Some books are just meant to be. Last year, my then seven-year-old daughter, Zoya was reading Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and poring over the illustrations and stories of wonderful women from all over the world. But then one day she suddenly came to me clutching her beloved copy of the book and asked sadly, ‘Does India only have two Rebels?’ pointing to Mary Kom and Rani Laxmibai. That hit me hard and I immediately began telling her about all the phenomenal women that India has had – our rule-breakers, our homegrown rebels, the women who changed the game. Mary Kom and Rani Laxmibai are wonderful examples of strong Indian women but there are so many more.
As I delved deeper into the stories of these women, I quickly realized that these were stories that had to be told. Their accomplishments and grit were incredible and something that all our girls – and our boys – needed to hear. This needed to be a book.
And that’s how this project started, in what is perhaps the most organic way possible – a mother telling her daughter about the inspirational women from their country. The kind of women that make you want to dream big. I started with the names I already knew – women like Kiran Shaw, Savitribai Phule, Indra Nooyi, and each night I told Zoya the story of one awe-inspiring woman at bedtime. She was all ears! However, as was bound to happen, Zoya would frequently ask me questions to which I didn’t have an answer. One night she asked me if I knew how many hours PV Sindhu trained every day for the Olympics and when I looked it up, I realized that Sindhu would reach the courts at 4:30 am everyday and play for the next seven hours with just two small breaks. It was remarkable! And as I delved deeper into the stories of these women, I quickly realized that these were stories that had to be told. Their accomplishments and grit were incredible and something that all our girls – and our boys – needed to hear. This needed to be a book.
From then on, the pieces quickly started falling into place. My publishers supported my vision and introduced me to an artist (Niloufer Wadia) who created the most gorgeous illustrations. Each one of the illustrations brought these stories to life, making these remarkable women so accessible to a young audience.
Of course, there were challenges as the book took shape, of which the biggest was choosing which women to profile. I was very clear that this wasn’t going to be just a list of well-known accomplished Indian women – the women in this book had to be mavericks and rebels! Every story needed to be different from the others, yet had to make you feel proud to be Indian. And so, in this book, you get to meet a spy princess who parachuted into France, a warrior queen who defended India from the Portuguese six times, Subhasini Mistry who worked as a maid before winning a Padma Bhushan for healthcare, and Chandro Tomar, the octogenarian sharpshooter, popularly known as Revolver Dadi. Of course, I did include some household names including PV Sindhu and Priyanka Chopra. But personally, I remain very proud of the untold stories. They were so exciting to discover!
I am a mother first, and so I was acutely aware that above all, Girl Power! has to be appropriate for children of all ages.
I have tried to be as inclusive as possible. Girl Power! includes stories from across the country, across industries and across time periods. I also tried to pick stories that had an identifiable ‘Kodak moment’, a narrative that could be written coherently in 300 words or less keeping in mind the attention span of the younger generation today. This was easier said than done, especially given that all of these women have led very layered and nuanced lives!
With every inclusion, there were also a woman who I would have loved to cover but couldn’t for some reason. For instance, I wanted to profile the exemplary Indira Jaisingh but I couldn’t find the correct ‘Kodak moment’ in her life that would be relatable to a young audience. Separately, there were women who had overcome backbreaking violence to achieve great things but the details of their story weren’t appropriate for my readership. I am a mother first, and so I was acutely aware that above all, Girl Power! has to be appropriate for children of all ages.
What a labour of love this book has been! I’m fond of saying that Girl Power! covers women from coolies to queens, from spies to scholars. So no matter what a child is passionate about – from singing to space – they are bound to find that passion reflected in the book. And luckily, the love that we have poured into this book is being reflected back; the feedback from parents and children has been tremendous. A mother from Mumbai recently wrote in to say that her two sons are quarreling about who gets to read it at bedtime. That’s a first for a book titled Girl Power!
Neha J. Hiranandani’s new book is Girl Power: Indian Women Who Broke the Rules. The views expressed are the author’s own.