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Wouldn’t you want to know what went on in Padmavati’s mind? What if the doomed queen herself were to narrate her story? Sutapa Basu lets us know in her outstanding book.
Our visit to the Chittorgarh Fort on a family trip last year piqued my interest about the legendary queen, Padmavati. While our tourist guide used a bouquet of superlatives to describe the queen, a single, stubborn thought kept swirling in my mind, ‘Are these people proud of her because of her qualities, or is she venerated just because she performed the Jauhar? More importantly, did she and the rest of the women, jump into the fire voluntarily? Because, let’s be honest, that is hardly the easiest way to die?’
And then, when the movie got released and a subsequent rampage was unleashed by the Karni Sena on public life, including and not limited to an attack on a school bus carrying children, this thought once again crossed my mind. What is this so-called ‘honour’ of a historical figure (whose existence is not even confirmed) that these people are so adamant in protecting, at the cost of hurting real human beings? Did the lady have any agency over her body or her mind, or was all she ever embodied some egotistic people’s definition of ‘honour’ and ‘respect’?
It was in this frame of mind that I came across Sutapa Basu’s Padmavati. In this book, Mrinalini Rao, a journalist, visits Chittorgarh Fort in her effort to find more details about the queen’s life. There she meets a local village girl, Uma, who claims to have read the ‘Padmawali’, Padmavati’s memoir written by none other than the queen herself! This, in my view, is a very innovative way of telling the queen’s story where the queen herself relates her saga.
This is one of the biggest reasons why the book might appeal to many readers. After all, Padmavati’s tale has been retold countless number of times by many people, but what about the queen’s own views? This book beautifully addresses that aspect. It reminded me of The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni where The Mahabharata was re-imagined from Draupadi’s perspective. Even though I’m not an avid reader of mythological fiction, it was a book that I immensely enjoyed reading.
Sutapa Basu’s Padmavati explores the life of the Sinhalese princess starting from her childhood in the beautiful Sinhalese kingdom in the 13th Century. Her parents treated her as they would’ve treated a son and an heir apparent. Hence, Padmavati grew up to be a skillful warrior, a brilliant scholar, a lover of poetry, and someone with a strong spiritual bent of mind. More than her exquisite beauty that mesmerized everyone who saw her (or even just heard about her as was the case with Rawal Ratan Singh), it was the kindness of her spirit, her quiet wisdom, and her undaunting bravery that made her a truly captivating princess.
However, her life took a turn for the worse when she came to the rough, arid, and culturally backward Kingdom of Mewar with her husband. Unlike her own country, the people of Bharatdesh were backward in their thinking. They did not treat women as equals, they were suspicious of her beauty, and despite her attempt at being friends with all around her, Padmavati was viewed as a foreigner who was out there to usurp the position of Ratan Singh’s first wife, Prabhavati.
However, the queen’s undaunting spirit always inspired her to look into the positives in every situation. Hence, she tried influencing social changes and empowering women by befriending and advising the villagers and helping them in their daily lives. On one hand she was her husband Rawal Ratan Singh’s best friend and closest advisor, on the other hand she was Ratan Singh’s mother Ba’s loving Banni. Padmavati was truly a lady ahead of her times.
And yet, all she was reduced to in the end was being the object of desire of the Sultan of Hindustan, Alauddin Khalji, making her the reason behind the bloody battle of Mewar which took away most of its men’s lives and forced its women to jump into the fire.
There’s a popular saying that wars are caused by women. But this book makes you think: shouldn’t men be blamed for their greed and lust towards women, and a hankering for power? It is men who reduce women to a mere piece of flesh that needs to be fought for. A woman might be equal to a man in every respect and yet, some men will still see nothing beyond her physical beauty. Wars, thus, are not always caused by women, but by men’s desires. This is one of the main reasons that makes the theme of the book relevant even in contemporary times.
Sutapa Basu is a wordsmith who gives us rich descriptions and vivid portrayal of places, complete with the clothing and accessories, and the food of those times, making for an enriching experience for the reader to enjoy. The character of Padmavati has been etched in such a way that women of today will also find inspiration from her. Padmavati believes in equal marriages, in doing everything that a man can do; she is a spiritually strong woman whose practice of meditation strengthens her mind. She is an artist, a warrior and an all round social justice champion. The relationship between Ratan Singh and Padmavati is an endearing portrayal of a loving, equal marriage based on mutual respect and understanding. The story goes on in a manner that makes us wish for the well-being of the couple who we fear will soon face huge adversities, where the king’s loyalty for his country and the love for his wife will be put to test,
Sutapa’s writing makes the book a fast paced read. The events unfold before our eyes with vivid clarity because of the writer’s penchant for intricate and rich descriptions. However, I’d have loved to see some more of that intricacy in the other characters of the book, as well. Other than Padmavati, elaborating on the supporting characters’ complexities might have made the novel even more richly layered. In fact, if some of the descriptions from external settings was sacrificed to flesh out the characters more, in all their vices and virtues, that might have made Padmavati an even more engrossing and more complexly textured read, in my opinion.
Along with that, the narration of Padmavati’s story by the village girl Uma to journalist Mrinalini Rao, in the queen’s own voice was a clever way of telling the tale. But when Uma at times tries to justify Padmini’s decisions by making Mrinalini understand that those times dictated some of her behaviors, it felt unnecessary – surely the readers themselves can judge from the ongoing events whether something was justified or not?
All in all, the book presents the events in the manner that would make the most sense in contemporary times. Unlike the recently released movie that according to critics reduces Padmavati’s tale to a regressive portrayal, this book offers reasons and explanations for the events in the queen’s lives. Most importantly, it gives Padmavati the agency to decide her fate at every juncture, and the power to inspire women across all times. Herein, I feel, lies the biggest reason why it makes for an inspiring and worthy read for lovers of mythological, historical or women’s fiction.
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