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.

 

Advertisements

For Whom Does the Goddess Arrive?

When I was a child, Durga Pujo did not come with calender dates, not really. It came when suddenly in the middle of a dreary September, the first bamboos were hoisted by the workers, a sign that the pandals would arrive soon enough, when the huge advertisement billboards of innumerable brands were strung up all around the city, from shampoo to food, when the first issues of Anandomela and Anandolok came to fill up the entirety of the newspaper and magazine shops in the streets.

d10d1

When I was a child, Durga came with the last half-day at school before the holidays came ringing in, she came when the last pages of the mid-term exams were submitted to a solemn class teacher, she came when my friends and I half-heartedly trudged towards school to attend the compulsory last day on Panchami.

 

When I was a child, Pujo came with bittersweet happiness, with silent excitement, with innocence not yet lost.

 

If someone would have told me then, that the goddess would be strung up in the city, bartered in the name of religion, and questioned for her affiliations, I would have looked at that person with a blank look of astonishment.

 

When I was a child, my next-door neighbor and resident best friend in the locality was a Muslim girl of my age who would always accompany me, along with her little brother, as my father took all of us to buy the endless paraphernalia required to dress ourselves with in the Pujo.

d11

And then, after the odyssey of shopping was finally completed, my sister and I would curl up with an issue of Anandomela and laugh her heads off as the different caricatures of the goddess with her brood of children colored the pages of the magazine, portraying her as she begun her southward journey from Mt Kailash.

d4

There used to be so many colors then, the goddess traveling on a water jet with her children, her son Karthik obviously standing like a king on the deck, pictures of the divine family ready to celebrate Pujo with guitars, drums and cellos, and even some where her husband Shiva would come to drop the family off on his bike. I remember how those evenings were the best part of pining and waiting for the Pujo days to arrive, the days where I was excruciatingly excited to wear my new dresses, munch on every unhealthy street food I could get my hands upon, and see as many idols in the pandals as possible.

 

And then there were the newspapers of course, when come the morning of Panchami, the incredibly long list of pandals around the city was published by Anandobazar Patrika, and my sister and I would stoop over, red sharpie gripped on hand, marking which pandals we would be visiting in the coming days, my mother of course muttering something along the lines of how her hooligan children would eat till their stomachs burst.

d12

But now, the sounds have departed, the smiles have become cajoling diversions and the warmth in the embraces have long left our limbs. Because, somehow, somewhere, someone asked the question: Who does the goddess come for?

 

Is Durga for us Hindus, is she for the Muslims, or is she for the Christians? If she is a Hindu goddess, why does the Muslim children in our localities buy clothes that are assorted for Ashtami and Nabami still? Why do the younglings still visit Bow Barracks and Park Street and gaze at the glittering evening lights? Pardon my french, but why the hell does Chetla Agroni Sangha and Mohammad Ali Park are still allowed to host their own Durga Pujo, when clearly the leader of one community is a Muslim man and the other is named after a Muslim himself? After all, as someone says, Durga is a Hindu goddess.

d5

So why, I ask, rather plaintively, does Mr Jawed Habib dare to have the audacity of insulting our Hindu goddess in his marketing campaign, and produce a caricature where the goddess and her children are happily getting ready for the Pujo? Why is Durga allowed to wait while Karthik gets a facial and Ganesh a pedicure? After all, Mr Habib is a consumer of beef, a Muslim, a criminal, an utter disgrace to all us great Hindus and their exalted goddess. He should never be allowed to commit the blasphemy of so much raising an eye to our Hindu goddess.

 

I am a sinner too. You see, I have been going to his chain of parlors for the last decade. I started out as a silly brat at fourteen who wanted nothing more than the long flowing tresses of our Hindu goddess and now I actually do have that hair, all thanks to the years of undying persistence of my favorite hair stylist in the parlor. I remember the number of times I broke bread in the shop of this Muslim man, the number of times I drank his water, the number of times I visited every new branch that cropped up in Calcutta during their grand openings.

Furthermore, I remember one of my father’s closest friends, a tailor in the heart of Metiaburuz, a Muslim man, I confess, who would send the most beautiful bunch of colorful frocks for my sister and me, every year, a man who would send the most delectable shimui as his blessings for Eid, and how his son, a man I grew up calling my brother, would come to bless us during Pujo, break bread with us once the austerities were over with the prosad our family cooked for our 150-year-old Durga Pujo. I remember how beautiful his wife, my boudi, had looked when on one year, my mother had lovingly colored her cheeks with sindhur (vermilion) during the last hours of Dashami.

 

And yet, no one in my family, not my loving father, not my usually strict mother and definitely not my crazy-as-the-Mad-Hatter sister told me that I was a sinner. No one told me that Kaku or Dada were Muslim, untouchable, unwelcome, and somehow, I grew up considering them just as we were, humans.

d3

Perhaps that was my childish foolishness, but in a world where goddesses are cut open, their intestines spilled out to see the color of their blood and count the faithfuls they cater to, maybe the opinion of a child is the only thing that can save us all.

 

And maybe, just maybe, Durga is not a Hindu goddess, maybe her brood of adorable children are not only for the ones who pray to cows, maybe she is for all of us, for our families, our friends, our acquaintances, and even our rivals. Maybe, just maybe, Durga is for every Bangali across the globe. Just think, what a beautiful world that would be.