So these are interviews I did for Mid-day, The 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.