“Believe it or not,” says Priyadarshi Thakur “Khayal” in his “autobiography” of Rani Ruupmati, Padmini of Malwa, “this is truly Rani Ruupmati’s autobiography, I merely put on paper what she told me.” History says Rani Ruupmati poisoned herself to death in 1561.

Thakur would disagree with the suggestion that the “autobiography” was born in his imagination. In “The Scribe’s Note”, he writes: “I am aware that there will be few takers for what is bound to be declared my ‘spiel’…”. Thakur weaves the history of Ruupmati’s story by transcribing visions where she narrates her life to him. Although it is a literary conceit, this method crafts the novel in a way where the scribe and the reader are both listeners.

But unlike the reader, the scribe interrupts the narration often. “What can I, a mere scribe, say?” he asks when she confesses that she cannot remember some of the details of her childhood. Ruupmati, as a character, admits to her possible biases and identifies what a cynical listener would pick on, explaining herself at every part of the novel.

Similar to conversations where a participant spackles the holes in their account, this over-explanation serves as a clarification. But it whispers another reason: all women, even the Queen of Malwa, are expected to explain themselves. Thakur’s characterisation forces Ruupmati to unravel but permits her to redeem herself for any wrongdoings, fabricating the vulnerability that accompanies an autobiography.

“My dear scribe, you must think what a stupid, ungrateful and suspicious mistress I was to a faithful companion like Nayla, but don’t forget that I was only a fifteen-year-old girl who had gone through so many ups and downs in her short life. I had been deceived so often that I did not trust anyone except my beau and was determined not to share the tiniest bit of his affection, with anyone at all.”

The male gaze

Thakur’s writing of the novel as a transcription of an unbalanced conversation resists “showing”, wielding language like a crafty swordsman. When the reader accesses tête-à-têtes they aren’t a part of, Ruupmati admits that she used to eavesdrop on her family after her father began seeking a husband for her. In “telling”, Thakur thickens the uncertainty that clouds the mind of a woman whose decisions lie out of her reach. But telling begets showing. In the novel, they coexist as roommates who don’t bicker or talk like friends.

Case in point: Rao Yaduveer Singh Parbhar’s character. Thakur draws him as the father that Ruupmati grows to love but disagrees with. He flames the hypocrisy of his fatherhood. When a man accuses her daughter of fornication, Parbhar prepares to “sacrifice” (read: murder) her for family honour, but when she is living with her lover, who happens to be a Muslim king, the Hindu in him decides that she’s in “captivity” and requests her “return” through Rani Durgawati. When the abuser tries to become a self-proclaimed saviour, Thakur “shows” how ideas of gender and religions whirl in politics.

Baz Bahadur, the King of Malwa and Ruupmati’s husband, further exposes these ideas when he acknowledges the word “woman” as a “word of abuse”. Dialogue slips notes scribbled with this derogation when Ruupmati blames herself for feeling irksome under the gaze of Bhaunda and his sister Ketki, Ruupmati’s foster mother.

Thakur manifests how this gaze facilitates the concept of “izzat” and benefits men. When Bhaunda finds Ruupmati’s ustad Revadiya making an unsolicited advance – and snitches to Parbhar, his obsession for her removes its veil of affection. Although the novel does not erase the impact of the gaze, it stubs it when Baz compares him and Ruupmati to Khilji and Padmini. It does not acknowledge the terror that chaperones the analogy.

“‘...Did Alauddin Khilji get Rani Padmini for all the troubles he took?’
‘No, she committed jauhar.’
Before I could say anything more, Baz said: ‘But I have got my Padmini without much ado...’”

The scribe’s strategy

But Baz’s character sometimes unspools the cassette of masculinity that plays into everyday life. Language allows him to recognise his wife as an equal, and their marriage steps away from the formality of “aap” and moves closer to the “intimate ‘tum’’”. Unfortunately, the marinade of toxic masculinity sticks to Baz, and he monitors Ruupmati when he tells her to not turn her eyes towards Suuli Bardi, a site of public execution, a couple of days after she saw him behead two disloyal subjects.

Their marriage occupies the throne of the novel as it is the medium through which Thakur commands the storytelling elements. One of these elements is poetry that speckles Ruupmati’s transcription, permitting the reader to become a voyeur of the love language between her and her husband.

But Baz is a king too, and a Muslim one at that, who loves his Hindu wife. This forces poetry to stretch itself across the other end of the canonical idiom until it becomes a hate tool to manufacture rumours that mock the love between Ruupmati and her husband.

Black magic did the wicked
Rani perform
And sapped dry
Our beloved sultan’s manly form;
She summoned clouds
And made them pour at a finger’s turn
Daggers she looked at sautan hers
And made her burn
Our poor, innocent Baz eventually was
Consumed by the witch’s curse –
O foolish heart... O my foolish heart
We’d nothing to do with it, though
He married and brought upon himself
His mortal foe!
For sure, for sure
Poor Baz was devoured
By that wicked whore.

An added element is the scribe’s interruptions. Thakur, as a scribe and a character, sheds the skin of the writer. He feigns humility when he describes himself as a “mere scribe” while consistently disrupting the stream of Ruupmati’s transcription like a biased researcher.

The italicised servings of the humblebrag disjoint the story from its preferred identity of an “autobiography”. But what is most pesky about these interruptions is how they fail to step in when Ruupmati blames herself for the actions of those around her, leaving her as helpless as she was in her childhood. When the interruptions do scribble themselves onto the transcription, they acknowledge her beauty and royalty. While this serves as reassurance to Ruupmati, it does little for the story itself.

“My dear scribe, you must be even more amazed now, a lover all of twenty-six and a beloved barely eighteen talking to each other on such complex topics! Yes sir, they did so because they were Sultan Baz Bahadur and Rani Ruupmati. They did talk of such things. That is precisely the reason why people have not stopped talking about them even after five centuries.

She smiled and vanished, leaving me to wonder how she had divined what I was thinking!”

Padmini of Malwa adds froth to the expectation of an autobiography. It slips between the cracks of history and fiction. In doing this, it might end up as a harbinger of a new form, or the destroyer of an old one.

Padmini of Malwa

Padmini of Malwa: The Autobiography of Rani Ruupmati, as told to Priyadarshi Thakur ‘Khayal’, Speaking Tiger.