H1B VISAS IN NUMBERS
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.