Commentaries, Opinion

An Open Letter to Ms. Sara Hussain

On the 3rd of January, 2018, Ms. Sara Hussain, a senior writer of an online media forum known as Homegrown published an article titled, “Why Do Indians Insist on Keeping Royal Titles Alive?” I write this letter to her in genuine response, humble esteem and noble (oops, that might sound as if I am making a royal association), *scratch*, good intention.

Dear Ms. Hussain,

I am slightly unclear on whether you’re annoyed about a news-surplus of frivolous titles; or over the excessive fascination that Indian citizens continue to associate to modern-day royalty; or that Martand owes you some missing fountain pen; or all of the above.
Anyhow, let me treat these reasons in unification and begin.

Before I do, I would like to thank you for providing me the opportunity to wake up and shake up my grey cells on a dull January morning in the smog-smothered capital of India. I will also clarify that due to the inherent ambiguity of written tones, it is easy to misread one-another as cynical and reactionary at so many levels nowadays. However, like most believers of reasonable dialogue, I believe in constructive critiques and not criticisms, so please bear this in mind should you wish to spend your worthy time reading the rest of my piece through.

READER DISCRETION: for the sake of narrative and analytical convenience, I have divided my letter to Ms. Hussain into four sections. I apologise for the length of this piece in advance, which, despite my best efforts to remain concise, has spilt over in a worthwhile compensation to Ms. Hussain’s extensive and slightly perplexing set of convictions.

PART I. Historical Obfuscations

In case you’re not as fond of reading the Indian Express as I am, I’d recommend you to dig through its online archives to find the opinion column of the 24th of October, 2017 by Audrey Truschke. In her piece titled Taj and bigotry, she writes, “the Indian subcontinent has a long, rich history, but the Indian nation state has had a quite brief existence to date. When people conflate the two, they lose the bulk of Indian history and end up making nonsensical statements.”
Pardon me for seemingly implying that your statements are nonsensical, but my humble discretion perceives your article to be compressing a history as extensive as India’s into the stifling confines of 70-odd years of just the Indian nation state, as if it were so easy to absolve it of its thoroughly nuanced, almost shadow-like past. And worse still, your meticulously jotted-down chronological acts and Prime Ministerial legacies form a rather careless conflation of history to validate a media-related annoyance.

Coming to think of it, it’ almost uncanny as to how things come full circle.
Just last year, I had responded to a historically inaccurate and mildly inciting piece written by Mr. Kuldeep Samra on WordPress, titled The Royals of Cuckooland (unfortunately, Mr. Samra’s original piece cannot be accessed anymore since he independently conceded to my rebuttal by taking down his post. However, you can read my response through the link that I have provided at the end of this article). Coming back to the point, while Mr. Samra’s piece was far more naïve and careless than yours if I am to make an analytical comparison, I would like to re-iterate an African proverb from there which says, “until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter”.

The history of the Rajputs, if I may bring to your kind notice, far predates the Nehruvian and Gandhian eras. Belonging to the Kshatriya varna of India’s caste system, it comes as no surprise that Rajputs bore a negligible volume of self-accounted histories. In fact, the most (and probably only) concise account that we possess on ourselves was written by an East India Company officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod. It is 2018 and yet, we continue to rely on the extraordinary contributions made by a well-meaning Scotsman that were published as long ago as 1873 by Higginbotham & Co. in Madras. Our collective reliance on a singular, antiquated piece of historical non-fiction can be attributed to the simple fact that unlike the Bombay, Madras and Bengal presidencies, the erstwhile princely conglomerate of Rajputana lacked their equivalent of an integrated Bhadralok, or anything that even came close to a similar literary stature.

That said, there are a few notable personal memoirs no-doubt, but by no means would these qualify as concise histories to provide an internal account of what went on when the glorious acts banning royal titles and privy purses were passed in pre and post-independent India (you could even span back to the Policy of Annexation, Doctrine of Lapse and their various predecessing acts that our school books enlist in abundance). If you looked past your media-saturated news inlets, in an old dusty archive shelf somewhere close to the Presidential estate, you may come across some personal testimonies of our ancestors and ancestresses being locked up without warrants while their privy purses and familial treasures were being translated into multiple decimals in a statesmens’ Swiss bank account (again, no points for guessing).

Wait, but why am I telling you all this?

Because, my Dear Ms. Hussain, belonging to the same millennial generation as me, I would trust your post-structuralist faculties to be comprehensive of the fact that you and I are destined to read fractured accounts of history that are, partial at best. So by all means, you must have done your history teacher proud, but the very subject is in itself limited by what stands documented, by whom and for whom.

I will not make the slightest hesitation in offering you due credit for at least addressing the systemic debunking of India’s princely paraphernalia as breaches of contract and broken promises that remain uncompensated to this day, because they were precisely that. However, I won’t waste time indulging myself in wishful thinking for history to have played out differently in ways that would earn my community your validation. I have made peace with a useful insight offered by Shashi Tharoor wherein he states, “one cannot take revenge upon history; history is its own revenge”.

Why?

Maybe because bearing resilience without seeking pointless revenge is a virtue that has been historically habituated into us Rajputs, and as a matter of fact, into us Indians in general, whose country has been witness to the subsequent rise and falls of so many dynasties (I hope for this shared acknowledgement of resilience to portray me as more democratic for your liking.)

PART II. The Political Economy of Royalty

It would help your annoyance to a great extent if you applied this very logic to the way that we consume news and media today, the very content of which seems to have motivated your article. In a capitalist world, we live in the most consumerist of times where, as you rightly said, there exists an unprofessed media ‘hype’ over the most unwarranted of topics. Indeed, there is far too much content- produced, re-produced, overproduced to the point of insipidity, at the cost of over-used and exhausted data , accompanying false notions and stereotypes. Since you assumably pass off as an active consumer of tabloid news and media, I urge you to consider a direct and very simple insight from someone who belongs to both, the media industry as well as India’s Rajput community (my apologies for not acquainting myself to you beforehand).

Simply speaking, as a result of commercialisation, consumerism, capitalism (and an entire shebang of terms that I could hurl at you as a social scientist but would choose to save for another time), several identities, histories and hell, even familial customs as sacrosanct as marriages suffer from an external commodification of sorts.

Difficult to grasp?

Let me put it in another way.

A cardinal rule of economics states that in order to be successful, companies make commodities out of and trade what ‘sells’. In similar logic, branding their products as per popularised and fantasised notions of existence fortifies the ability of companies to ‘sell’ their product(s) far more effectively, in the same way that capitalism sold itself to the world when it did. In urban societies such as ours, and it could be said for most postmodern urban societies of the world, the glamorised notion of royalty ‘sells’, just as say, Ayurveda does. This continues to be the case for most industries, with the media and film industries being the most convenient points of reference. Much to your disappointment, I won’t moralise this issue at all, as I am well-aware that we all have bills to pay. So if a harmless, fantasised notion helped someone, who cares? No problem, I would think.

Let’s take this a notch higher.

Who cares even if these fantasised notions make charades out of a diverse and historical community, at the cost of their inherent stereotyping? Who cares that, ironically enough, those playing these charades (your ‘nawabs of nothing’) are entirely different from those selling them (the media)? Who cares about the class-based reverse-discrimination and pre-conceived notions/ stereotypes that the ‘nawabs of nothing’ battle in their day-to-day lives for no fault of their own?
You see, this is precisely where the problem(s) begin(s), Ms. Hussain.

One of my favourite gender scholars, Judith Butler calls this ‘the citation of a norm’, wherein the facades of one’s identity are promulgated by those around them, in their repeated hailing as a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, as manly or feminine. In similar regard, the entire edifice of titles that your sensibility seems plagued by could be credited to a bustling political economy of film, media, as well as societal imaginations and fantasies where royalty ‘sells’.

PART III. OMG! Are You A Princess?: A Metamorphosis of Identities & Stereotypes

As I had written to Mr. Samra last year, “my community is as royal as you make (or unmake) it.”
If I could get a dollar for every time I’ve been asked “omg! you’re a princess??” just because I disclosed where I came from, I’ll leave you to do the math.

Growing up, shy that I was anyways, I learned to be so conscious of my regal roots that I metaphorically became that school kid who hadn’t polished her shoes. Standing in line to be checked, I would brush aside my familial background at the back of my socks in order to blend in with the other kids until recently, when I realised that being privileged and acting entitled could be two entirely different things- it was simply a matter of choice. And that I had the right to be proud of my familial history, just as you are of yours. That I had the right to be unapologetic about living my life, while choosing to live as a responsible, law-abiding and tax-paying citizen of the country, just as you might be.

I can assuredly say that I’ve never felt the entitled need to correct someone calling me  “Urvashi” to call me out as “Princess Urvashi Singh of Khimsar”. Since Mriganka and Martand happen to be your schoolmates, I trust you to check with them on the same and can almost instantaneously predict that theirs would be the same answer. You see, Miss. Hussain, in full agreement with your observation of them in school, we all had a perfectly normal childhood, with a small (and yet, determining) difference.

And the difference was, that we lived a life of dual existences- one in the city, and one in our place of ancestral origin. These were two different worlds- one where the modern Indian nation state resided, and the other, where bards of battle, songs of blood and sword are nostalgically taught upto this living day. The city- where we polished our shoes and blended with a sea of children; and our ancestral thikanas- where it had been blasphemous for our grandparents to even bend to tie a shoe lace during their childhood.

Every year, when Delhi is rife with its Diwali taash parties, my family and I return to our ancestral village to reunite with our fellow residents in what we call ‘Rama Shama’, a bi-annual meet and greet ceremony that comes around Holi and Diwali, where we exchange sweets, saffron water while asking and being asked about one another’s well-being. Relational bygones (if any) are dissolved in good faith to pave the way for fresh beginnings. Year after year, we go back to customs such as these, and then return back to the city, embracing the best of both worlds.

Well-aware of the rapidly changing times that we live in, we were taught by our parents from a nascent age, the importance of gaining a footage in the modern world while balancing our familial heritage with utmost responsibility and humility (read humility and not entitlement). I am not trying to brag, but my community possesses innumerable examples of financially-privileged families who do not require any modes of formal employment to ensure a stable source of income for their entire lifetimes (despite seized privy purses and scattered farmlands due to the various land-ceiling acts). They’d be perfectly comfortable reclining with a silver spoon in their mouths, nestled in their family’s bygone glories of pre-independent, pre-integrated India.

But guess what?

The face of Dia Color that you see is a tiny spec of Mriganka’s larger existence, which would also include an active role within the Delhi Society for the Welfare of Special Children. As for Martand, he bears a professional background in PR and has also immerses himself in the Dogra youth politics of Jammu and Kashmir. They are both passionate travellers, Mriganka is particularly fond of equestrian sports and motorbiking.

If you’d allow me to delve a little bit deeper, Mriganka and Martand’s grand fathers- Dr. Karan Singhji and late Madavraoji Scindia, who need no prior introduction, have carried institutions in themselves, as have their grandmothers, i.e., late Vijayaji Rajye Scindia- a prominent political personality; and late Yasho Rajya Lakshmiji, who was a pioneering philanthropist of her time. Their continuing generations, which include the present-day Kashmirs and Scindias are too immersed in balancing their careers, personal lives and acts of goodwill to derive a leisure-time of asserting titles. The list of the people you mentioned goes on, but I choose to particularly account for these two people as I’ve grown up alongside them and in front of their family, and it pains me to think of the stereotypes that have been accredited to them, again, for no apparent fault of their own.

PART IV. The Perils of Armchair Idleism

You drew a fine line between the good-for-nothing, over-entitled royals on the one hand and the good, philanthropist and dissolving royals on the other, all so easily. If only it were so simple, Miss. Hussain. Just a note of discretion: we do not live our day-to-day lives as they come to be portrayed through Hello! and GQ. With all due respect to such credible and highly-reputed publications, these are deliberately-planned and executed branding strategies that cater to specific media algorithms. A temporary intermission from your armchair idleism to span through the lengths and breadths of our glorious nation would help you grasp certain familial, political and sociological legacies that have far-outlived the trials and tribulations of the Indian nation state, its constitution and the various acts that have come to presently be known. If and when you end up there, please consider telling the present-day rural voter to cast his vote without voting his cast, to which I console your disappointment beforehand.

Welcome to the India that popular media is yet to duly authenticate and glamorise.

Also, isn’t it ironical as to how, no-one seems to have a problem if a Jain’s marriage is arranged with another Jain, an Aggarwal’s to an Aggarwal, a Parsi’s to a Parsi, but that a consensual, intra-community Rajput marriage is blatantly stereotyped as a deliberate echo of exclusionist elitism? So yes, you’re right, feudal titles have been legally-dissolved, and privy-purses seized, but the associated (and equally-feudal and entitled) stereotyping and bigotry seem to have only just begun.

However, we still won’t lament, whether it is about being on the unfortunate side of history or being the rightful recipients of an immense moral debt that the Indian nation state owes to our families. Because we have let bygones be bygones. It is the 21st century and as proud citizens of post-independent India, we’re all contributing towards our nation’s GDP and thriving in our professional sectors, because we recognise something known as self-respect.

Another side note, should you wish to open your esteemed readership of commendable Rajput youths of today, your biased view points might be pleasantly surprised by the content that I bi-annually publish through a magazine known as Rajputana Collective. The lions are learning to write (and be written about) after all 

Lastly, no offence but your statement: “levels of celebrity that we so easily prescribe” made me laugh a little. Are you trying to say that Dhinchak Pooja is deserving of stardom? Trust me, we have more pressing matters at hand that are genuinely detrimental to our democracy, Miss. Hussain.
As I said earlier, it is what ‘sells’. And what ‘sells’ might convey more about the buyer than who is, and what is, selling.

Sincerely,

Who cares?
Just another ‘Princess of Nothingshire’

PS: Only because you mentioned the Padmavati/ Padmavat issue (for what reason, again I am not sure), I offer you a small nuance with my sincere compliments: a reactionary right-wing Rajput group known as Karni Sena has taken up this opportunity to gain political footage on a national platform through the deliberate ignition of communal sentiments. Most of us don’t even know them or associate with them. In fact, we’re rather keen on seeing the film in the true, unbiased spirit of Indian filmography. Should you wish to read my opinion on the issue, its link, too is pasted below.

USEFUL LINKS : –

1) MS. HUSSAIN’S ARTIClE

https://homegrown.co.in/…/why-do-indians-insist-on-keeping-…

2) MY RESPONSE TO KULDEEP SAMRA

https://www.missmalini.com/…/girl-best-response-publicatio…/

3) PADMAVATI ARTICLE

https://urvashisingh.wordpress.com/category/commentaries/

4) RAJPUTANA COLLECTIVE FACEBOOK LINK

https://www.facebook.com/rajputanacollective/

Homegrown #homegrown

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2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Ms. Sara Hussain

  1. Dr. Mahima Singh says:

    So glad Urvashi you so articulately put forth what I was just thinking of writing too and then stumbled upon your article! Panditji is still Panditji, Sardarji is still Sardarji but Raja Sahab and Thakur Saab are not and don’t care about the title when we have a whole heritage that we share with the Indian people, it’s their cultural heritage, pride and joy too!! Would love to meet you some day!
    Wish you all the best!
    Mahima.

    • Khamaghani Baisa,

      Thank you so much for reaching out 🙂 I am glad that my article provided to be of some use to you and that you enjoyed reading it. I agree with you fully on your opinion and hope to be able to contribute further to spreading a more egalitarian outlook towards India’s Rajput community as counter-discrimination is as big an evil as discrimination in the various social stratas.

      Yes sure hukam, I would love to connect with you too, where are you based? You are welcome to reach me on mail@rajputancacollective.com; I run my very own magazine publication by the name of Rajputana Collective in case you’d like to have a look at that, the website for it is http://www.rajputanacollective.com

      Best wishes,
      Urvashi

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