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Book Review: Padmavati – The Queen Tells Her Own Story

Padmavati has always fascinated me. And no, not just the movie. Allow me to say this that I find it significant and remarkable how everyone – right from protestors to activists, politicos to filmmakers seem to be piggyback riding on the sudden fame of this queen in light of the controversy surrounding the film.

For me Padmavati was such a remarkable character – I am not even getting into the debate of whether she was factual or fictional. And this is what prompted me to pick up this book by Sutapa Basu. At the outset, it seemed like a clever marketing strategy to write and release a book on a figure that is suddenly the talk of the town. With the upcoming release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ambitious cinematic project, also titled Padmavati (and now changed to Padmaavat), interest is at an all-time high. So are the controversies surrounding the existence of such a person, with conflicting versions offering different ‘accounts’ of history. But I must also laud the writer for being inspired to write a book while exploring the persona that was Padmavati. More than anything else, what intrigued was the one question on the blurb on the back cover of the book – How did she have the courage to jump willingly into the fire? This is what prompted me to buy the book. Padmavati may have well been the creative liberty of a poet rather than a well-entrenched and accepted character of yesteryears.

Despite falling in the genre of historical fiction, the narration is quite contemporary as is the delineation of its chief protagonist, Padmavati. We all know that Padmavati, also known as Padmini, was a legendary Rajput queen whose tales of valour and beauty have enamoured people and inspired paeans over the centuries. Did she ever exist? Or was she a figment of someone’s imagination with fables being passed down the centuries with such conviction that it spurned a completely false notion of her existence? Sutapa Basu’s Padmavati (published by Readomania)–a novel set in present-day–attempts to narrate the historical events while being as factually accurate as possible. That is expectedly a difficult feat, especially when very little documented information is available on the Queen of Chittor.

So the main premise is that an investigative journalist, Mrinalini Rao is on a trail to discover whether Padmavati, the Queen of Chittor, actually existed or was she only a legend created by poets. Who was Padmavati, the Queen of Chittor? What does history tell of her? Where did she come from? What kind of life did she lead? How did she have the courage to jump willingly into the fire? Mrinalini goes to Chittorgarh to discover the truth. What does she really discover?

It is evident that the author has conducted extensive research to portray Rani Padmini with the utmost respect and present the story with the complete honesty that it rightly deserves. Additionally, what sets it apart from other historical novels for me is that this isn’t just an imaginary retelling from the perspective of yet another historical or mythological figure. It is a story that attempts to weave the present and the past.

The book is a rollercoaster of emotions as the story follows Mrinalini in her search for evidence and facts about Padmavati. Mrinalini meets Uma, a local village girl, who takes on the role of a self-appointed tour guide and narrates the contents of a secret historical text – Padmawali – she found among the ruins of Chittor, that contains details of the queen’s growing up years in her home country, Singhaldweep (now Sri Lanka), and her post-marriage life in Mewar (present-day Udaipur and Chittorgarh). It’s not easy to write about a character that has courted controversy – much less while in the thick of controversy. A heroine of gripping adventures as well the subject of veneration then and now, Padmavati, the chief protagonist of the novel, is so magnificent that she dwarfs all others. The book conceives in Padmavati a larger than life character. She is not just exquisitely beautiful, but wise, astute, skilled, loving, generous, courageous, ethical, an administrative strategist, excellent swordswoman and spiritually evolved.

The author deftly alternates between the two parallel storylines – Uma’s narration from what she has read in the Padmavati, and the current day conversation between Uma and Mrinalini; and makes a smooth transition between the two time periods.

The writing is evocative – in fact, the best bit about the book. Sutapa’s command over the English language is deft, delectable and deep as she weaves a wondrous tale. The opulence of Singhaldweep and the magnificence of Mewar comes alive in its full glory, as do the majestic war-torn abandoned ruins of present-day Mewar. The author spares no effort in portraying the historical events in full detail and narrates the story rather visually. Along with the fluid narrative that the author ensures throughout the book to keep the reader engrossed, there are elaborate descriptions of the palaces, lush gardens, the lifestyle of the royals that bring to life the fictional characters in the mind’s eye. Sample this:

“An oval emerald, snugly nestling in tiers of frothy white lace, floated in the crushed silk of turquoise seas. It was the enchanted island of Singhaldweep, off the eastern coast of Bharatdesh. A land that entices you into such a magical spell that you wonder how you existed without experiencing such a paradise.”

Sutapa’s research appears thorough as her descriptions bring alive the players in a story that captures the morals of labour of love, values of valour, and the catastrophe that coveting and carnality could beget, in equal measure. Historical fiction is not an easy genre to write because not only it requires a lot of research but it also requires a tone which is not easy to get. The writer has to put a lot of things in perspective -the settings, the clothes, the mannerisms, the rules and regulations of the time, the way people addressed each other, war sequences and the everyday ongoings of an entirely different society. It’s a lot of research as compared to, say a story set in the current era.

Despite that, the writing isn’t overly verbose – I finished the book in two days flat because it certainly is a smooth and compelling read. The intermingled complications and politics of the royal household, the imagery, the dilemmas of the Queen and her husband Rawal Ratan Singh, the focus on the virtues of loyalty, consecration and friendship are effortlessly expressed in the book, event by event.

What does the movie offer is unknown but clearly, Sutapa Basu’s Padmavati is a captivating tale about the legendary, charismatic, highly skilled and beautiful Queen of Chittor. The secrecy holds the attention and the narrative flow easily which holds the mettle of writing. The book, in no way connected to the film, is a portrayal and not a glorification of morality, it hit home hard as an incredible narrative. Perhaps between the bridge spanning chimera and reality, “Padmavati, The Queen Tells Her Own Story” will hold you breathless and the denouement spellbound. Though I must confess the climax was rather close to what I guessed it to be. Sutapa is a phenomenal storyteller.

Read it for the love of history. Read it for the love of language. Read it for a story that has been narrated for centuries and yet offers something new.

Originally published on Gypsy on Exploration

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