India Today - - UPFRONT - By Ar­shia Sat­tar The writer is an author and trans­la­tor. She has re­cently pub­lished Ut­tara: The Book of Answers

In the last week, we’ve moved from ‘post-truth’ to ‘al­ter­na­tive facts’. Had Pad­mini not ex­isted, we would’ve had to in­vent her. And we have

In Nand­shankar Mehta’s 1868 Gu­jarati novel, Karan Gh­elo, Alaud­din Khilji kid­naps the wife of Karan Baghela, a Hindu king of Gu­jarat, and mar­ries her. Although this is a his­tor­i­cal novel, Mehta fills it with leg­end, lo­cal lore and large dol­lops of self-con­scious fic­tion. Af­ter all, an em­broi­dered hand­ker­chief is so much more at­trac­tive than a plain one, no mat­ter how fine its fab­ric.

But it’s an­other one of Khilji’s fe­male con­quests that oc­cu­pies us this week as we are forced to con­sider the lat­est tus­sle in the con­stant strug­gle be­tween fact and fic­tion in our be­lea­guered pub­lic dis­course about cul­ture. A few days ago in Jaipur (which had just hosted an un­usu­ally calm, even dull, Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val), lo­cal goons, in the guise of a caste pride out­fit, at­tacked San­jay Leela Bhansali’s film set, where he was shoot­ing for his film

Pad­ma­vati. The film pur­ports to tell some ver­sion of the leg­end of Alaud­din Khilji and his love for the Rajput queen Pad­mini, a love which led him to at­tack the fort of Chit­tor. The Rajput Karni Sena was protest­ing (in ad­vance) the hor­rific and caste-rend­ing idea that Bhansali might de­pict a love scene be­tween the Hindu Pad­mini and the Muslim em­peror.

We’ve all grown up with the story of the siege of the fort, the brave Rajput war­riors who laid down their lives to guard the honour of Pad­mini, their queen, and her com­pan­ions. When the ram­pag­ing, lust-driven Muslim em­peror en­tered the fort, in­stead of the beau­ti­ful queen he sought, he found the charred bod­ies of the Rajput women who had all thrown them­selves into the fire in an act of mass self­im­mo­la­tion. We were taught to call this jauhar and not sati—this was about pub­lic honour rather than about con­ju­gal de­vo­tion. This story places Pad­mini in a long line of mytho­log­i­cal hero­ines who jump into the fire to prove them­selves and pre­serve their hus­bands’ honour— Sita comes most im­me­di­ately to mind.

This is also a tale about Hin­dus and Mus­lims, a story of how the Muslim in­vaders who set­tled in to rule north­ern In­dia were uni­formly ra­pa­cious, wil­ful and cov­etous of Hindu women. In con­trast, lo­cal Hindu rulers, Ra­jputs in par­tic­u­lar, were no­ble and coura­geous, fight­ing to the last man to de­fend not just their women but the great land of Hin­dus­tan.

Amar Chi­tra Katha rev­els in this story, but I also re­mem­ber it from my so­cial sci­ence text­book—a strange amal­gam of his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy, an­thro­pol­ogy, leg­end and pa­tri­otic in­spi­ra­tions. But it turns out that this ro­man­tic story to which we are all at­tached is a work of fic­tion, it comes from a poem by the 16th cen­tury Sufi Ma­lik Muham­mad Jayasi. In

Pad­ma­vat, Jayasi takes at least one his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, Alaud­din, and one his­tor­i­cal in­ci­dent, the siege of Chit­tor, and cou­ples them with Pad­mini/Pad­ma­vati, a fig­ure more likely to be from leg­end than his­tory. Pad­mini, the queen of Chit­tor, might never have ex­isted. If she did, it’s pos­si­ble she was a princess from Cey­lon and not a Rajput woman. The busi­ness of Alaud­din’s love and Pad­mini’s heroic re­jec­tion of it was ap­par­ently in­vented by Jayasi, to be read as an al­le­gory for the ob­sta­cles that stand in the way of the hu­man soul’s union with the divine.

In the 21st cen­tury, such facts are not im­por­tant. In the last week, in world-speak, we have moved from ‘post-truth’ to ‘al­ter­na­tive facts’. If Pad­mini did not ex­ist, we would have had to in­vent her. And we have. Whether or not she re­ally lived, how ironic that the great cel­e­bra­tion of her coura­geous life and death has come to us from a Muslim poet who turns his co­re­li­gion­ist, Alaud­din, into the vi­o­la­tor of her per­son, her gen­der, her caste, her peo­ple and her re­li­gion. Dear

bhak­tas, how won­der­ful that you find truth even in the con­fab­u­la­tions of your en­e­mies.

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