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.  

Padmavati and the Unsung Heroines of Indian History

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. Telling Padmavati’s story has been one of the most incredibly special experiences of my life. During the process of researching and writing it all down, I have become all too familiar with some uncomfortable truths regarding patriarchal notions about womanly virtue which I am not sure would be any different even if one were to go forward in time. An even more harrowing thought is that violence against women including but not limited to gruesome death and assorted forms of ill usage as a means of righting the skewed scales of male honour and sense of righteousness is an evil that is very much in play today, centuries after Rani Padmavati’s passing.


            Somehow, in the process of rightly celebrating a legendary Queen we have forgotten the only things about her life and death worth remembering. Rani Padmavati was a brave woman who was determined to determine her own fate and chose the flames of Jauhar over the disgrace of defeat and the prospect of surrendering to the mercy of a conqueror who had proved himself ruthless with a definite penchant for cruelty, made all the more terrifying when juxtaposed against his arbitrary acts of kindness and rigid code of personal honour. Yet, in glorifying her demise, bewailing her fate and frothing at the mouth over real and imagined attempts to malign her memory, we have failed on a spectacular scale to understand the ruinous factors that culminated in an epic tragedy. Which could explain why we continue to repeat the exact same mistakes that led to every heart-breaking disaster and calamitous defeat over the course of a long and not always heroic history. 
            For starters, Rani Padmavati wasn’t the only one who met her end in such a ghastly fashion, though she is the one of the few we have chosen to remember. There are so many unsung heroines who chose the same path or made the even bolder decision to try and survive when their men failed against the might of foreign invaders who drove them from their homes, pillaged their possessions and ravaged their country. This seems to have happened over and over again in an endless cycle. Which begs the question – what went wrong? Why were we on the losing side of so many wars? Surely the solution wasn’t mass suicide?
We Indians like to think of ourselves as a people who are certainly not lacking in the valour department. But despite the vaunted bravery of the warlike clans who have long distinguished themselves on Indian soil why did we fare so badly against the likes of Alexander, Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammad of Ghur, Alauddin Khalji, the Mughals and the British? The answer is embarrassingly simple. This land has always been divided into warring, factious clans who persist in squabbling over petty issues, paltry parcels of land and nursing grievances that go back for several generations if not longer. No amount of spilled blood can make us forget our differences and unite for the common good.

In fact, our history is littered with examples of the small – mindedness and mean – spiritedness that has led to bitter clashes which has ripped apart the heart and soul of our country. There are too many instances of treachery when traitors chose to fight by the side of the loathed conqueror and betray their own. King Porus was screwed over by Ambi. Prithviraj Chauhan was stabbed in the back by Jaichand. Rawal Ratan Singh and Chittor were let down by Raghav Chetana. In fact, though Alauddin Khalji hated the Judas types and came up with innovative ways to punish them most ingeniously there was no dearth of their ilk who willingly offered up their chosen victims on a silver platter in exchange for personal gain or to settle old scores. This insidious pattern is a recurring motif in every shameful chapter of Indian history. But we still refuse to learn.
A filmmaker’s attempt to resurrect or reinterpret the legend of Padmavati for better or worse, has brought to the surface simmering passions and buried issues that has cleanly stripped away the glossy veneer of civilization revealing the rot and ugliness within. On paper, India is a secular nation and a democracy where everybody is entitled to the same rights. But that is hardly the case.
The land is as divided as it always was and we are still ready to fight each other to the death over religion, caste, and ideological differences. Men are still ruled by rampaging egos and too many women pay the price with their lives. Too many among us insist on dragging fellow brothers and sisters down, grinding them into the dust instead of helping each other scale the lofty peaks of collective achievement so that we may someday truly become the Utopian land overflowing with milk and honey where everybody can live in peace and prosperity, and really give the poets something to write about that is not only beautiful but true.

            Yet Padmavati is also a tale of enduring hope and the cornerstone of her legacy is that even when her world went to hell, she looked doom in the eye and did not even blink. Instead she made a choice to turn her back on the greed, hatred and violence that had consumed them and departed her life with the same grace and dignity with which she had lived. It is not enough to remember Rani Padmavati. We owe it not just to her but the other brave men and women who came before and after, to soldier on in the face of ever present adversity in order to survive and create a better India and a safer world for our children to inherit. 
The article appeared in Arre.

A Passionate Preoccupation with Padmavati

One doesn’t feel inclined to become embroiled in the tidal wave of controversy buffeting the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film made on Rani Padmavati and starring Deepika Padukone simply because every word written on the subject is merely the fuel that fans the flames of a fire that refuses to burn out. Clearly, cold – blooded commerce and hot headed nationalism are at loggerheads uncaring that it is art and freedom of expression that may be devoured on the pyre of this bitter conflagration. Everybody seems convinced that only their version of Padmavati, even if it is largely imagined or singularly far - fetched must be the right one and everybody else is not merely grossly incorrect but deserving of drastic punishment that includes disgrace and decapitation. What is it about Padmavati that provokes such a passionate outpouring of fervent reverence and frenzied rage?
            Rani Padmavati, (let’s forget the fact that serious historians refuse to see her as anything other than fictitious and give her story the same credence they would a fanciful legend or myth) cemented her place in history by opting to enter the flames of Jauhar when confronted with abject defeat at the hands of a foreign invader and was lauded for the ‘brave’ decision to end her life rather than live to a ripe old age in a luxuriously appointed harem. It is quite the story but hardly a unique one, even for that time period. Alauddin Khalji had also taken Ranthambore after defeating Hammira Chauhan and Devalla Devi, his daughter chose to perform Jauhar refusing the conqueror’s offer of marriage. It was the same after other Rajput strongholds in Jalore and Siwana fell - hopelessly tragic tales on loop, where the men sacrificed themselves in a futile, headlong charge and the women burned.
There have been other recorded instances where hapless women of royal birth (including children) were less than thrilled with the prospect of committing either Jauhar or Sati. These were ‘gently’ prodded into taking the patriarchy – approved, ‘honourable’ decision, by being fed opiates and led glassy – eyed into the flames, because it would never do is they went to their deaths kicking and screaming. But nobody wrote stories about these women or worked themselves into a tizzy over their tragic fates.
            Epic poetry was not composed in Rani Kamala Devi’s honour either. She was a fabled beauty and the wife of the ruler of Gujarat, Karan Singh Vaghela. After his infamous conduct and ignominious defeat, she made a brave decision too and chose life over death, accepting Alauddin Khalji’s offer of marriage. Yet, Padmavati alone continues to capture the fancy of generations of Indians. It could be because her story got told in a manner that fired up dormant passions, bringing characters and situations to life within the fevered imaginations of the oppressed trapped under the yoke of tyranny. It also managed the tricky feat of transforming a tale of woeful defeat into one that was doused in heroism and given a lustrous sheen, thereby making a ruinous and disgraceful period in history more palatable and worth taking pride in.
            Perhaps Padmavati’s story was always contentious, especially since it was written by a poet who belonged to the faith of the much reviled invaders, two centuries after the actual events. It is entirely probable that our distant ancestors were butting heads over the salient features of this arresting saga and threatening each other with death and worse, arguing over whether it was becoming for a comely Queen to be spirited, have a mind of her own and oppose her husband’s decision to surrender. Possibly controversy was always the reason, this particular story survived, nimbly leaping over the abbess of obscurity that might have otherwise been its fate. 
            After all this time, Padmavati’s story continues to captivate, bringing to a boil, the simmering frustrations of a bitterly divided nation where all are convinced that they alone are paragons of virtue and upholders of just causes. It is an age where we cannot agree on anything whether it is demonetisation, GST, Kangana vs Hrithik, or Dhoni’s retirement since every happening is bitterly argued over without any consensus. Yet, with typical arrogance, we insist that we know exactly what went down with a beautiful Queen from centuries ago.
            Ultimately though, it is important that a story like Padmavati’s, gets told even if it is with shocking departures from the original source material. It may make us mad when an affected auteur with a tendency to bury his heroines under yards of fabric and heavy jewellery that could break an elephant’s back before making them prance around in complicated dance sequences, wants to mess with it, but we need to let him have his say. Because every story is a living thing and must do what it takes to survive, even if it means allowing vested interests to take liberties with it, in order to get told, listened to and retold. Shooting the storytellers would never do since that entails striking the death blow not just for stories but history as well.

Hmmm... Mostly all the mags and websites have opted to carry pics of Deepika Padukone for my articles on Padmavati. What's wrong with my mug? (PS: That's a joke albeit a lame one.) 
This article appeared in India Today. 

Rani Padmavati: The Woman Behind the Legend

Rani Padmavati died young. The tragedy that took her life and the heroic valour she exhibited on being confronted with certain doom elevated her to the rarefied realms of legend and myth. All her mortal remains including the little flaws and foibles that made her human were consumed by the flames she had willingly entered having opted to perform Jauhar. This was the price paid in exchange for immortality and her elevation to near Goddess stature.


            For the longest time, Padmavati has come to symbolize the perfect woman who is flawlessly gorgeous, virtuous and valiant. If we were to fight our way past the deeply entrenched archetype of the legendary Queen that is so deeply entrenched in the collective subconscious, it is a certainty that at least while she lived, Padmavati was human, endearingly so. Like all mortals, she would have been forced to deal with the fact that life is mostly a crock of crap with a few redeeming moments. Even if she did grin and bear it graciously, it is almost a given that there were moments when she was bugged past bearing.
            Before Padmavati became the Queen of Chittor, there can be little doubt that she was a young girl who dreamed of love, finding the one, making babies and living happily ever after. Or did she wish fervently that she had been born a boy, because her brothers had more fun while she was being trained to be prim, proper and perfect? One wonders about her thoughts on discovering that she was to become the wife of the much married Rawal Ratan Singh of Chittor, whose first wife, Nagmati was the chief Queen who had already borne him a heir. She may have been blasé about it because in that age it was very par for the course to treat women as little more than broodmares whom powerful men saw fit to adorn their seraglios with, in such prodigious quantities that it was usually filled to bursting. Or young Padma may have been tempted to steal a horse and flee for the hills. We will never know.
            As an extraordinary beauty, Padmavati is portrayed as an object of desire. Most women would kill to be in her footwear without realizing that there is a flipside to having too much of anything, including good looks. There would have been too many who envied or hated her outright. The Rawal built a miniature palace for her exclusive use and the move is unlikely to have gone down well with the rest of the scorned women who had been left out in the cold. meaning that many pairs of claws would have been unsheathed. Some would have even wished her dead. It couldn’t have been easy dealing with all the hate, petty jealousy and the intrigues of courtly life.
If that were not bad enough, rumour mongers probably went to town claiming that Padmavati’s exquisite mien was the reason Chittor was at the receiving end of Alauddin’s alarming ambition and avarice. May be her detractors clamoured for her immolation to save the besieged Kingdom. Perhaps Padmavati, beset with strife and the unhappy knowledge that her husband was not strong enough to turn aside the tidal wave of defeat and destruction that was to be their fate wished for a fleeting moment that she had been plain and poor if only to have a moment of blessed peace…

The answers are elusive but the questions regarding her life linger and as long as they do, Rani Padmavati will live on. Of course, one wonders if the person Rani Padmavati had been would have wanted any of this for herself. It is nearly certain that she would have traded it all in a heartbeat for a happy ending. Even if it was a fleeting one. 
This article was written for VogueIndia And if you haven't ordered your copy yet, do me a favor and pick up a copy here.

TRIPLETS!

I have been neglecting this space for too long and to a woeful extent. But it is hard to be a regular blogger in addition to being a mommy of two, author who made the somewhat wonky decision to release four books in one year (That's right!), stay active on Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, maintain a journal, really long hair, a body beset by fat demons and do justice to a gazillion other chores plus assorted preoccupations that vary in terms of worthwhileness. Besides my deep, dark fear that I write and write and write only to be seldom read and have the words sucked into a void where words go to die gets terrifyingly exacerbated when I show up in these parts. (Its not like Facebook and Twitter are much better but there is always the forlorn comfort of a lone heart lighting up your smartphone display or the occasional couple likes)  Still when you are between projects and have nothing better to do on a Sunday (How come there is nothing decent on TV anymore?) you tend to take a stab at not being a completely hopeless blogger.

Anyways, so in case you are wondering about the "Triplets" in the title allow me to elaborate. Quick on the heels of Yama's Lieutenant and the Stone Witch which was released in July, I am back with three books - KARTIKEYA: THE DESTROYER'S SON , PRITHVIRAJ CHAUHAN: THE EMPEROR OF HEARTS , and RANI PADMAVATI: THE BURNING QUEEN all released somewhere between the last week of November and the first week of December. Kartikeya is dedicated to The Bickersons. For those asking, that refers to my Mum and Dad who are a lovely couple given to squabbling on occasion. Prithviraj is dedicated to my husband for giving me my own weird and wonderful love story (or horror story as a witty cousin once remarked though he amended that he feels that way about marriages in general and his, in particular). Rani Padmavati is dedicated to Veda and Varna, my brave, bright and beautiful boos.

For those wondering why the three books are coming out together all I can say is that I didn't plan it that way, it just happened. If you wanna know more about the books, what prompted me to write them, my journey as an author and the rest of it, I don't have a FAQs page but please do hit one of the links above or google me up and one of the many interviews I have given on this subject over the years will pop right up! My apologies for being not just a hopeless blogger but an incurably lazy one. 
Anyways, wish me luck on the babies! Really excited about them. Kartikeya has opened to some really amazing reviews which you can check out here and here. Both said really sweet things about Kartikeya and there are a couple more wonderful reviews out there where I even got compared to C. Rajagopalachari (like him, my stories are delightful as well as informative it seems) and Arundhati Roy. Kartikeya is also rocking the bestseller lists on Amazon India. So needless to say, I am absolutely over the moon! And don't worry, I am not too high. One particularly harsh critic who had read and hated Kamadeva, read and hated Kartikeya and took the time to let me know.

Prithviraj is doing well too and has broken into the top 25 bestsellers in the historical fiction genre listed by Amazon India .

There has been a major buzz around Rani Padmavati as well thanks to a needless controversy that has has been plaguing Sanjay Leela Bhansali's magnus opus for months now. I have given so many interviews and written so many articles on the subject, I am even more worn out than I was when I actually wrote the three books. I'll post it hereabouts soon!

Sure you will agree this post has meandered on long enough, so I'll just share a super cute poster which hubby designed for me and sign off!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Humongous Hypocrisy Behind the Cracker Ban

The recent debate on the cracker ban in Delhi as with just about everything else has proved to be contentious and controversial. Chetan Bhagat picked up cudgels on behalf of the beleaguered fireworks industry, though every time he tweets, it works against whatever he is espousing. In the cacophony of voices that have been raised for and against the issue, as always it is reason that has been silenced. 

            Supposedly the ban on the sale of firecrackers in the capital city is to ascertain whether this can make a palpable difference to the dangerous levels of pollution in Delhi. Needless to say, this decision is most certainly going to prove inconclusive and ineffectual simply because this simplistic measure fails to tackle the root causes that led to such a deplorable situation in the first place. People burst crackers only during the Diwali holidays and probably during the occasional wedding or party. But thanks to the relentless smear campaign against the fireworks industry and the little town where I live, which is reeling from crippling losses and may never recover, this is hardly a regular occurrence and the finger of blame can’t be pointed solely at sparklers and chakras.
Let us turn our attention instead towards the major causes of air pollution, though the aetiology behind Delhi’s affliction is hard to pinpoint. However, we do know enough. Vehicular pollution is a major offender and the solution of course would be to use public transportation, car – pooling and avoid driving and flying as much as possible. But I simply cannot see a future where people walk to work or cycle to get their grocery shopping done after those environment – destroying, gas – guzzling vehicles are banned for good, can you?
 The umpteen industrial processes that have the unhappy end result of spewing that toxic looking black smoke into the atmosphere, the burning of agricultural, factory and just about any waste are eco miscreants as well. But of course, we are not freaks to stop progress in its tracks and roll back the industrial revolution, so that we can go back to living like tree hugging hippies. We are cultured people and in India we believe in underpaying the help to keep our houses sparkling clean and dump our trash outside but we certainly cannot shell out for the expensive process of treating wastes and disposing it responsibly. However, while holidaying on foreign shores, we are willing to rant on Facebook about our stupid government that has failed to give us sanitary living conditions and has forced us to endure the unsightly squalor of the squatters in slums.
Tobacco is a proven, lethal source of air pollution but why should we ban the cancer stick and incur the wrath of a gazillion billion dollar industry when we can simply force telly viewers and the movie theatre crowd to listen to Rahul Dravid’s cautionary voice about the evils of smoking with graphic pics of tumours in extreme close up?  Our refrigerators, fans, air – conditioners, room fresheners and even the paint on our walls contain chemicals that have not helped the cause of the much lamented hole in the ozone layer. Surprisingly all these products are endorsed by our revered celebrities who then exhort us from their twitter or instagram accounts while reclining within the cool confines of their fancy, imported cars to celebrate Diwali without those pesky fireworks which are the bane of the environment.
The thing is we all care about our creature comforts far more than the possibility of a tragic catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions in the future. So we are not going to give up our cars, cigarettes, or any of the by – products of the industrial revolution that has made our lives so much easier. Instead, we will be hypocrites and voice our support for the cracker ban across social media so that we can feel better about destroying the world.

  

Fatal Fascination with Fame

Not many of us would admit it, but the truth is that we are ridiculously obsessed with celebs. Everybody will blame the news outlets for making headlines out of stories featuring fabulous and famous folks especially since news is not really news until Twinkle Khanna has written about it. Hence we are pelted with pellets of piddling information, pertaining to pricey movie stars, cricketers, star sons and daughters, overhyped reality show participants and social media phenoms who rose to fame by making sex tapes.
Consequently there is no way of not knowing that Kareena Kapoor is working out for 10 straight hours because the twitterati denounced her chunky legs and Sonam Kapoor has squeezed her painstakingly dieted, sculpted and massaged bod into yet another haute couture outfit. In other enriching news that we simply cannot live without, Jhanvi Kapoor may just make her debut after she has been lovingly groomed by Karan Johar opposite Shah Rukh Khan’s son or Shahid Kapoor’s brother.
And of course everybody knows the story of the century - Hrithik Roshan and Kangana Ranaut are slugging it out in court to decide whether an illicit relationship, harassment and stalking actually happened. Given the morbid fascination with the twists and turns of this case, interest in which refuses to die despite doleful reports of death and destruction wreaking havoc in the real world, one would be forgiven for thinking that the very fate of humanity depends on how this almighty kerfuffle is resolved. Never mind that gender equality will remain a distant dream, unfortunate folks who live below the poverty line will continue to starve, struggle and defecate in the open, those who embrace an alternate sexual identity will do so in the closet, anybody who dares to speak against oppression or injustice will be slapped with an expensive lawsuit if not killed outright and India will remain India while the World continues to go to hell, irrespective of the shenanigans of the glitterati. 

Blaming the media is silly. We are served up the only kind of news we care about and want to read these days. A closer introspection would indicate that a part of this fascination for stars of the non -astronomical persuasion is that we see in their overexposed aura what we aspire to be as well as the things we loathe about ourselves. Hence it is fun to place them on pedestals or spew hatred and tear them down. Be that as it may, it is high time we acknowledged that by allowing ourselves to become obsessed with celebs or obsessed with becoming one, we are frittering away valuable creative energy, on things that cannot be construed as constructive. 

Famous people are just regular people who look nicer and always get tables at fancy restaurants. Besides they are as miserable as the rest of us though they are admittedly able to be lame in five star comfort. How do I know? Because Deepika Padukone admitted as much! So let us get real, and resolve to do something useful with the little time given to each of us to make a difference personally, socially, or culturally. Or anything at all that doesn’t involve star gazing.  

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express

Jimmiki Kammals and Kangana Ranaut's story

Move over Kolaveri di, Jimmiki Kammal has arrived and how! This trippy, peppy Malayalam number, composed by Shaan Rahman, appears in Mohanlal’s Velipadinte Pusthakam, and when a bevy of belles grooved to the beat for their Onam celebrations, the song went viral with even popular talk show host Jimmy Kimmel professing his love for it. Men of all ages declared themselves enamoured of the lead dancer from Indian School of Commerce (ISC), and even started WhatsApp groups in her honour.

One intrepid radio jockey tracked her down for an interview frankly declaring that traditionally, a Tamilian dude’s heart beats faster when in the vicinity of a beautiful Malayali girl. Around this time, Kangana Ranaut joined hands with All India Bakchod (AIB) for a satirical video on the rampant sexism in Bollywood. Between interviews, she dished the dirt on abusive relationships she had been involved in with married men from the film industry of varying star voltage.

As always, her cheerleaders applauded her for the frank exposé of taboo topics, while critics wondered about her sincerity given her tendency to bring up scandalous issues just prior to her fi lm’s release. Her supporters countered that if Aamir Khan can embrace pressing social causes, timing it to promote his latest cinematic offering and get applauded for his keen business acumen, why can’t Kangana? But all was forgiven, thanks to the AIB video and the gales of laughter it induced.

Even the worst chauvinists who refer to feminists as feminazis, warmed to the witty Ranaut who sizzled in a midriff-baring crimson outfit. Both videos got me thinking about the male gaze and the sexual politics behind it. In visual media, as Laura Mulvey pointed out in her famous 1975 essay, it refers to a sexualised way of looking which empowers men and reduces women to mere objects of desire. Yet, in both these videos, where the female agency is apparent, somehow the male gaze is successfully transformed into something that is no longer ickily voyeuristic and creepy, but strangely endearing, notwithstanding the touch of ‘scopophilia’ or the sexual pleasure derived by simply looking.

Seeing grown men get so excited by the terpsichorean grace of a girl next door, or the prospect of watching a movie because Ranaut ‘has a vagina re’, reminded me of a simpler time when it was okay to see provided one wasn’t seen seeing. When it was perfectly okay to whistle at a pretty girl without getting pulled up for eve-teasing.

The flush of satisfaction on being at the receiving end of an appreciative glance since it did not pose the risk of stalking or rape. Conversely, with regard to the feminine gaze, surely a lady has the right to ogle an intense and sexy Rafa without getting accused of lewd and lascivious staring? Thanks to the gender wars we have been fighting for so long, we are losing out on so much that is awesome about being male or female, including the playful interplay and banter between the sexes, which need not be limited to intercourse or incendiary politics. Let us celebrate and satisfy masculine and feminine scopophilia, Jimmiki Kammals, Kangana’s vagina, Rafa’s hot bod and bring friendship, fun and flirtation back into our relationship with the opposite sex. Political correctness be damned!

Originally appeared in The New Indian Express

WILL THE REAL INDIANS PLEASE STAND UP

Let’s get this over and done with. India is no more a Hindu nation than it is a Hindi speaking one. One of the nicest things we can say about this country is that since ancient times it has provided a home for diverse people who have little in common aside from the shared identity of being Indian. But what exactly does that even mean?
The more misguided among us would insist that the real Indian is a vegetarian, devout Hindu, Cow and Cricket worshipper, Hindi speaker, and Bollywood lover. Anybody who begs to differ of course is an anti – national terrorist who deserves to be lynched or trolled with the most abusive language that can be conjured from the diseased depths of a sick, extremely prejudiced mind.
Never mind that an overwhelming majority loves animals fried or roasted, buys all things made of leather at exorbitant prices, have been known to tuck in with relish into a steaming hot plate of chilli beef or go to town on a triple whopper. Some of us belong to other faiths or proudly declare ourselves to be atheists or agnostics. You wouldn’t believe it, but there are too many of us who prefer chess to cricket, don’t speak a word of Hindi, and haven’t yet hopped onto the Bollywood bandwagon, thank you very much.
   All those possessed with half a brain and a shred of decency would admit that preferences need not be confused with principles, that jingoistic nonsense cannot be tolerated let alone actively endorsed and the ridiculous notions upheld by those who ought to know better but don’t are beyond ludicrous. But how do we deal with those who cannot be reasoned with and are deranged enough to stoop to murder over idiotic ideology?
It behoves us to take a stand against those who would try to beat us into submission and force their divisive beliefs on us, which goes without saying. Yet, for the love of all things holy and unholy let us be Gandhian about it and rise above violence in word or deed. There is too much of hatred induced madness going around and it is tearing apart our motherland.
We need to acknowledge that for better or worse we are all Indians, despite the glaring differences between us. Without exception, we belong to a sprawling, extended family that is scarily dysfunctional and as far removed as it is possible to be from what Sooraj Barjatya would like to believe. And it is all the more reason for us to put up with each other’s nonsense, make nice even when it seems the hardest thing to do and find a way to live with each other. Getting mad at those who don’t see eye to eye with us will never help. Ever. Unless of course there is kissing and making up involved afterwards.

  Being Indian is a beautiful thing, which a lot of us take immense pride in. It is something worth doing everything in our power to preserve even if that means killing only with kindness and standing together, no matter what.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express 

SHE HAD IT COMING

In the aftermath of the Haryana stalking case, where Varnika Kundu was shamefully harassed by the Haryana BJP chief’s son Vikas Barala and his crony, Ashish Kumar, one feels assailed by a sinking sense of déjà vu. The accused were booked under lenient provisions for stalking, driving under the influence and wrongful restraint, all of which are bailable offenses though the victim had clearly spelt out in her statement that there was an attempt to abduct her which has far graver repercussions. The perpetrators who incidentally are law students were released in double quick time. 
            The rest of it is predictable. The Chandigarh BJP Vice President, Ramveer Bhatti weighed in and began the victim shaming in earnest enquiring whether a respectable girl would be out by midnight, driving all by herself. When outrage mounted against him and party colleague Kirron Kher called him out, he amended the statement saying that he merely meant that parents ought to keep a better eye on their children, male or female to prevent this sort of thing from happening. This is a remarkable example of victim shaming before pooh – poohing the suggestion that anything of the sort was done.
            Hollow assurances have been made asserting that justice will be served and those who are claiming that vested political interests are pressurising the police to let the privileged perps off the hook are talking out their butts. Needless to say nobody is convinced, and with the cynicism born of too many instances where our judicial system has let us down by failing to mete out timely and effective punishment, we know almost for certain that once the media furore has died down, the case will drag on in perpetuity, inevitably testing the resolve and the endurance of the victim who will be asked to establish her credentials as a ‘virtuous woman’.
            The striking feature of this case is that it drives home the point that after all this time and effort spent on creating awareness on how it is not okay to stalk, kill, harass and rape women, which is bloody obvious in the first place, for far too many people belonging to both sexes, every time a crime against a woman is committed it is invariably for the same reason – She had it coming!
            Though this antediluvian attitude in all probability will be looked at askance by men and women who read this respectable publication and by any discerning audience when it is brought up in panels to create awareness for women’s rights across the country where we all nod along uniformly, the fact is that the great majority which spawns the scum who violate the rights of women believe that she had it coming and of course she asked for it. How then do we deal with this malignant mind-set that has led to such profound tragedies?

            The answer could be not to expect male miscreants to change but ultimately, to stop being afraid that every guy out there is out to get you. Admittedly #NotAllMen are pricks though all pricks are men, so why make your life about the rotten apples? Fear is the drug that impels monsters to come out of the shadows to play their cruel games. Don’t be ashamed when you are slut shamed. It is obvious that those who refer to wronged women as whores are potty mouths with shit for brains and their crappy opinions are beneath you. Never ever let these execrable examples of excrescence get to you or make you question yourself. They are rat droppings who are underserving of your precious time and attention. Finally, don’t feel bad about treating a douchebag with the disdain he deserves. You know, he had it coming.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express 

WHY WE OUGHT NEVER TO TIRE OF RETELLING TALES FROM INDIAN MYTHOLOGY

The resurgence of all things mythological in the literary space is a welcome phenomenon and not only because many authors including yours truly have made a career out of this seemingly insatiable interest. Any book that can distract youngsters from their addiction to fancy gizmos designed to make douche bag zombies out of them by harkening back to the glories of an ancient time must be considered a truly marvellous accomplishment. In fact, offerings in this sphere have helped people from all age groups suffering from smartphone syndrome. Which is why it is encouraging when books in this genre especially when penned by the likes of Amish Tripathi, Anand Neelakantan and Kavita Kane sell like hotcakes with a little something illegal stirred into it. 
Yet, in keeping with the adage that where there is a demand there must be an excessive supply this trend has led to aficionados overdosing on the stuff and reaching saturation point. Publishing houses are spewing out endless mythology related titles featuring every single character from the Ramayana and Mahabharata into the sea of books that have already been written on the same, Many aspiring writers who dream of getting published feel that mythology is the way to go and contribute steadily to the massive influx.
In fact, there is even talk that one enterprising author has successfully pitched a book – proposal to a leading publishing house about a fly on the wall who happened to be present when Ravana and Mandodari were engaged in a heated debate over the unmitigated gall the former had displayed in kidnapping another man’s wife which the latter felt was a scathing indictment of the fact that her looks where no longer what they had been before she had borne him the warlike sons, he had insisted upon. The eponymous character is saving the details about the make-up sex that followed as well as his familiarity with Ravana’s bowel movements for a sequel. 

If this sort of desperation does not put off the faithful adherents to the genre then the infamous ‘Gau Rakshaks’ and religious doggerel spouting extremists will definitely do the trick. They have managed to take a lovely tradition and found a way to make it something unspeakably ugly by using it as a weapon to spread hate. 
If they had their way India would be a nation of clones brainwashed into toeing the line for jingoistic goons who would have us believe that ideally we should all turn vegetarian, embrace Hinduism, speak nothing but chaste Hindi, enforce modesty upon women by forcing them into clothes that cover up every inch of their bodies as well as chastity belts and figure out a way to reproduce by swallowing tears. Partying, kissing, hugging, sexual intercourse (Gasp!) and questions of sexual orientation (Double Gasp!) ought to be made taboo in the interest of preserving our culture of course.
Such regressive thinking has to be contained in order to prevent folks becoming allergic to all things related to Indian mythology, especially those who have been victimized and marginalized in its name. Which is why it is more important than ever to read retold versions of beloved tales in order to stop those who would purvey distortions and half – truths to further their twisted agenda. It is imperative to understand and familiarize oneself with the compelling philosophy, complex truths and pearls of wisdom bequeathed to us by the best minds of the past through this medium. And no, they were not intolerant jerks who sought to belittle and prosecute others over petty nonsense.
The noblest and greatest of our ancestors sought to teach us how to be better people and live rich fulfilling lives by learning to do the right thing by ourselves and others. There is nothing in the knowledge imparted to us over the eons that encourages us to be judgemental, badly behaved buffoons who would bully others into behaving in keeping with misguided beliefs.
By preserving the proper spirit of the past contained not just in Indian mythology but in those belonging to different parts of the world, passed on by storytellers, wandering minstrels, bards and yes, present day writers on the subject, we can find a way to deal with the horrors of the present in order to usher in a better future where sense prevails.