to feel leaden and merely touching on all things shocking and sordid, he makes it impossible for the reader to plunge into the depths of this chunk of history, teeming with detail and swirling with immense feelings. It is the sort of thing that makes you grind your teeth in frustration.

            The book begins in 1970, with the threat of expulsion that could be averted with a timely ‘donation’ before flitting on to the politics practised by the student’s stepfather, Neil who is on the verge of divorcing his mum, Ann. The Security Police are keeping a close watch on Neil’s movements and it is clear that nothing good is going to come of their scrutiny. From here, the action shifts to 1973 when Victor Molloi has the rug pulled out of his feet as he works with a team of promising artists to stage a play with potentially explosive content. In 1973, a guitarist, Yash who loves his music and young son contemplates pulling the plug on his life.  The following chapter returns to Ann and her clandestine work in Defence and Aid before thrusting us into an episode where a young thief faces mob justice. Then, it is the Rugby World Cup Final of 1995 and Yash’s son Sanjay decides to marry but hardly for love. The year is 2003 and a close Presidential aide meets a harrowing end because the doctors are instructed not to treat him for HIV, since the government refuses to acknowledge its existence. Before we can grasp the horror, Sanjay’s daughter has her cell phone stolen and almost falls in love. Twice. In the final chapter, we revisit Neil in the moments before his demise and with his passing, the reader’s suffering ends too.   

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Things that Pissed Me Off in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Problematic Padmaavat

At the onset, let it be asserted that freedom of expression is sacrosanct in a democracy and no artist deserves to be bullied and harassed by fanatical fringe outfits with their fundamentalist fundas the way Sanjay Leela Bhansali has. That said the man has somehow managed to alienate the right wingers and left wingers both. The former have excoriated him for his largely imagined trespass of dishonouring the legendary Rani Padmavati and insulting the Rajputs when it reality his film is an endless paean to the prowess of a privileged caste and their pristine code of honour which when viewed through the prism of history is far less flattering in light of how the various warrior clans in India failed abysmally against foreign invaders. The latter on the other hand have come out with guns blazing to excoriate his spectacular, slow – motion, colour – coordinated, glorification of Jauhar and nonsensical notions of honour enforced by India’s notorious patriarchy.
            Of course, one does not wish to discuss the bullying organizations, backed by a government that seems to thrive on fermenting religious unrest and media who has given heft to their threats by allowing them to hog the limelight endlessly, any more than they already have been. Accusations about Jauhar are more valid even if opinions on this sensitive subject remain divisive. Of course, a filmmaker is well within his rights to tell his story any old way he sees fit and is not under any obligation to take into account, new age feminist beliefs especially if he wishes to stay true to the period in which his saga is set. And yet, therein lies the problem – Bhansali’s messy mishmash of a film does not do justice to either Jayasi’s epic poem, Padmaavat nor the admittedly scanty historical records of the fall of Chittor.
            For instance, a modicum of research would have revealed the status quo at the time. The various warring factions of the Rajput clans were unable to bury the ill feelings between them on account of infighting and lacked a strong leader like Prithviraj Chauhan to unite them against an invader of the calibre of Alauddin Khalji. Consequently, none of them dared risk an open battle with the Khalji forces which were superior in terms of numbers, strength, weaponry and discipline. That left the Rajputs with no choice but to hole themselves up in their fortresses like Chittorgarh and hope their allies would come through or pray for divine intervention, neither of which was forthcoming.
            In the meantime, Khalji’s generals besieged them and cut off all supplies to the fort. Alauddin was not above bribing willing traitors to betray their people and reveal hidden passages inside, starving out the beleaguered populace or poisoning the water sources. Those trapped within had a rough time out of it with every mouthful being rationed, water becoming scarce, hygiene and waste disposal becoming increasingly problematic leading to outbreaks of disease and finally, a mounting death toll. In desperate straits and when all hope seemed lost, the men rather than give in to the expectedly humiliating terms of surrender prepared themselves for one last charge and the women readied themselves for Jauhar to avoid the sacking, slaughter and rape that was the most likely scenario.
            Of course, Bhansali with his almost masturbatory attention to aesthetic detailing can hardly be expected to portray the sordid reality of a siege or capture the foolhardiness of a warrior clan so steeped in pride that they treated war like a game that ought to be played to the bitter end and gave their misguided notions of honour precedence over the lives of those who depended on them. Instead, with his ugly obsession for all things bright and beautiful, he mounts grandiose scenes stacked one on top of the other, where the denizens of Chittorgarh are shown celebrating Holi and Diwali with ritualistic rigor, with marble fountains tinkling away merrily in the background while the invaders cooled their feet and chomped on chicken at their gates. And let us not forget the royal ladies, who are always dressed to the nines, adorned with clunky, uncomfortable looking nose – rings through the good times and bad, leaving them teary – eyed and unable to blow their noses for the life of them. The entire thing is ludicrous to say the least!
            Back then, Jauhar was a choice made by women to avoid dishonour. We have no right to judge them for that but it would also behove us to take into account the irrefutable fact, that Jauhar as well as Sati was often performed with political expediency in mind. Many women were driven to the flames under duress, and often dosed with opiate mixtures to render them docile and encourage them embrace their doom with decorum. One wonders, if Bhansali would have lingered lovingly on the horrid visual of a pregnant woman and her daughter, traipsing prettily towards their deaths or portrayed the Rani Padmavati requesting her husband’s permission to kill herself, thereby surrendering her agency, had he known the awful truth behind romanticized legends.
            Equally problematic is the lack of a balanced perspective in Bhansali’s narrative and his pandering to populist agendas, especially in a time when there is so much hatred and intolerance with regard to faith, caste and class. His portrayal of the Muslim invaders as barbaric and dishonourable while massaging the egos of the Hindus is deplorable to say the least. Alauddin Khalji by all accounts was ruthless, ambitious and known to display a savage streak but the same can be said about every great ruler this land has seen, irrespective of their faith. Khalji was also considered an able administrator, brave warrior and generous benefactor who patronized the arts. Would it have been so bad to give him a curlicue of credit and acknowledge his mighty deeds? After all, we are a secular nation even if only on paper.

This lack of nuance is proof of the prejudice seeping through Bhansali’s so – called auteurist sensibility that saturates every sumptuous frame and is every bit as offensive as the scant respect shown to the source material Bhansali has so liberally borrowed from. It is somewhat galling that someone who has lavished a fortune on decadent costumes, ostentatious jewellery, splendid sets; expended endless effort on synchronizing even the flickering of the flames in the umpteen lamps that twinkle in artificial harmony or the rippling of muscles on hyper masculine torsos, couldn’t be bothered with sparing a little time and thought towards ensuring historical authenticity and thereby creating a worthy work of art that would have deserved to be defended from the extremist elements that sought to suppress it. In the end, it was much ado over nothing, after all. 

When Matters of the Heart become a Minefield

Abubaker Adam Ibrahim’s debut novel, “Season of Crimson Blossoms” is a tale of forbidden passion between a 50 something widow, Hajiya Binta and a young ne-er - do – well, Reza who is mixed up with drugs and dirty politics. The narrative simmers with the tension of a slow – burning fuse even with the foreknowledge that multiple orgasms usually translate into unmitigated mayhem.
This story could have easily devolved into a torrid or sordid romance between a cougar and a willing young buck but Ibrahim clearly has loftier themes in mind. Reza reminds Binta of her dead son. Meanwhile she reminds her lover of his mother whom he refers to as “the whore of Saudi”. It is all very Freudian and is supposed to explain the irresistible often inexplicable pull between the duo which prompts them to throw caution to the winds but it is a little overdone.
Right alongside the heady romance, the perks, perils and pitfalls of communal living in all its mundane glory are highlighted with delicate brushstrokes. Binta lives with a niece, Fa’iza and granddaughter, Ummi and their presence though intended to comfort a lonely old widow serves often to cramp her style.
Fa’iza, tormented by the horrors of a blood-spattered past, with Binta becoming inevitably consumed by desire, is left to fend off her fears, exacerbated by the premonition of impending disaster and further violence. Reza too sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of self – destruction, as his baser instincts win out even as Binta tries to save him in lieu of her dead son. Their fate which despite everything comes as a surprise is a scathing indictment of the supreme selfishness and stupid impracticality of great romance which destroys not only the lovers but those innocent lives hopelessly intertwined with them.

On the surface it is a feminist saga which outlines the strictures of living in a repressive society where a wife’s sexual desires could not be of less concern to her husband. A society where the brutal subjugation of a woman to broodmare status is scarily normalized, “When he is done, always put your legs up so his seed will run into your womb.” However, Ibrahim dares to make the status quo between the sexes more balanced by sneaking in a nuanced perspective that depicts how men and women are equally victimized as both struggle with the expectations of gender bias which forces them unwillingly into the roles of protector and protected respectively.

In Ibrahim’s beautifully created fictional world, which is a mirror of the real one, where intolerance, hatred and spite prevail, happiness and peace are but dreams for anybody irrespective of gender or circumstance. There is much to love here from Binta’s suffering in the face of feminine envy and spite, the amoral world Reza occupies to the eerily cheerful way in which Nigerian politicians use the misguided to further their ends. It is a book you will be reluctant to put down even to answer a pressing call of nature! Abubaker Adam Ibrahim has arrived. 
This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Fabulous or Faux Profound?

Following the monstrous success of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green is back with Turtles All The Way Down. As may be expected from this author, it is one dark and heavy tome that deals with adolescent angst, abandonment, mental disability, death, and despair. All this, as seen through the eyes of Aza Holmes who is afflicted with severely invasive anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and a bad case of germaphobia accompanied by an overriding fear that she is going to die of clostridium difficile.
Poor Aza certainly does have a hard time. But then again so does the reader who is dragged into her nightmare reduced to waiting with mounting unease as Aza becomes trapped in an ‘ever-tightening spiral of thoughts’ tormented relentlessly to the point where she wants nothing more than to escape them in their entirety or for it all to end, whichever happens first.

Green is too good a writer to glamourise or romanticise any of this. Instead he dwells morbidly on the inescapable awfulness of it all. Aza repeatedly opens up a crack on her middle finger with her thumbnail to check if she is real. But then she has to keep the wound bandaged to prevent infection, that is, if there isn’t one already.

So she feels impelled to open up the scab to drain the yucky stuff that may or may not be in there, clean it up with sanitiser and reapply the bandage. Then, after an all too brief period of relief, the process begins again. And again.

Mercifully, there is Daisy, the zany and entirely idiosyncratic best friend who writes fan fiction based on Chewbacca and Davis, a love interest who is knee deep in trouble himself, consumed by the loss of his mother and the recent trauma of an absconding father. Incidentally, there is a $100,000 reward for information for the man and Daisy strong-arms Aza into a reunion with Davis who used to go with her to the appropriately named ‘sad camp’ in the hopes of unearthing a clue and pocketing the money. Soon, a romance is kindled.

Aza is not very good at relationships, mostly because she believes herself to be fictional and a mere ‘skin-encased bacterial colony’. And yet, the fragile bonds forged with varying levels of success with the people in her life serves at once as the lifeline that keeps her tethered to her sanity while also doubling as the whip that flagellates her fragile psyche bloody.

Daisy has created a somewhat unflattering character in her fictional yarns to cope with the supreme self-involvement of a bestie who is not quite in the pink of mental health. This sis-mance is so beautiful, it is gut-wrenching. I hated when they got into a tiff and my heart soared when they reconciled with Daisy saying, “I want to be buried next to you. We’ll have a shared tombstone.”
The love story between Aza and Davis is a sweet and messy one. Even when they do clichéd stuff like stare at the stars, what should have been a cheesy moment somehow becomes stirring and intimate. You want them to be the turtles in the title even when their romance runs into troubled waters with Aza pulling back every time they kiss because she cannot help but know that “around 80 million microbes are exchanged per kiss”, much to her lover’s anguish. He realises that she can only like him from a comfortable distance like when she stalks him in cyberspace or wants to ‘facetime’ with him.

A plot point that ultimately gets resolved is the fate of the runaway Dad but after entire stretches spent with Aza’s runaway thoughts that refuse to leave her alone hissing and spitting like the serpentine locks of the Gordon, Medusa, the reveal feels somewhat jarring. That is a slight imperfection among a few niggling ones.

Green overdoes it with the faux profound teenybopper poetry and one too many tired old tropes that are practically prerequisites for Young Adult fiction. But when he is fabulous, the man goes all the way and nowhere is it more evident than the ending which is far from happy yet it couldn’t be more perfect because even at the height of its hopelessness it holds out the promise of hope. In other words, it is so real it hurts.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Not so much a Book as an Out of Body Experience

Holding a copy of Jeet Thayil’s ‘The Book of Chocolate Saints’ in your hands can be somewhat intimidating, mostly because it gives every indication of being a weighty tome in every sense of the word. Not surprisingly, it is not possible to classify this literary extravaganza which is many things without limiting itself to anything in particular. Mostly though it is chock full of the avant-garde even when it seeks to do as it declares which is to fictionalize the lives of “a lost tribe of brothers and sisters marked by ink and drink” or in other words chronicle the terrible cliché that is the tormented artist with their mommy issues, substance abuse troubles, solar – system sized egos and existential angst.
            While it is something of a struggle to describe or summarize the sprawling expanse of this novel there is no denying that it is most compelling and an absolute pleasure to disappear into its delirious depths replete with compelling characters and colourful stories that are dizzying in terms of their sheer plenitude and the towering ambition that conceived them.
As the blurb says, it is the story of Newton Francis Xavier, a remarkably talented poet turned painter wrestling with protracted writers block and his personal demons, social misfit and the quintessential wild child slash dirty old man with a wandering eye for pretty young things and taste for potentially any intoxicant that could be the death of him. Based in New York and thoroughly disillusioned with the land of the free which revealed its ugly racist inclinations in the wake of the 9 /11 attacks he returns to India with his present paramour for one last blowout bash, only to the disquieting realization that the land of his birth is no better but merely “slathered with whore make – up to cover boils, moles, and warts at least for the night.”
The journey thither is of course filled with diverting detours and segues into an involved digression on the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, those tormented souls and ‘chocolate saints’ who engaged in the lonely struggle against obscurity and ignominy armed only with their pens which they had been misled into thinking was mightier than the sword only to eventually succumb to the all-pervasive wretchedness that had dogged them all their lives.
It is also among other things a searing examination of the terrible thing that is the artistic ego and temperament that with unstinting selfishness sees fit to use and discard all those who are hopelessly drawn like the proverbial moths to the irresistible creative flame. Thayil’s unflinching portrayal of the raw savagery art demands is comparable to the gut wrenching ferocity of blood sports leaving victims cruelly broken; reduced to ghosts of their former selves, carelessly strewn about by the artist who claimed them, with even the occasional twinge of remorse serving only as the laxative to blocked inspiration.
The protagonist’s callous treatment of the women in his life is particularly disquieting, bordering on the unspeakable. There is something to be said about the carelessly elegant predators out there who feed on the generosity and tender care gifted to them by the women who love them, with parasitic frenzy, before abandoning them, drained of vitality and will. Art, even great art cannot be used as an excuse for such senseless brutality.
This aspect grates on the nerves to the point, where you wonder at the tiresome notion that every author/poet/filmmaker/musician/etc. who wishes to stakes his claim to greatness must wallow in the cesspool of mostly self – inflicted misery. Surely throughout the extensive history of art there must have been a fair share of exceedingly gifted types whose personal life was relatively conflict free, sans obsessive emotional flagellation and did not culminate with heads being stuck into ovens or drowning in one’s own puke while under the influence of intoxicants?

Yet, minor grousing aside, Jeet Thayil’s remarkable book is not really meant to be analysed, rather the reader would do well to cast aside all reservation and be swept up in its surging currents, delighting in the sheer sensations it evokes. Revel in the inspired ideas, relish the asides that are funny as well as heart-breaking and ride on the wings of lyrical prose that transcends the limits of the medium while allowing your soul to soar towards the very height of great art powered by a superior mind at the very height of its prowess. 
An edited version of this book review appeared in The New Indian Express

The Padmavati Row and the Unnecessary Evil that is Censorship

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right bequeathed to every Indian citizen. Theoretically. On paper, we have the right to think for ourselves, dissent at out discretion and make personal choices regarding self – expression, thank you very much, without fear of being hounded or prosecuted. It is a precious right which our ancestors fought and died for during the glorious freedom struggle against their imperial overlords who had subjugated them and sought to dictate how they thought and how they behaved.
Yet, as the Padmavati row has proved, we still need to pick up cudgels and fight the good fight, except this time, it is against those we voted to power ourselves (having made a bad choice from an array of worse ones), who are attempting to blatantly control what the citizens can watch, think, or read. Since everybody and their cousin know the particulars of this issue, I refuse to devote writing space to the moronic machinations of those whose reprehensible actions do not merit attention or a response. 

Thanks to a climate of moral and cultural hysteria we have ushered in the age of rigorous censorship which has made it a difficult time to be in the creative fields (or any field for that matter). All things artistic be they innocuous or inflammatory are liable to hurt the ‘sentiments’ of vested interests and their makers will find themselves in the unhappy situation of having to deal with wannabe expurgators backed by the tyrannical authority of the ruling government. Ironically, today, if an author were to make the attempt to pen down the life and struggles of legendary figures from History or Mythology which is often not quite as clearly demarcated as one might think given that too many ‘facts’ are gleaned from the realms of legend or fantasy and stubbornly venerated as the absolute truth, the going would be rough to the point of ridiculousness. I ought to know having written on mythological figures like Arjuna, Kamadeva, Shakti and Yama that involved the occasional heated debate with editors who not surprisingly tend to have qualms about subversive interpretation of Puranic texts, since it may be construed as shocking or scandalous and banned outright. 

Beloved historical figures are even trickier to handle as the makers of ‘Padmavat’ would attest to, given that they are no longer considered as human beings who once lived, laughed, loved, lost and dare I say it, let loose noxious gusts of wind just like the rest of us but have been elevated to the status of Godlike beings, symbolic of valour and virtue. It is amazing how many Indians hurting from the unpalatable knowledge that as a nation and as a people we have fared dismally against foreign invaders and continue to fall horrendously short of taking care of the interests of our citizens, cling to mostly made up ‘facts’ of grandeur and glory, which amounts to little more than garish make-up shovelled on to the corpse of abject failure. 

While writing my books on Kartikeya, Prithviraj Chauhan and Padmavati, I remember making my editors nervous and having fiery arguments that would have degenerated to a bout of fisticuffs had they not been made over a flurry of emails and frantic phone calls. Padmavati was particularly problematic, thanks to the raging controversy buffeting the film version. I remember, how hard it was to work past the preconceived notions surrounding the character, her parentage and even nationality, since Jayasi’s almost entirely fictitious account portrays Padmavati as a Sinhalese Princess, all of which lacks the backing of sound research.
The depiction of Jauhar and Alauddin Khalji was even more irksome since I flat out refused to glorify the former and vilify the latter. With regard to the former, it truly gets my goat when the notion of a woman burning or taking her life to uphold her virtue and nonsensical notions of honour enforced by patriarchy, is romanticized and held up as an example of ideal womanly conduct. As for the latter, too many are convinced that the admittedly unsaintly Shah was a lusty, libidinous lecher who could not see past the needs of his engorged member, when history has it that he was mostly a determined, ambitious, often ruthless monarch who also proved himself an able administrator. After many an exhausting round, we arrived at a compromise that we could all live with though I could  not help feeling very ill – used and thinking that a Hilary Mantel or Ken Follett would not have had it so rough.  
It must also be mentioned that editors mostly prove themselves amenable once I firmly but kindly decline to allow for any cuts, modifications/ mutilations to my babies and drew their attention to the original source material which contains a lot more incendiary material than anything my fevered imagination can concoct (in the case of mythology) and the glaring holes in the tapestry of history can only be plugged with artistic license and insightful writing (pause, while I blow this particular trumpet with loud and discordant pride). In Padmavati’s or Prithviraj’s case, once I reached the obvious conclusion that entire chunks from their life and times are lost, there was nothing to be done but to fictionalize the gaps in such a way that it is melded neatly to the existing facts.
            Fortunately or unfortunately, since this writer is nowhere as bold or beautiful as the likes of Deepika Padukone or feted and recognized as the Salman Rushdie types, it is possible to spin many a fabled yarn inspired by beloved characters from history and mythology without having to deal with censorship, death threats, the hate brigade that uses social media platforms to train their guns on those of us who want nothing more than to be left alone in La La Land or worrying about getting mobbed or figuring out a way to deal with the never-ending cash flow which can be a most tedious chore for the successful. Even the publishers barring the occasional harangue, give you a wide berth to express yourself since they have bigger fish to fry, especially since Karan Johar / Twinkle Khanna / Chetan Bhagat are usually mouthing off on Twitter or they are avidly following the twists and turns of the Padmavati row as Sanjay Leela Bhansali is made to scurry from pillar to post to make sure his movie sees the light of day. 
It is hard to blame publishers with cold feet entirely given the fact that it is ridiculously easy not to mention nearly cost free to slap a ban on just about anything given the rampant spirit of censorship that plagues this nation. While hardened criminals who brutalize women, rob the nation of gazillions, shoot and kill endangered species when not driving drunk over pavement dwellers, are considered innocent until proven guilty, a work of art does not have it so easy. Thanks to antediluvian provisions in the law, all it takes is for a fanatical sort to gather likeminded folks and bandy about terms like ‘sedition’, ‘obscenity’, ‘insulting religious beliefs’ or ‘defamation’ for a political heavyweight with a beady eye on the vote bank and the full weight of the ruling government behind him or her to ban books or movies without allowing the author, publisher or filmmakers to have their say or even prove in a court of law that such damaging charges are justified.
What follows is a long, costly and arduous litigious procedure with an extremely uncertain outcome which can drive the interested parties to the brink of ruin and leave them shattered emotionally. Nobody has it easy in this world, but we can safely assume that a Veda Vyasa, Valmiki, Vatsayana, Kamban, Kalidasa, Bana, and incidentally Mohammad Malik Jayasi (whose role in cementing Padmavati’s position in the collective Indian consciousness cannot be stressed enough) would certainly not have thrived and created such immortal works had they been forced to ply their craft in these inclement climes. Our ancestors would no doubt be ashamed and aggrieved to see what this land has been reduced to.

We need to remember that we are traditionally peaceable folks (with a tendency to keep the bickering and bloodletting in house), known to have taken giant strides in the fields of art, architecture, science, literature, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. Our knowledge and culture is our legacy to the world and we will do well to preserve and perpetuate it, instead of allowing the unnecessary evil that is censorship to run roughshod over artists, writers and thinkers thanks to misguided notions about honour and glory. In fact, if the past is any indication, Indians would rather make love than war in any sphere. And that is the noblest thing about our identity and we should not let the hooligans and hoodlums take that away from us.   

An edited version of this article appeared in

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Things to keep in Mind while Writing Historical Fiction in India

Writing historical fiction is a dicey business but even more so in these parts where bovine dung is revered over human life and art is devoured by self - appointed guardians of morality using the most immoral means. Yet, risking life and limb, many an author has embarked on this dangerous mission, possibly out of an abiding passion that drives them to preserve the precious remnants of tattered truths painstakingly unearthed from the shifting sands of time or a deeper need to become one with the history they have long revered.
Get your copy here.

The first step in this hair - raising enterprise is to remember to make like a limber and supple character in a Marvel movie, dodging the slings plus arrows of fickle public opinion and the outrage of the mob, spurred on by the mostly erroneous notion that writing historical fiction can pay off in rich dividends.

Next in the order of business is to strike that perfect balance between artistic integrity that impels one to stay faithful to Clio, the stern muse of history and an instinct for self preservation that helps steer clear of howling hooligans who literally take the hatchet to those whose retelling of history may be at odds with their own hackneyed version.
Get your copy here.

It helps if aspiring writers of historical fiction are not as ridiculously beautiful as Deepika Padukone with her ability to make even the uni -brow sexy nor as successful as Sanjay Leela Bhansali with his unlimited budget to make his overwrought passion plays. This is one situation where it pays to be a paunchy wordsmith who is unlikely to stir envy and wrath in the breasts of the less fortunate who may then be prompted to bay for blood till a work of art is banned into oblivion. 

Finally, the writer of historical fiction must be willing to embrace suicidal tendencies and take a leap of faith, bolstered by a firm belief, misguided or otherwise that a shot at history will always be worthwhile.   

Sunday, December 10, 2017

An Antagonist called Alauddin Khalji: Man, Monarch or Monster?

It is the information age and not surprisingly, nowadays everybody is an expert on everything under the Sun. Never mind that Whatsapp forwards, Wikipedia entries, Facebook posts and tweets by twits are hardly what you would call scholarly or peer – reviewed journal sources and therefore, skimming through these does not make one the leading authority on a given subject. Even so, those who actually bother with painstaking research in order to form an educated opinion need to be extra cautious, because everybody knows better anyway, even if they don’t. And woe betide those who play hard and fast with ‘traditional historical facts and beliefs’ even those that involve talking parrots and flying horses for they will be attacked might and main by the self - appointed defenders of Indian culture.
            Even so, it would never do to thrown in the towel and join the Guardians of Gobbledegook would it? Hence the need to take a closer look at those whom we have chosen to hate on the strength of spurious and unproven claims. Indian history has more than its fair share of villains whom we love to hate – Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammad of Ghur, Alauddin Khalji, Mohammad bin Tughlaq, Aurangzeb to name a few. At present though it is Alauddin Khalji’s turn to shine as the object of abhorrence du jour, much reviled and believed to be the most sadistic Shah of all time. But was he truly deserving of the infamy and excoriation that has been heaped on him? Did he have the gym – ripped physique of the boisterous actor who plays him in the much beleaguered film version or the bestial savagery he evinced in the teaser with much scenery chewing, chicken – chomping gusto? Was it true that he coveted another man’s wife as well as Kingdom and moved heaven and earth to possess both? As always the answers are not simple nor are they readily available despite what self – proclaimed pundits, armed with smartphones would have you believe.

            Alauddin Khalji was certainly a ruthless ruler who was not above murdering his own father – in – law and King to seize the throne of Delhi. Enemies and traitors could expect similar mistreatment from the monarch as the smallest hint of dissent or ambition was dealt with an iron fist. In the Shah’s darkest hour, he supposedly ordered the wives of his rebellious Mongol generals led by Mohammad Shah to be tortured, raped and executed but not before they were forced to watch their babies and children tossed from the ramparts to be skewered on the spear – points of his soldiers. Even the chroniclers the Shah himself hired to sing his praises like the legendary Amir Khusrao could not bring themselves to deny his cruelty though they certainly did their best to dress it up and pass it off as a desirable trait, worthy of an emperor who was the epitome of masculine aplomb. 
            On the plus side, Alauddin was also reputed to be an able administrator, a canny and brave conqueror, who could even be generous on occasion. The Shah was also known to be possessed of a seraglio that was filled to bursting with an array of women of all shapes, sizes whom we can safely assume were mostly attractive. It was also a practise of his to demand the hand of a Princess of royal birth from the house of those he vanquished in battle. He married the daughter of the King of Devagiri after defeating him and also insisted that Hammira Chauhan’s daughter, Devala be given to him in marriage while dictating his terms for a truce during the siege of Ranthambore. Some claim that it was a price the Princess was willing to pay in exchange for peace but her irascible father preferred that she enter the flames instead.

            After the fall of Gujarat, the King, Karan Singh Vaghela fled with his tail between his legs, taking his daughter with him but left his wife, the beautiful Kamala Devi behind. It has been opined that she refused to go with him, preferring to give herself to the conqueror instead, having had just about all she could take with his cowardice, outrageously debauched peccadillos and sadism that made Alauddin’s transgressions seem saint – like in comparison.
            In light of available evidence which is admittedly scanty and contradictory, it nevertheless seems unlikely that Alauddin chose to besiege Chittor for any reason besides political expediency and a mad desire to rule the world rather like his personal hero, Alexander the Great. He had even taken to referring to himself as Sikander Sani, Alexander the Second. In all likelihood, he most certainly lusted after the treasures of Chittor and its strategic importance in his quest for Pan – Indian dominance but we can assume the vaunted beauty of its Queen was mostly irrelevant as he was concerned, though it certainly may have been of passing interest if not the causal factor that led to war. After all, Alauddin Khalji was a lot of things but a romantic he most certainly wasn’t!
            We will never know the truth beyond a shadow of doubt though given that all of us can hardly be expected to remember the minute details of our own lives and the minutiae of our misdeeds with unerring accuracy let alone the motivations, deeds, and transgressions of a mighty Shah who was way before our time, whose story we have gleaned from dusty tomes that fall short of scholastic requirements. Alauddin may have been monstrous or merely a highly flawed human wielding absolute power with its unmatched ability to corrupt even the purest of souls. The only certainty is that he was a product of a world which valued might over morals.

            History seldom cares for losers even if they are gentle, peace – loving souls preferring to relegate them to its trash heap. The victors, especially the vicious types with a marked proclivity for violence however make for great copy and they are the ones whose dastardly deeds are remembered and immortalized after being generously coated with sugar and spice. The world remains unchanged despite the technological advances and the unimpeded access to knowledge that ought to enlighten but seldom does. We still favour the powerful go – getters over the peaceable nice guys who not always but mostly finish last. As long as this remains the status – quo we will continue to breed killers in the mould of Khalji and monsters instead of men. And we will only have ourselves to blame. 

For more meaty deliciousness from the past do check out Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen published by Juggernaut.

Also do check out the awesome book trailor on YouTube. 

Interviews and Excerpts!

So these are interviews I did for Mid-dayThe New Indian Express and Firstpost. But for those who still have questions, its all covered in this transcript of the most longish interview ever!

1)      Firstly, really well-written book. Was keen on knowing what drew your interest in Rani Padmavati’s story?
Thanks ever so much, Jane. So glad you enjoyed it. Working on this book has been a lovely experience and I am so grateful for the chance to tell Rani Padmavati’s story.
 I read about Padmavati in Amar Chitra Katha as a kid and remember being absolutely gutted that the ‘good guys’ lost the war and the ladies led by their Rani threw themselves into the flames. It disturbed me quite a bit that unlike the fairy tales this story did not have a happy ending and it stayed with me as a harrowing reminder that things don’t always  work out even if you work hard and live right. At the time, I was angry with the men for winding up on the losing side of a war and dragging their women folk down with them. So perhaps, the idea was to someday live the story and make sense of it all and I am fortunate that it happened for me.
It is thanks to the editorial team at Juggernaut that this book panned out. We were discussing ideas for a book and my editor suggested Padmavati. I fell in love with the idea immediately, since I am a huge history buff and had just finished writing a book on Prithviraj Chauhan. That had been a massive high and I was suffering withdrawal pangs when this idea took hold. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to get up close and personal with the incredibly brave Queen who continues to hold a special place in the hearts of Indians everywhere. It was also a chance for me to tell the story in a manner that would empower young girls plus all the women out there forced to deal with hellish situations that are not of their own making and perhaps even convince the male of the species that there are ways to settle disputes and win conflicts without shedding rivers of blood. 

2)      There is no denying that the book is releasing in the thick of controversy, following Bhansali’s film. There is also a lot of curiosity around who Padmavati, alias Padmini, really was. Could you tell us what you thought of Rani Padmavati and why she stood out among her contemporaries?
People have been asking me if I am scared about the fate of my book on account of the relentless controversy plaguing Bhansali’s film and some wanted to know why I am courting trouble. All I can say is that I am not frightened in the least, simply because this is my country and it is well within my rights to tell a beautiful story that has special significance not just for me but my Indian brothers and sisters everywhere. I refuse to allow anybody to make me feel afraid in this land which is my home. What is happening to the movie based on Padmavati is a crying shame but I am confident that despite everything, we will do the right thing by our citizens and not deny them the freedom to express themselves.
The curiosity surrounding Padmavati and the interest in unearthing her true story is heartening, because in my opinion, it is only when we take the trouble to remember the heroes and heroines from our past that their memories stay alive and the lessons they have imparted serve to light the way as we head into a troubled future. Rani Padmavati stood out among her contemporaries mostly because in an age where women were treated as little more than broodmares and ornamental pieces in overflowing seraglios, she made her voice heard and took a firm stand, defying her husband and his council as well as the Conqueror who bayed for blood outside their doors to determine her own fate. It is a much needed reminder that a woman’s resilience is no small thing and will prevail no matter what the odds.
3)      Again, this book draws from Malik Jayasi’s epic 16th century poem, which is also said to have inspired the Bhansali’s film, while making a marked departure from the original material. That poem itself used a lot of fantasy and imagination. Did you try to stay true to the poem, or imbue this book with your own research or work?
I liked the outrageous creative liberties Jayasi took with this source material. Ironically, enough, the poetic license he took cemented Padmavati’s position among the immortals of history, myth and legend whereas Bhansali is in hot water for purported liberties he may or may not have taken, despite insisting repeatedly that he has done nothing to hurt sentiments. For my part, I used Jayasi’s idea as a springboard in the sense that a lively imagination and elements of fantasy came into play but I decided to forge my own path based on the research which I undertook. Where there were gaps in the narrative due to a paucity of accurate information, a little creativity, educated guessing and personal touches have been used to good effect.
Based on my reading, Rani Padmavati’s story deserved to be a unique version that is entirely unlike anything that came before, simply because I took care to present the main players as flesh and blood human beings as opposed to a flawless Goddess, her spineless, gullible weakling husband who needed his wife to light a fire under his backside to fight for his people and an evil monster without a single redeeming quality who blinded by lust claimed countless lives. In my books on mythology, I have always refused to treat the Gods with grovelling reverence or the demons with unqualified hatred and I saw no reason to do the same with historical figures like Padmavati, Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khalji. Hence the book is imbued with the essence of very real people whom the modern reader can empathise with, and they are certainly not black and white caricatures.
4)      What kind of research did you do for this book? How long did it take to put it all together?
The research for a project of this nature is always an arduous and extremely painstaking process that can be hard on the nerves and induce the occasional panic attack. Somehow there is an ocean of information to wade through but precious little of what you are searching for. It is notoriously difficult but despite all that, I thoroughly enjoyed the research work even if it took forever and involved sleepless nights wading through heavy tomes and taking copious hand written notes. It felt like strapping myself into a time machine and taking off many centuries back into the past. To a simpler yet impossibly hard age where war was a sport played with terrifyingly high stakes.
I loved the feeling of actually being in a very intimate relationship with the awe – inspiring Padmavati, Ratan Singh whose best efforts were never going to be enough or Alauddin Khalji with his steely determination and savage ruthlessness as well as the important people in their lives who however temporarily became a part of my world too. With the Rani, I could sense the vulnerability of a young bride in the first flush of love who needs to believe that the world will never go to hell even when confronted with impending doom. As for Ratan Singh, it was not possible for me to look down on him simply because in all likelihood he was a regular, even nice guy who did not really excel in bloodletting and making war. Even Alauddin Khalji in my book is not a complete beast though he was guilty of heinous crimes against humanity. He had his own rigid sense of right and wrong and in his own inimitable way, he did have honour. Ultimately, they were all victims of a harsher age where too many were caught up in a killing frenzy and an unbroken cycle of violence, driven mad by their lust for treasure, land and power. We are fortunate that we live in a relatively clement age where it is not external circumstances but the foibles within that contribute to the miseries of the human condition. 
Getting to know Rani Padmavati and the others has been an amazing journey that has convinced me that the spirits of all who have passed on from this ancient land live on in the very fabric of its history and culture, which itself is reason enough for all of us to be nicer to each other and turn away from the divisive forces and hatred that seek to tear us apart.
5)      How accurate and truthful should writers be when revisiting events and characters from the past? And, how close do you think this book comes to that effect?
It is my most fervent belief that there ought to be no rules where art is concerned. That said, I also think that when it comes to reinventing events and characters from the past it doesn’t hurt if the writer has the superhuman skills of a tightrope worker because a balanced perspective is crucial when it comes to writing on such explosive subject matter and dicey issues. It is important to build a strong foundation based on thorough research but the author also has to remain flexible enough to incorporate fresh ideas and exercise the imagination in order to help the story grow and take flight not just in the present but well into the future as well.
There was a certain vision in my mind regarding this book and I am happy with the way it turned out. My allegiance was entirely to the trio of Padmavati, Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khalji and I am confident that I did justice to them. If they were to peruse the contents of my books, in my opinion none of them will have any cause for complaint. On a not entirely unrelated note, I keep fantasizing about Rani Padmavati declaring that I am her BFF and she loves my version of her story while the Rawal and Shah keep showering me with gold coins for my efforts!
6)      Would you say there is a lot of myth surrounding Rani Padmavati’s life? Did you find any glaring discrepancies in fact and fiction around the many retellings of Padmavati?
Truth be told, the story of Rani Padmavati has been so successfully hijacked into the realm of myth that serious historians are convinced that she is a figment of a poet’s runaway imagination and with good reason. There is very little information about her that can be counted as hard fact and historians from her time have been annoyingly silent where she is concerned. It sucks that for someone who is such a legendary figure, we know precisely nothing about where she came from, who her parents were and what she did before she was married to the Rawal. In these parts, we have always followed an oral tradition with the result that scholarly material is scant which in turn results in a complete lack of agreement regarding key historical figures. There will always be more questions than answers and it is hard piecing together key events from the lives of folks from a bygone period.
Hence it bugs me no end, when people who may have heard a few stories from grandma back in the day and are unwilling to go the whole hog when it comes to the backbreaking labour involved in shedding light on these ancient stories nevertheless seek to silence those who have struggled to uncover the truth or as much of it as it is possible to recover. However, these discrepancies notwithstanding, it is important that these stories get told even at their most provocative or subversive. And it would be even better if long buried stories are helped to the surface without the aid of unnecessarily manufactured controversy. For this is the only way for our children’s children and their great – grandchildren to stay in touch with a golden past that deserves to be preserved.

7)      There is also the charge of glamorising Sati. Did you feel that you were toeing a very thin line when revisiting this event in the Jauhar chapter?
The chapter on Jauhar called for some delicate handling on my part and there were times when I thought very strongly of rewriting it or doing away with it entirely, because I did not want to glorify either Sati or Jauhar or anything at all, that involved women burning thanks to patriarchal notions of honour and womanly virtue. However, it was important that I take a few deep breaths and acknowledge that in Padmavati’s case, it was a personal choice made for reasons she chose to believe in. We need to respect her decision and not condemn it with the benefit of hindsight and our own modern concepts of right and wrong which no doubt will be most appalling when viewed by our great – grandchildren or even ancestors who are no doubt rolling in their graves over our new – fangled ideas pertaining to morality and ethics.
Still, over the course of my research I was not at all surprised to discover that too many girl children and young brides were coerced into performing Sati or Jauhar and were even drugged when they resisted with doses of opiates and other intoxicants like kushumba. Consequently, you will find that in my version the Jauhar has been treated in an entirely unconventional manner which makes it raw, visceral and heart-breaking, since it tracks the hitherto unknown events of treachery, baleful influences and spite that lead to the Rani’s terrifying decision and it will not be something the reader can anticipate if he or she has been visualizing gorgeously clad women, weighed down with tons of jewellery with artfully arranged hair striding into the flames to the strains of mournful music.
8)      Clearly, for all the protests around the film, your book doesn’t provide any fodder for romance between Khalji and Padmavati. What we do see is a beautiful love story between Padmavati and the Rawal. Do you think history and master storytellers forgot to focus on this part of Padmavati’s life?
Unlike Padmavati, there is abundant information on the life and times of Alauddin Khalji. From what is known of him, it seems not only highly improbable but downright laughable that he made his decision to capture Chittor on the strength of his supposedly inflamed passion for or desire to possess Rani Padmavati. He was an ambitious man who lived for gold, land and more of the same. In fact, some scholars have insinuated that his tastes in the boudoir tended not to be directed towards the fairer sex. He did have a reputation for demanding that his fallen foes wed their daughters to him but it was seldom about desire and mostly it was to establish his authority over them. Even Kamala Devi, the wife of Rai Karan of Gujarat shunned her odious husband and chose to marry Alauddin. Apart from this there is nothing to indicate that he coveted the wives of other men. Hence, my take on this famous forbidden passion is again different and more in keeping with historical facts.
As for the love story between Padmavati and her husband, I think historians and storytellers have been most remiss in leaving out this aspect of their lives, so intent are they on portraying her as a larger than life paragon of virtue as opposed to a young girl with silly dreams of everlasting love. It is obviously not a perfect romance, not the least because Padmavati was the Rawal’s second wife and there were plenty of other women of comparable beauty vying for his affections. It couldn’t have been easy for the Rani to share her husband with not just her rivals but the demands of running a Kingdom on the brink of war as well. I wanted to take a closer look at the potential relationship they are likely to have had.
What was interesting was the capacity they both had for unconditional love and mutual respect even though they had to have been under tremendous pressure because she had not borne him children as well as the machinations of those who nursed a grudge against Padmavati and sort to cause problems between them. It also saddens me that the Rawal is often portrayed as a loser or coward when it is more likely that he was a rare kind of man, who was more of a pacifist of moderate ambition, given to choosing love and a gentle wife’s embrace over warmongering and an avaricious need to conquer and enslave a nation. It is not right that we traditionally hold the nice guys in contempt while looking up to the bad boys of history, despite the atrocities they perpetuated while engaged in the selfish pursuit of personal aggrandizement. Small wonder that the world has more than its fair share of brutes whereas true gentlemen are fast becoming an endangered species.
9)      If there was one aspect about Padmini’s life that you found empowering, what do you think it would be? Also, do you think the Rani was a feminist?
It is obvious to me that good looks were not all Rani Padmavati had going for her. She clearly was brave and had a quick mind. Given the high regard in which her people held her it is apparent that she did not spend all her time holed up in the harem, gossiping, dolling up and playing dress up. Instead it is certain that she moved out from the suffocating women’s quarters to a miniature palace the Rawal built for her own use and spent considerable time and expended a whole lot of effort as well as monetary funds towards caring for the downtrodden among the populace. Even with her rivals, who must have resented the Rawal’s love for her, Padmavati chose to rise above petty jealousy and insecurity choosing instead to take the high road and responded to even he worstr detractors with typical dignity and grace. This makes her a feminist in the truest sense of the term.

The most inspiring thing about her is not the manner of her death but the way she chose to make her life count in the too brief span that was allotted to her. It is why she will never be forgotten and there will always be those who are willing to retell her story even it means taking on formidable odds and pushing the limits of courage in order to be worthy of the legendary Queen.

And I mentioned excerpts right? These are excerpts from Rani Padmavati which appeared in The New Indian Express and Scroll.