Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra
Title: Padmini of Malwa: The Autobiography of Rani Ruupmati
Author: Priyadarshini Thakur ‘Khayal‘
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Padmini of Malwa :The Autobiography of Rani Ruupmati is a delightful piece of historical fiction cast in the form of autofiction or autobiographical fiction. It narrates, in the first person, the tale of Rani Ruupmati, who is kidnapped and brought up by Rao, tutored by Panditji or Pandijju, Ketki and Tara. Claiming to cover everything that history books leave out, this story employs a clever narrative ploy which is introduced in the ‘Scribe’s Note’. The scribe is Priyadarshini Thakur ‘Khayal’, author of eight volumes of poetry in Hindi and Urdu and ghazals sung by Jagjit Singh, the Hussain brothers and others. His poetic imagination seeps into the retelling of the story as he brings the medieval princess to life. ‘Khayal’ tells us in the note: “Believe it or not, this is truly Rani Ruupmati’s autobiography. I merely put on paper what she told me.” The royal subject appears to him in all her resplendent beauty, the legendary queen over whom battles were fought, ready to tell her own story. In wresting this initiative, the story acquires a unique colour and assumes a life of its own, even as it compellingly propels the reader to dive into this narrative.
The narrative employs a dream vision to communicate events and episodes which are hardly remembered by the lost little girl, referred to as kunwarini, and various terms in the narrative. Emphatic in her desire to set the record straight about Baz Bahadur and his bravery and courage, she represents a voice which might have fallen through the cracks of historical narratives. The novel, retrieving fragments from shards of memory, is given to the reader in the form of visions.
The first vision is based in the mansion by the maulshri tree, the second in a “seedy little fortress” by Garh Dharmpuri. Barely remembering the details of her natal home, she is told by her companions that she is the daughter of Reva Maiya. Thus she narrates to the scribe: “At times life seems like an elaborate play; a play full of heroes, villains and countless other characters of various shades—my life in Garh Dharmapuri, located on a river-isle of the Reva was the very opposite of what it had been in the deserted mansion…the kidnapping and the fall into the Reva that turned my life upside down, left me stunned and I remained mute for a long time.” In this fortress Ruup, as she is called, blossoms into womanhood in relative oblivion. And it is only through the eyes of others that she becomes aware of her burgeoning beauty. Steeped in her music and music lessons, she remains somewhat insulated from the ways of the world or her position in it. Hints are there a-plenty, but the text maintains its rhythm and builds up its momentum in this coming-of-age story.
A special annual occasion for Ruup is the festival of Navaraatra when she is the recipient of the ceremonial offering made to young pre-pubertal Hindu girls. On reaching puberty, Ruup is able to trace the shift or change since male guardian figures like Rao who Ruup calls ‘Baba’ start maintaining a distance. “My childhood seemed to be slipping away farther and my previous life in the maulshri mansion turned hazier by the day.” Tremulously poised on the brink of womanhood, she is hardly aware that her life is to be transformed.
Emboldened by a couple of forays into the forest by the magical lake “Ardhapadma” or half-moon lake, Ruup decides to venture out on her own. It is here that she meets Baz Bahadur, who eventually becomes the Sultan of Malwa. Their legendary meeting has been the source of many narratives, the theme of many ballads and songs. Meanwhile Ruup comes to know about her and her family’s past and its chequered histories. She learns of her antecedents, but also comes to know that her guardian at the ‘garh’(fortress) is actually her father and the story unfolds in all its splendour and romance tinged in darker tones.
The novel weaves a fascinating tale as it narrates the dramatic rescue of Ruupmati by Baz Bahadur and his forces. The love story of the two is in a sense, doomed. Located in the rocky terrain of 16th century Malwa (Madhya Pradesh), the story captures the violence and deceit of internecine warfare, where danger lurks everywhere. Set in a world of treachery, violence and intrigue, the novel does not romanticise the medieval world or sugar-coat it, instead it shows a world where every step is fraught with danger and threatened by violence. Even though the outcome of this tragic love story is foretold, the writer in giving a voice to a historical– or herstorical subject, recuperates that subject to give voice and agency to the beautiful queen of Malwa.
It is a beautifully retold narrative to be read and mulled in its poignant grandeur.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
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