“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
― Omar Khayyám (1048-1131); translation from Persian by Edward Fitzgerald (Rubaiyat, 1859)
I wonder why Khayyam wrote these lines — was it to redefine paradise or just to woo his beloved? I like to imagine it was a bit of both. The need not to look for a paradise after death but to create one on Earth might well make an impact on humankind. Maybe, they would stop warring over an invisible force that they call God or by some other given name, some ‘ism’. Other than tens of thousands dying in natural disasters like the recent earthquake at the border of Turkiye and Syria, many have been killed by wars that continue to perpetrate divides created by human constructs. This month houses the second anniversary of the military junta rule in Myanmar and the first anniversary of the Ukrainian-Russian war that continues to decimate people, towns, natural reserves, humanity, economics relentlessly, polluting the environment with weapons of mass destruction, be it bombs or missiles. The more weapons we use, the more we destroy the environment of our own home planet.
Sometimes, the world cries for a change. It asks to be upended.
We rethink, reinvent to move forward as a species or a single race. We relook at concepts like life and death and the way we run our lives. Redefining paradise or finding paradise on Earth, redefining ‘isms’ we have been living with for the past few hundred years — ‘isms’ that are being used to hurt others of our own species, to create exclusivity and divisions where none should exist — might well be a requisite for the continuance of our race.
Voices of change-pleaders rang out in the last century with visionaries like Tagore, Gandhi, Nazrul, Satyajit Ray urging for a more accepting and less war-bound world. This month, Ratnottama Sengupta has written on Ray’s legendary 1969 film, Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne: “The message he sent out loud and with laughter: ‘When people have palatable food to fill their belly and music to fill their soul, the world will bid goodbye to wars.’” Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri has given an essay on one of the greatest pacifists, Gandhi, and his attitudes to films as well as his depiction in movies. What was amazing is Gandhi condemned films and never saw their worth as a mass media influencer! The other interesting thing is his repeated depiction as an ethereal spirit in recent movies which ask for changes in modern day perceptions and reforms. In fact, both these essays deal with ghosts who come back from the past to urge for changes towards a better future.
Delving deeper into the supernatural is our interviewee, Abhirup Dhar, an upcoming writer whose ghost stories are being adapted by Bollywood. While he does investigative stories linked to supernatural lore, our other interviewee, Andrew Quilty, a renowned journalist who has won encomiums for his coverage on Afghanistan where he spent eight years, shows in his book, August in Kabul:America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban, what clinging to past lores can do to a people, especially women. Where does one strike the balance? We also have an excerpt from his book to give a flavour of his exclusive journalistic coverage on the plight of Afghans as an eyewitness who flew back to the country not only to report but to be with his friends — Afghans and foreigners — as others fled out of Kabul on August 14 th 2021. While culturally, Afghans should have been closer to Khayyam, does their repressive outlook really embrace the past, especially with the Taliban dating back to about only three decades?
This intermingling of life and death and the past is brought to life in our fiction section by Sreelekha Chatterjee and Anjana Krishnan. Aditi Yadav creates a link between the past and our need to travel in her musing, which is reminiscent of Anthony Sattin’s description of asabiyya, a concept of brotherhood that thrived in medieval times. In consonance with wanderlust expressed in Yadav’s essay, we have a number of stories that explore travel highlighting various issues. Meredith Stephens travels to explore the need to have nature undisturbed by external interferences in pockets like Kangaroo Island in a semi-humorous undertone. While Ravi Shankar travels to the land’s end of India to voice candid concerns on conditions within Kerala, a place that both Keith Lyons and Rhys Hughes had written on with love and a sense of fun. It is interesting to see the contrasting perspectives on Southern India.
Professor Fakrul Alam has also translated poetry where a contemporary Bengali writer, Masud Khan, cogitates on history while Ihlwha Choi has translated his own poem from Korean. A translation of Tagore’s poem on the ocean tries to capture the vastness and the eternal restlessness that can be interpreted as whispers carried through eons of history. Fazal Baloch has also shared a poem by one of the most revered modern Balochi voices, that of Atta Shad. Our pièce de resistance is a translation of Premchand’s Balak or the Child by Anurag Sharma.
This vibrant edition would not have been possible without all the wonderful translators, writers, photographers and artists who trust us with their work. My heartfelt thanks to all of you, especially, Srijani Dutta for her beautiful painting, ‘Hope in Winter’, and Sohana for her amazing artwork. My heartfelt thanks to the team at Borderless Journal, to our loyal readers some of whom have evolved into fabulous contributors. Thank you.
Do write in telling us what you think of the journal. We look forward to feedback from all of you as we head for the completion of our third year this March.
Title: Padmini of Malwa: The Autobiography of Rani Ruupmati
Author: Priyadarshini Thakur ‘Khayal‘
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Padmini of Malwa :The Autobiography of Rani Ruupmatiis 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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