Ira Mukhoty explores what it means for women to be heroic in her new book ‘Heroines’. She chronicles the stories of 8 women, historical and mythological, and highlights how they all have a strong belief which they are willing to fight for. From Draupadi to Jahanara, Radha to Raziya, all the women confront and transgress patriarchy.
We spoke to Ira about the process of reimagining these characters, her research, what heroism means and how some of the narratives behind these women are often told through an unreliable filter.
What was the idea behind the book?
My editor had flagged a book called Heroes, in which all the 8 characters are men, and white. I wanted to explore what heroism means in india and especially for Indian women, Heroism is a loaded word, and connotes men’s achievements, and their physical bravery. I started thinking about what it means to be a heroic Indian woman, and who I would consider heroic. For women, the scope is different. Heroism is more of a personal battle. All 8 women in my book have a strong belief in a certain idea, be it in God, leading a town, or reinventing oneself. And all of them are willing to do something transgressive, to step outside the Laxman Rekha. They are all willing to carry through to the end — whether it is leaving their families, or dying in battle.
You mention that in time “the fire goes out of these women’s eye and they become representative of a universal north Indian ideal of beauty” and of men controlling the narrative — in what way did you take that narrative back?
It was quite problematic. Draupadi, portrayed in Mahabharata, as you see on TV, is a fair north Indian girl. She is a domesticated woman from the rich upper class. But actually, she was fiery and angry, she wanted her honour restored. Her hair was unbound. She was a dark woman and wore no jewellery. By taking the reader through these stages, I want to remind them to go back to the sources.
So I tried to do as much as primary research as I could, so the male and British filters imposed on these characters could be removed. The British often interpreted out history in their own way. For example, one of my characters — Raziya — was a leader who didn’t wear the veil and ruled independently. Her contemporaries thought of her as a brave woman, but the British talked about her in sexual terms.
The British were also stunned that Jahanara Begum had so much power, being unmarried. Women didn’t control their own money in Britain, whereas Mughal women had their own money, they had their own land, and inherited from their mothers.
The British implied Jahanara had incestuous relationships and perpetuated certain prejudices in her re-telling. But she had her own independent wealth and power, and was one of the richest women in the world at the time.
That is why I wanted to go back to the original text, and how people saw them at the time.
I find in India that myths have more importance than history. We talk about mythology as if it is history. Goddesses are used as quasi-historical figures, so I figured let’s understand them
What kinds of research went into the book? Since you mention that primary sources are hard to come by, how did you go about this task?
Finding primary sources was very difficult. For example, it was difficult finding information about Hazrat Mahal, as after 1875, when the British conquered Lucknow, they destroyed all the historical documents. I think that is a much more heinous crime, to take away written history.
There were few written sources, and were difficult to find, but they do exist. It took a lot of patience and time. It took me 18 months to complete the project.
Whose portrayal do you think is most problematic?
The first historical woman that I wrote about, Amrapali, was the most difficult to write. She lived so long ago, 2,600 years ago. She happened to live at the same time as the Buddha, who had good biographers and who created historical narratives, and there were few references about her in those texts.
Amrapali was a courtesan, who later became a nun. Through those lines and by understanding what India was like, I tried to create what it meant to be a courtesan at that time. And though the Buddhists said they had saved her, being a courtesan at that time was considered an honour, it was like being a Japanese geisha.
Writing about her was a huge challenge, because I didn’t want to warp the details, and put my own filter.
What helped was that I found an actual poem that is attributed to her. It is extraordinary to have her actual words, and to understand her ideas on beauty and the soul.
Which figure do you relate to most?
As for the character I relate to most, I like Laxmibai. She was more vulnerable than we imagine. At one point, she even wanted to commit suicide. She couldn’t face the terror and massacre of war and spent a whole night in indecision. Her vulnerability was moving. I discovered much more about her than I was taught. She is not just a monotone depiction of a warrior women, not a goddess. She was superstitious and had doubts, and fought through them. That makes her more relatable.
There has been a lot of retelling the stories of Indian goddesses, and recasting them. What about these stories, do you think make us want to hear them over and over? and why did you choose to include them in the book?
They are so complex, and re-interpreted so many times. So many women find something to relate to and wonder about. But I would like to see more stories which do not focus on love interests, and look at women as determiners of their own fates.
I find in India that myths have more importance than history. We talk about mythology as if it is history. Goddesses are used as quasi-historical figures. so I figured let’s understand them.
Why can’t Draupadi who used rage, be as much of a role model as Sita who was more obedient? Why can’t women use anger more? Men are scared of angry women and why is it so?
As for the character I relate to most, I like Laxmibai. She was more vulnerable than we imagine. At one point, she even wanted to commit suicide. She couldn’t face the terror and massacre of war and spent a whole night in indecision
What was your writing process like and what project are you working on next?
I love Hillary Mantel — I love what she is doing. I also really like Joan Didion. I am writing a history of the women of the Mughal empire next.
From studying science to writing history:
You do things when you are young. I did science because it was respectable. When my interest in history was sparked, I found it so useful. It taught me discipline, research, discerning right from wrong.