What can you say about a legendary princess of Chittor who died? If you are Kiran Nagarkar, you excite new love for a very old icon and rescue her husband’s poor reputation in one fell swoop with an epic novel that will win the Sahitya Akademi Award.
But as the princess, so the novel. Mirabai, the “Greeneyes” of Nagarkar’s Cuckold (1997), was a radical religious poet, a celebrity and a feminist avant la lettre. Rani Padmini, who preceded her by a couple of centuries, is best remembered for throwing herself into a mass pyre.
In The Lotus Queen, Rikin Khamar’s version of the myth of Padmini, she is the heroic protagonist of an epic war adventure. Married but two years to Rawal Rattan Singh of Chittor, she must decide between preserving personal honour and ensuring the safety of the kingdom when the evil sultan of Delhi, Ala’uddin Khilji, requests a glimpse of her famous beauty.
It’s the sort of no-win situation any princess would hate. Padmini breaks the mirror in which the leering Ala’uddin sees her, but the kingdom is already in danger by then. As the men of the kingdom lead a final, desperate charge against Delhi’s invading army, Padmini leads Chittor’s women into the implacable sacrifice of life before honour, by committing them all to the fires of jauhar.
The Lotus Queen: Rupa & Co., Rs 195.
Khamar’s narrative is fast-paced and engagingly plotted. His style is also easy to read, although it might have been easier if people weren’t addressing each other as “yes, honourable lord” and “o, revered priest” all the time.
There is no way to make the agonized choice of glory over life seem politically relevant today, particularly when it involves mass immolation. But if human rights really came in the way of literature then no one would still be reading Homer.
Having said that, Khamar’s novel will not be easy reading for anyone who likes their women commonsensical and their Muslims humanized. His Ala’uddin is a devil, practically licking his chops as he forces Chittor to death and dishonour at swordpoint—although after several rounds of rousing speeches about the courage and character of the Rajput race, unromantic readers may sympathize with this impulse.
This reviewer once heard a tour guide history that heaps further iniquity on Ala’uddin by claiming that he charmed Singh and Padmini by making her his rakhi sister and then betrayed them. But that sort of treachery is a shade too intricate for the principals of The Lotus Queen, where complexity is a character flaw.
Set as it is in a milieu where stridency is a moral necessity, it may seem fussy to bother about the implications of a narrative such as The Lotus Queen’s, which expects the reader to take far too much of its medieval world view for granted. Perhaps Padmini’s dignity may even find her a new clutch of admirers through Khamar’s energetic retelling. But not every princess can die a revolutionary,