Ascent of a woman
Resurrecting the Lives of a Few Women Who Played Extraordinary Roles But Weren’t Written into Textbooks Like Their Male Counterparts
It is perfect that the first woman in Ira Mukhoty’s book Heroines is Draupadi and that Sita, shoved down our throats as ideal womanhood, is entirely missing. Draupadi, dark, angry, intelligent, whose sexuality the Mahabharata celebrates—sinuous hips, the sheen of sweat on her skin—is no silent sufferer in exile, but an angry woman who demands revenge and her rightful place as queen.
Although Draupadi and Radha are mythological heroines, myths dominate our mindspace so much, whether culturally or politically, that it is apt they should feature here, as pointers to the ways in which ancient literature imagined women. These inconvenient role models were quietly downplayed down the ages and women relegated to the antahpura.
Besides them, Mukhoty resurrects six real women who played extraordinary roles but who weren’t written into textbooks as were their male counterparts. Take Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter. Matriarch of the royal household after mother Mumtaz Mahal’s death, she was the richest woman of her times. Unmarried, devoted to Sufism, she is a vastly interesting, paan-loving figure. Surat’s revenues were hers, her ship Sahibi sailed the seas, she commissioned a mosque in Agra (a male prerogative) and was the first woman to be made ‘keeper of the imperial seal’.
Such nuggets make excellent reading, and counter to some extent the fact that we haven’t thus far been too good with disseminating our past in accessible ways. One diary entry, for instance, establishes that 1857 was not a rag-tag uprising quelled by a few British bravehearts but a battle that needed one year and half a lakh soldiers brought in from Europe to crush it. Or that immense wealth, art, books and documents were destroyed by the ‘civilised’ British in Lucknow.
Ambapali, Raziya, Meerabai, Rani Laxmibai, Hazrat Mahal, they’re all revived here. Not with a romanticised retelling, but through facts extracted from real accounts, letters and diaries. Will we, in these fractious times, allow textbooks to celebrate Hazrat Mahal, Wajid Ali Shah’s ex-wife, who led the longest and fiercest resistance to the British in 1857? Will we acknowledge that Radha, celebrated as a pining devotee, was a married woman who threw off husband and hearth to follow Krishna’s flute?
Credit: The Hindu