While the rest of India obsesses over ‘Padmavaat’ today, we are defiantly sticking to the ‘i’, and talking about the Queen. Even better, we are hearing the voice of the Queen herself. I am talking about the Readomania book, Padmavati: The Queen Tells Her Own Story. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions showed us how poignantly a well-known tale can change when the perspective is shifted to the feminine. Basu’s Padmavati uses a similar technique on the age-old lore of the Queen Padmini of Chittor. Here is the review of Sutapa Basu’s Padmavati:
Style of the Author
I want to start with a note on the style of the author. Basu’s writing is mindfully simple, it flows easily through the narrative. She keeps the pace steady through the novel. Her characters are well-etched and leave a mark, especially the spirited Ginni, the rapacious Chetna, the wise Ba and the loyal Ambika. Even the mythical diary written by Padmini, the Padmawali, takes a life of its own throughout the fictional journey.
Basu has tried possibly a bit too hard to paint Queen Padmavati in the light of a progressive, almost feminist, idol. There are bits of defensive prose underlining the reason that Padmini had to succumb to the ideal of the demure Rajput Queen when she was brought up to be a firebrand by her father. It almost felt unnecessary, since the more we hear the voice of the Queen through the story, the clearer the strength of her convictions become. Her brilliance, both political and military, that seeps through every nook of the tale does the job well enough.
Some readers might disagree, but I actually find the parallel narrator story of Uma-Mrinalini distracting. It felt to me like an annoying anchor to a rather soulful musical program. I found myself rushing through the ‘present day’ parts to get to Padmavati’s story.
Devil is in the Details
If one thing truly stands out in the novel, it is the amount of research Basu has invested in it. There is a rhythm to her narration that is so organic, that it might allure you to believe that piecing together this tale was easy. Basu has made it seem effortless, spinning the web of a gripping tale from what must have been millions of tiny shards of folklore.
I found her build-up of Raghav Chetna’s malice to be bold and credible. His lust and bitterness come alive as living-breathing monsters – even more than the slightly caricaturish villainy of the Turk antagonist.
There is another thread that runs through the narrative, building the foundation for Padmavati’s final decision. It is her misplaced sense of guilt that she brought the misfortune upon the land. It is her desire to be remembered with pride, as the Queen of Chittor. The vulnerability of these emotions break the mold of the fair princess and make Padmavati a human – real, regal, and breathtakingly beautiful – inside out.
Basu has outdone herself in the writing of the climax. Padmavati’s Jauhar, through the eyes of her devoted friend, Ambika, is gut-wrenching and beautiful. As are her descriptions of the siege, the emotions of the protagonists, and the spirit of Rajput honor.
The story of Queen Padmini has been told many times, by many different voices. Sutapa Basu’s portrayal of the Queen is one of the most rooted, real, and interesting. Whether or not you catch the movie, I definitely recommend you give the book a read.
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