The idea of heroism in women is not easily defined. In men the notion is often associated with physical strength and extravagant bravery. Women's heroism has tended to be of a very different nature, less easily categorized. All the women portrayed-Draupadi, Radha, Ambapali, Raziya Sultan, Meerabai, Jahanara, Laxmibai and Hazrat Mahal-share an unassailable belief in a cause, for which they are willing to fight to the death if need be...
In these engrossing portraits, mythological characters from thousands of years ago walk companionably besides historical figures from more recent times. They rise to reclaim their rightful place in history. Daughters,
Ira Mukhoty was educated in Delhi and Cambridge, where she studied Natural Sciences. After a peripatetic youth, she returned to Delhi to raise her two daughters. Living in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, she developed an interest in the evolution of mythology and history and its relevance to the status of women in India. She has written for magazines on culture and travel.
Heroines is her first book.
In the middle of the Bay of Bengal there lies an archipelago of serene islands, somnolent in the sun. On a recent visit, I discovered that all is not what it seems, for the Andaman Islands are home to man-eating saltwater crocodiles, a handful of aboriginal tribal hunter-gatherers, and a pervasive and baffling nostalgia for the crumbling ruins of the Raj. In the late-nineteenth century, the British built the infamous Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands, a penal settlement where the heroes of the Indian Uprising of 1857 were incarcerated in chain gangs and often tortured and worked to their death. Despite this, these islands, which were named after British soldiers who put down the very same Uprising, still retain the old names. While Havelock Island is named after a Baptist evangelical soldier, Neill Island, also in the Andamans, is named after Colonel James George Smith Neill who called himself the instrument of divine wrath. Amongst other atrocities, he spread terror in 1857 with his infamous 'hanging parties' in which countless villagers were hanged from mango trees by teams of British volunteers.
I have picked the instance of the naming of the Andaman Islands because it was the most recent example I have noted in our country of a puzzling phenomenon. Look anywhere and you will see a similar disregard for its heroes and heroines from every historical period. Further, given the patriarchal culture of the country, it is women who have suffered the most neglect.
A few years ago, I decided I would try to do something about this erasure of India's great women from the country's history. I was a woman living in post-colonial India, raising two daughters, and it seemed that this was a necessary mission for me to undertake. I began to search for the stories of great Indian women.
Women with heroic destinies and rare courage. Indian stories, to counter the blight of our colonial past that contrived to linger on-in our educational system, our cultural discourse, our collective memory. Stories of women to provide ballast against the overwhelming patriarchy of Indian culture. This book, then, is a result of that search.
In searching for these stories I ran into two major obstacles. In the first instance, myth and history in India are not the clearly separate entities one might expect. Myth slides into history and truth sometimes fragments out of apparently mythological constructs. Laxmibai of Jhansi was a historical figure, certainly, but over time she has attained quasi-divine status akin to the most powerful figures from our pantheon of gods. Draupadi belongs to the Mahabharata, an allegorical song dreamed into being by a cohort of seers, but she is as real to modern-day Indians as any historical figure, if not more so. The heroines in this book include two women from mythology-Draupadi and Radha-alongside six historical ones. For if mythological women are held up as examples to the daughters of today then it is worth exploring the truth of their legacy. By understanding their essence, it is my hope that they will once again become relevant, as they were in their glory, for the young women of India.
If Indian history, especially ancient history, is difficult to set down accurately-given that it is shrouded in myth-then writing the history of India's women presents even greater challenges, because of the neglect they were subjected to. Occasionally, though, they make an appearance, and it is from these scant offerings that one has to begin. One such representation of women in ancient times comes from Mohenjodaro. These female terracotta figurines have been described as mother-goddesses. According to historian John Keay, they are 'pop-eyed, bat-eared, belted and sometimes mini-skirted', and of 'grotesque mien.' The finest specimens discovered are tiny, only a few centimetres high, and very few in number. They include the precious 'Dancing Girl', perhaps the first real heroine of India, mute yet eloquent, enigmatic yet challenging.
Closer to us in time but still one of our oldest treasures is Draupadi, tentatively located in 950 BCE. I chose this most flawed and human of the mythological heroines as the fulcrum to this collection because though she fails, and makes mistakes, and is shockingly volatile, she will remain, all her life, true to the call of her heart. She maintains her claim for vengeance and justice though it casts her, alone, against all the forces of the ruling patriarchy. She claims justice, moreover, in the name of all women, when they are maligned. Sita, the heroine of the austere and even more ancient Ramayan, on the other hand, uses acquiescence and obedience as her virtue and self-annihilation as her final retort. While her story is more nuanced than it would appear, it has been used by a patriarchal culture as an example of the ideal, submissive wife. Too many generations of Indian women have been urged to follow Sita's example of wifely submission. Draupadi, however, will have none of it and rails against a culture that values a king's duty and a brother's loyalty above a wife's honour. Her battle, moreover, is for that most ethereal of things, a woman's sacred inviolability. No self-effacing denial of life and suicide for Draupadi. She wrests from fate and from an intimidating arrays of men her right to be restored as the dharma queen. Her heroism is her fearlessness in demanding justice even though this means challenging the status quo and, more pertinently, challenging every male figure in her life; her husbands, her father-in-law and king, and her gurus.
Draupadi is the flamboyantly dark-skinned heroine of Indian mythology par excellence. Indeed, the Mahabharata itself is replete with heroic figures who are also resplendent in their dark complexions.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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