Sunday, December 10, 2017

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.

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