A Forest of Crimson Gleam

Images and montages,

Somewhere, the ‘I’ is lost in a star that still rages,

Glimmers here,

A touch of crimson there.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

Was there once a a child?

Lost as she was in a forest of dread.

She went in search of adventures,

Blaming it all on her dear grandmother.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

Mama once said,

Or was it just another voice in my head?

It is hard to tell,

The masks I wear always spin a different tale.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

So there I go,

Stifled and sore,

I walk in a forest of crimson gleam,

Burdened with a thousand splendid dreams.

There she is, the blasted red 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

I search for family,

I search for home,

I find a little hut,

And you see, you see, I am stifled and sore.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And there she is, my sweet grandmother,

The lame old dame,

The one who forever forgets my name,

Oh, what a shame, what a shame!

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

So I walk up to that beloved old hag,

But her teeth are sharp tonight,

And her beady black eyes glow with hunger when she catches my sight.

So I walk up to that beloved old hag,

And her skin is warm and covered in wet fur,

Her familiar frail batty skin now marred with scars.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And with her gravel voice that rises from her frothing mouth,

She beckons me, the hag with a wolfish snout.

So I sit by her bedside, those frail hands suddenly too big to fit in my palm,

And for a moment, I lose my little voice in alarm.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

There he lingers, with his claws and his misty breath,

As he whispers to me, “Come closer, Little Red.”

And the darkness looms after,

There is pain, a few broken screams and the cackle of vicious laughter.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And when dawn breaks once again,

In a forest of crimson gleam,

There stands a being,

With blood in its hands,

And the taste of flesh in its mouth,

As it rubs off the last drop of red from its dainty supple skin.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And so you believed as Mama always said,

That once there were the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red,

And one night in a forest of crimson gleam,

The Wolf had feasted upon the corpses of her thousand dreams.

But did she ever tell you,

The story that only I knew,

Of an audacious little girl, so very blithe,

Of an audacious little girl, with a monster underneath,

Who feasted on a beloved old hag until she was nothing but blood and bones in a pile of heath?

So sleep now, little one,

Dream of wolves and little girls in coats of bleeding red,

For deep inside a forest of crimson gleam,

There still sits Red on a wrecked bed, still tearing into the sinews of a thousand lost dreams.

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Padmavati: Death of a Childhood

I was seven years old when my father had brought us the DVD of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Films, a privilege in my childhood, were something left to be seen in an unforeseen future, thanks to the strict instructions of my mother. So when the family would find a temporary haven in the various towns my father would be posted in due to his profession, the textbooks were imprisoned in the cupboards, and the fascinating “color” television, with its cable connection, would be the showstopper every evening.

In such an evening, I watched my second Bollywood film (the first being Taal) with my sister. Truth is, I didn’t much care about the story then, perhaps because at seven I was ill-equipped to understand it, or perhaps I was too intrigued to swallow in the visual art of every frame in a Bhansali movie. But even at seven, I knew that Aishwarya singing with a sitar on a palatial marble terrace in ‘Albela Sajan’, or a lovesick Salman chasing a lehenga-clad Aishwarya across the amber courtyard in ‘Aankhon ki Gustakhiyan’ were frames to remember.

Days later, I would find myself in silent afternoons, dancing to ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’ and ‘Dholi Taro Dhol Baje’, my mangy bob-cut hair never stopping me from reveling the essence of my then-untouchable womanhood. That was the power of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, it could even bring a wild child to desire of waist-length hair, doe eyes and blooming crimson lips, all wrapped in the silk of monochrome sarees.

Of course, I grew up after. I realized that a woman can be just as much a feminine goddess in a bob cut as she was in her flourishing raven mane, her unending braid twirling with every bounce of her hips. Of course, I grew up to know that every single one of these images in my head are just constraints that social standards set women to fit into, to box into, in order to comply individuals into set identities.

But then again, how can you ever outrun childhood?

How can you outrun the stories you read as a child?

In our little ways, we always find our way back into the altar of our childhood. A certain song, the lines of a poem we had read oh so long ago, perhaps even a quote from our favorite childhood novel, and suddenly the world around us deconstructs itself to reveal the pictures of our days of yore. After all, we are just children hiding under the masks of adulthood.

Padmavati 2

So when I saw the trailer of Padmavati, Bhansali took me down memory lane. Perhaps it was the hauntingly beautiful background score, perhaps it was Deepika Padukone gracefully walking in those decadent Rajasthani sarees as the jewelry weighed her down, perhaps it was Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji, roaring and laughing menacingly, and sending the subtlest shivers down my spine; whatever it was, the stories that my mother would read me by my bedside enlivened before my eyes once again.

I remembered the nights when Mother would read about Rani Padmavati, a fearless Rajasthani queen who burned herself alive with her hundred handmaidens, in order to escape a brutal fate in the hands of the Sultanate emperor Alauddin Khilji. Mother had described to me jauhar, the custom of immolating oneself alive in the name of honor, she had told me about sepaku, the custom of the Japanese samurai, and I remember how petrified I had been that night. I remembered my dreams of faceless women jumping into pyres, of men stabbing themselves with their swords before surrendering to their enemies. And I had held onto my mother’s arms in my dreams, and she has protected me ever since.

I do not know if Rani Padmavati truly existed in reality. In my adolescence, my cynical self had gone on to read a translated version of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat and almost laughed at the descriptions of magical talking parrots and women so courageous that their ideals seemed borderline delusional. And in my adulthood, I had realized that Padmavat, if not anything, was a brilliant piece of Sufi literature, and a pioneer in the genre of magic realism (and here you were thinking that only Marquez in the West and Murakami in the East were scribbling about talking cats and worlds with two paper moons).

But the past month, I had waited eagerly for December 1, when Padmavati would grace the theaters in my city. I was already assured about the the thousand criticisms it would receive, how every one of the magazine critics would fall upon the film’s cadaver like ravenous hyenas and cut it open with a milieu of complicated phrases. Yet, the child in me could not wait to see her most memorable folktale come live on screen.

Padmavati 4.png

And then the media hit with the news of the film’s ban, all at the behest of a religious extremist right-wing group called Karni Sena, who seem to be under the belief that by banning this film, they would be protecting the respect and honor of women. Suddenly, the newspapers, the news channels, even my Facebook news feed, are littered by the updates about an extremist group wanting the heads of Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Films, at the end of the day, are the expressions of art, and my country, as much as I love her, has imprisoned art. Suddenly, the censor board is no longer the only patriarch in judging the quality of films. Suddenly, sentiments of every extremist group need to be satiated for the release of a film. Suddenly, art is an adulterous woman being stoned to death in a field of sand and blood.

An anecdote here, India has no dearth of raunchy, borderline sexist, slapstick sex comedies that are home to a hundred double entendres. Most of them do not even include a single ‘A’ certificate. Yet, the minute when a film is aligned by any form of political agenda, it bites the dust, a recent example of that being 2016’s Udta Punjab.

And this petrifies me. For I am a peddler of art, I live in words, I find stories in between the lingering silences of conversations and I dwell between the precipice of dying utopias and merging realities. So today, something has died inside of me. Maybe it is the memory of the lilt in my mother’s voice as she described Rani Padmavati’s beauty, maybe it is the image of a seven-year-old me dancing to ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’ in one maudlin summer afternoon; whatever it is, I know a fragment of my childhood was still here until this moment. And now, it is gone.