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Ira Mukhoty’s Heroines brings to us stories of the many great women of India from both mythology and history.
This is not extreme.
It’s a girl thing.
What we would all be
if the big door inside us flew open.
Don’t tell me not to cry.
To calm it down
Not to be so extreme
To be reasonable.
I am an emotional creature.
It’s how the earth got made.
How the wind continues to pollinate.
You don’t tell the Atlantic ocean
— Excerpt from Eve Ensler’s ‘I am an emotional creature’
Ira Mukhoty’s Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History echoes Ensler’s sentiments in her book. Her interpretation of the histories of Indian women are her way of remembering India’s long feminist history, when the word feminism was yet not born.
The book tells stories of women who raged against gender discriminators and questioned the status quo. Draupadi, Radha, Ambapali, Razia bint Illtumish, Meerabhai, Jahanara Begum, Rani Laxmibai and Hazrat Mahal are the heroines the book highlights.
Mukhoty starts off with a bang with the story of Draupadi, much admired, starter of a grand war, (Mahabharata) and credited with bringing the end to Kshatriyas as a clan. Common wife to five brothers, Draupadi is a unique woman. The journey of this young princess, her defiance in the face of the worst humiliation that a wife could face is brought out rather well by the author.
Lost in a game of dice, the Dharma Queen (Mukhoty’s moniker for Draupadi) hair asunder, menstruating she is brought to the hall where the Kaurava’s and their supporters taunt her.
“And yet Draupadi, in these dreadful circumstances, does not behave as one unprotected or repudiated. Instead, she poses a question to the gathering of Kshatriya warriors and elders. A question so unexpected it momentarily stuns the gathering of men. ‘Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?’ Draupadi asks the mortified Yudhishthira…” Despite the humiliating circumstances, Draupadi has the courage and intelligence to question the all-male assembly about the legality and morality of her situation.
The author moves on to narrate the story of Radha and her divine love for Krishna. She is inspired by her effort to overcome the obstacles to love and find it, even if for a short time with her beloved Krishna. The author notes that the Riti poets called her a Ramini and Kamini. (sexually desirable woman). She laments that this love between Radha and Krishna that might have been just as sensual as it was divine, has been scrubbed clean with the passage of time.
The author’s research, her understanding of the changing tone of the narrative, where women moved from being living, feeling creatures to a more subservient and orderly role even in myths comes through.
The chapter on Radha does come across as a summer romance, wherein the callous lover (in this case Krishna) moves on, his thirst satiated, but Radha still yearns.
It is however in the chapter on Razia bint Illtutmush that the author shines. Full of surprising historical details – like the one that Razia’s father was a slave and a Mongol – make Razia’s story a truly engrossing one. Crowned at almost 30, Razia had to face waves of rebellion. In her own life she expressed herself boldly by naming herself Sultan and being seen in public without a veil. Politically, she comes across as an astute strategist who rewarded merit over hierarchy. The author creates great context by explaining the complex structures of the court. In her description of Razia’s court she brings out the plurality at court.
“The court was a public assembly and Razia would have sat on a throne, a large, high-backed chair with a red canopy above it, flanked by a bodyguard of slaves armed with swords. In her court, there would have been Tajik bureaucrats, Persian adventurers and noblemen, holy men, scholars and Indian Muslims and other assorted Turkish and non-Turkish noblemen. From the chronicles of the Ghanavid Bayhaqi we can guess at what the slave guards, Central Asian men with high cheekbones and long black hair coiled in braids, would have been wearing:’rich robes, bejeweled belts and sashes and weapons decorated with gold and silver.”
An excellent and just ruler, Razia was probably overthrown by her own men who probably felt that a woman must not sit on the throne and if she did, she was not good enough.
Mukhoty in her story about Meerabai, speaks of the Rajput princess who chose to let go of all worldly titles and connections in her love for Krishna. Why on earth would a Rajput noble woman choose to devote most of her waking hours in praying and singing, refusing to entangle herself in the wranglings of the palace? Again the historical life and times of Meerabai are fascinating and tells us more of the world she lived in. Meerabai in Heroines is not a docile saint, but a woman who chooses to leave behind home and hearth and seeks to meet travelling ascetics and discuss metaphysics with them.
Unbound and exposed in the world of the forest and open road, Meerabai unbound her hair. “If he says so, I’ll let my hair grow wild!” sings Meerabai, “I have given up ornaments, given up braiding my hair”.
In this chapter the author explores the idea of women, even one as haloed as Meerabai not being considered pure enough. When saint and scholar Jiva Goswami states he will not meet Meerabai, so that he may stay untainted he is met with a very evolved response. Meerabai says that in the world Krishna alone is a man in Vrindavan and all else adoring him, be it man or woman are but adoring Gopis. The scholar realizes he is the presence of a devotion far greater than he had realized.
In her description of Amabapali, the courtesan who chose to become a Buddhist nun, thus renouncing worldly life the author explores the themes of pure vs. impure, beauty vs. time with elegance. She also throws light on the gender imbalance within Buddha’s monastery system with the youngest male monk having seniority over the oldest nun.
Buddha himself though seems to be on a path to save as many souls as possible, be it male or female bodies they are housed in. He does not allow societal taboos or superficial criteria take precedence over achieving immortality. His eyes filled with compassion, win over Ambapali, who is used to men objectifying her. This seed of an idea sees her let go of her vast wealth that she has earned of her own merit in the pursuit of eternity.
We are then taken through the life of Jahanara, (Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter) and Rani Laxmibai. One is a Mughal princess and the other the widow of Gangadhar Rao, the British appointed ruler of Jhansi. It is rumoured that Jahanara had an incestuous relationship with her father after her mother’s death and that Rao loved to cross-dress as a woman.
Two different women, seemingly living with power and pelf, yet strangely left to their own defences to take care of themselves. Though we admire Rani Laxmibai’s valor, we are struck by how she choose not to shave her head or wear jewels, despite being a Brahmin widow.
Jahanara manoeuvred herself through her father’s reign, the death of her beloved brother Dara Shikoh and in the court of her brother Aurangzeb. She chose peace over bloody battles, but had to see the gory transference of power to Aurangzeb and the imprisonment of her father. Her influence over the Mughal court was vast and yet she seemed unmoved by it, requesting a simple tomb, covered merely with grass, rather than stone embellishments.
This foretaste of what riches the book has within its chapters must surely make a reader thirst for more. This collection of stories of women, each brave and dancing to their own drum is quite remarkable.
Jarring notes include a serious referencing of The Amar Chitra Katha as a source in this otherwise well researched book.
While we must celebrate stories of yore, it is important that we support the voices of the women of today who choose to live rather unconventional views and lives. We must draw strength from the stories in Heroines to continue to fight against the suppression of narratives by women. If feminism in the context of Indian history and folklore interest you, Heroines is definitely the book for you. If the stories of Draupadi, Radha and Razia have been mere caricatures until now, Heroines will bring them alive for you.
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