By Karthik Venkatesh
Title: Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History
Author: Ira Mukhoty
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Ira Mukhoty’s Heroines:Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History is a book with a clear sense of its purpose and a clear understanding of what it is setting out to do. The author wishes to reclaim women whose individuality has been diluted. As things currently stand, these women, all of whom are acknowledged larger-than-life figures have been presented to the public in heroic ways certainly, but in ways that belittle the complexity of their personalities and the breadth of their achievement. They are heroines, but not always for the right reasons. This book seeks to undo that injustice. If they are heroic, it ought to be for the right reasons is the book’s underlying attitude. Having identified its objective, the book goes over its identified terrain with a sense of purpose and deliberateness that is to be admired.
The heroines have been chosen wisely – Draupadi and Radha from myth, Ambapali, Razia Sultan, Meerabai, Jahanara, Laxmibai and Hazrat Mahal from history. With the exception of Jahanara or perhaps to an extent Ambapali, all of them are well-known. People are likely to think that they know enough about the person. Yet, each chapter throws up surprises that upturn our thinking. Also as stated earlier, the reasons for the choice of these women are not pedestrian. The author has clear reasons which are not run-of-the-mill. In the author’s mind, certain characteristics of the ‘heroine’ in question demand our attention. And it is obviously not what we think. This makes reading about these women an exercise in discovery as also an exercise in reassessing our own thoughts about the individual in question.
Each chapter begins as a journey over familiar terrain, but then the author upturns a number of rocks to reveal startling new insights. This makes reading the book a joy. Take for instance the chapter on Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, a well-known heroic figure who occupies a hallowed place in the pantheon of great Indian leaders. And yet there are things that one learns about her that one did not know – the fact that she was educated which was unusual, her refusal to live the life of a widow following her husband’s death, her attempts to reason with the British following the annexation of her kingdom and so on. So what emerges is not merely a clear understanding of the heroic act alone, but rather the steps leading to the making of the heroine. Heroines are not born as much as they emerge under certain conditions. This much is clear on reading this book.
Also, the author does not bow down to popular sentiment, not one bit. The reasons that the author spells out for choosing Draupadi over Sita make that abundantly clear. Sita is the role model for ideal Indian women. Her sense of duty and righteous behaviour make her the embodiment of all that is traditionally expected of a ‘good’ Indian woman, a ‘Sati Savitri’ in popular parlance. Draupadi is anything but ideal. All fire and brimstone, she rages against the system that put her in terrible situations. Quite unlike Sita who accepts what comes her way with a meekness that is unnerving, Draupadi chooses to speak her mind. An observation that struck me with respect to Draupadi was that young girls are rarely named Draupadi. At first sight, it might appear that her polyandry has something to do with it. But, that’s a partial explanation. Draupadi’s fiery personality is also perhaps a reason and probably has more to do with it than we think.
Just as Draupadi is dealt with in a refreshingly new perspective, so is Radha. While Radha, the woman who pines for Krishna does find mention, the chapter on her also reveals new insights. Radha as she emerges at the end of this reading is no longer a mere adjunct to Krishna, but an independent personality in her own right.
Three choices while well-known make this book stand out – Ambapali, Jahanara, and Hazrat Mahal. Ambapali is the classic scheming courtesan in popular view. Using her beauty and conniving ways, she inveigles herself into a king’s affections. But then saddened at the hollowness of it all, she chucks it all up to follow the way of the Buddha. The author sees it differently. She sees Ambapali as making choices that guarantee her a life outside of the institution of marriage which circumstances had put beyond her reach. That’s certainly something to think about.
Jahanara is a mere footnote in history. Sandwiched between Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh, she lacks a distinct identity. This book changes that. Jahanara’s many achievements are spelt out in detail which make one wonder how popular discourse has unfairly sidelined this woman of remarkable ability.
As for Hazrat Mahal, she too is a Rani Laxmibai figure, heroic due to her stand in the 1857 revolution, but lacking a distinct persona beyond those specific events. In Heroines, Hazrat Mahal emerges in the fullness of her personality.
If at all, the book can be criticized, it is on account of the fact that it is not inclusive enough. It has stuck to discussing women from the North Indian sphere. The author acknowledges as much. A reassessment of a woman from the southern part of the country would have been a welcome addition. Equally, a woman from the north-eastern part of the country would have made this book even more appealing. Be that as it may, Heroines is a wonderful read, never boring, pedantic or academic, but engaging.
Karthik Venkatesh is originally from Bangalore, but circumstances took him to Punjab where he lived and worked for more than a decade. He has also published on Mahatma Phule, the poetry of Arun Kolatkar and other opinion pieces. He is now back in Bangalore and working as an editor with a publishing firm.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Punjab: Marginal and Central’, edited by Karthik Venkatesh, author and editor, Bangalore, India.