A new generation of women writers are retelling the stories of Indian women in history and mythology.
In 2019, if Sita is seen as the most famous single mother in Indian history and Draupadi as the first #MeToo warrior, the credit goes to women writers who have retold their stories. In doing so, they have challenged the centuries of patriarchal storytelling, which had reduced these powerful women to mere props.
“Write our story, too. For always we’ve been pushed into corners, trivialised, misunderstood, blamed, forgotten – or maligned and used as cautionary tales.” In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest novel The Forest of Enchantments, the story of Ramayana as told through Sita, other voices clamour for their story to be told: Kaikeyi, Ahalya, Surpanakha, Mandodari, and Urmila. Aqueen portrayed as wicked and her complexity as a warrior and a healer erased, as in the case of Kaikeyi; a sister forgotten and a wife abandoned as in the case of Urmila, there are many women in Indian history and mythology whose existence has either been effaced or diminished.
A new generation of women writers seems to have made a collective promise, however, to restore them to primacy, in acts as much of feminist scholarship as of great storytelling. Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, which retold the story of Draupadi, in 2008, was in many ways a forerunner of this trend of feminist forensics.
Now even as Hindi cinema excavates lost legends such as Padmavati, recreates more familiar characters such as Rani Lakshmibai in Kangana Ranaut-starrer Manikarnika and Aurangzeb’s accomplished sister Jahanara Begum in next year’s Takht, directed by Karan Johar, Indian publishing is speeding ahead with history’s heroines.
No daffodils and cucumber sandwiches
Ira Mukhoty is the foremost among the women writing on women, having authored Heroines and most recently Daughters of the Sun, on the women of Mughal India. The French-Bengali former pharmacist who was educated at Cambridge discovered the women of the past through sheer necessity, having nothing but Enid Blyton’s stories to tell to her young daughters (who are now 17 and 15).
“With its images of daffodils and cucumber sandwiches, it evokes nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist. Or there is the Americana of Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian. I wanted to replace it with women role models from our own history. But in our own myths and history, women have either been sanitised as goddesses, not shown as bleeding, crying and wailing, or just forgotten,” says Mukhoty. In Daughters of the Sun, she shows exactly how much agency some of these women had, whether it was Jahanara Begum, who referred to herself as a faqira (ascetic) in her Sufi treatises, or Jehangir’s wife, Empress Nur Jahan, who baffled the Europeans of the time.
Ruby Lal, professor of South Asian Studies at Emory University, has written a fascinating new biography, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, where she quotes Thomas Roe, British ambassador to Jahangir’s court, saying the emperor either sleeps or depends on her who is “more unaccessible then any goddesse or mistery of heathen impietye (sic)”. As Lal writes, Roe and Peter Mundy, an East India Company merchant who also wrote about her being “hautie and stomakefull (stubborn)”, were bewildered by Nur Jahan.
That’s because “she hadn’t inherited an empire, as had Queen Elizabeth I of England, crowned twenty years before Nur’s birth, nor was she exactly a favourite, the familiar adviser-minister figure they knew, a staple of European courts but always a male. They couldn’t quite wrap their minds around a woman’s coming to power because of her own talents, but they could understand a wily consort winning the indulgence of a love-blind emperor”.
Here was a woman, as Lal writes in her book, who became a co-sovereign, who gave audience from the imperial balconies, who offered political advice, made laws, shot a tiger to protect her subjects, commanded a battle on a roaring river, and rescued a kidnapped emperor, and yet nothing of this is recorded. Nur Jahan honoured the Mughal matriarchs and transformed the lives of orphan girls with the marriages she arranged.
Don’t tell your daughters to be nice
Writing about these women isn’t easy. As Mukhoty puts it: “I felt like a medieval detective, putting pieces of information together and removing layers of prejudice, and sometimes even like a witch, pulling these women out of the shadows.” “We tell our daughters to be nice. We should instead tell them to be fierce.”
And in the retelling of these stories of powerful women from the past, interesting parallels can be drawn. So if Sita is effectively the most famous single mother in history, as Divakaruni shows, raising her children in the ashram after she is condemned by Ram, Draupadi is the first #MeToo heroine, calling out the Kauravas for the way they treat her.
Kavita Kane, a former journalist based in Pune, started her journey with a book on Karna, but through a woman’s eyes, which is how Karna’s Wife came about. “When I wrote Sita’s Sister on Urmila, one of the most neglected characters in the Ramayana, and her private exile, I realised there are so many such unsung women we barely know of: their pain, their love, their disappointments, their victory, their power, their loss. Do we see them as persons or just people populating the narrative? If that’s so, it is chiefly because we tend to see mythology through men’s eyes, rarely women’s,” she says.
“Menaka’s Choice was on Menaka, the famous apsara, but what do we know of her? Similarly Surpanakha is a stereotype of villainy, but never seen as a woman. In Lanka’s Princess, she is neither a vamp nor a victim, just a person who tells her story. Satyavati, unlike the more popular Draupadi, is largely unrecognised as one of the most strong-willed women in the Mahabharata. In The Fisher Queen’s Dynasty, I have tried to show her as she was: perhaps the most political, the most powerful person in the epic who was largely responsible for the later events that unfolded.”
And each of the women in her five books has been a challenge, although none as much as Maneka. “She was that deadly mix of beauty, lust and vile making each a weapon of her sweet seduction,” she says. With her shades of grey, she gave Kane the confidence to write on the darker characters of Surpanakha and Satyavati in the later novels.
Knight in shining armour? No, thank you
Anuja Chandramouli, another author who has devoted much of her writing career to rescuing women from the obscurity of history, has written nine books, but none as exciting as the three on her favourite heroines: Shakti, Rani Padmavati and her latest Ganga (Ganga: The Constant Goddess). “I was attracted to their remarkable personas simply because they are liberated, empowered and truly inspiring figures. I love how gutsy they are and grappled with their personal demons on their own terms, despite the heavy odds stacked against them,” says Chandramouli. Even the men she has written about, like Kamadeva and Kartikeya, are champions of feminism, she points out.
Writing and researching about them has taught her a lot. All her three heroines, she says, are proof that women don’t have to wait for a knight in shining armour to rescue them from their troubles. “They bear testament to the fact that we carry everything we need to survive the ordeals facing us in our own heads, hearts and hands. It is a beautiful truth and one that has brightened my life considerably. It is particularly heartening when readers of my terrific trio, belonging to both sexes, tell me that these powerful heroines have given them the courage to deal with their own issues or comforted them during difficult times,” says Chandramouli.
In almost all the cases, the act of writing has been a personal discovery as well as a political statement. It was so with Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan whose Girls from the Mahabharata series examines the lives of women who are under-represented or underwritten. In the first book of the series, she wrote about Satyavati, the mother of Vyas, and perhaps the most famous mother of a son born out of wedlock. In her second in the series, The One Who Had Two Lives, she writes about Amba/Shikhandi, who is perhaps the first transgender in mythology.
Madhavan says she had wanted to get her hands on the Mahabharata just like several Indian novelists do, with the temptation of all that excellent source material and those characters. “The sex! The fighting! The relationships! But I’ve always been more attracted to the people whose stories weren’t fully fleshed out –in this case, the women. Amba was pretty voiceless, except when she decides to commit suicide and be reborn as a warrior, and she intrigued me. Why did she want to do that? What was she feeling? What must have led her to the steps she had to take?”
That is the sentiment that drove Moupia Basu, a former journalist, to write The Queen’s Last Salute, in which Rani Lakshmibai plays an integral role. The second half shifts to Orchha and the fictional character of Chandraki, her lady-in-waiting. So, who is Chandraki? Did she exist? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. She could be Jhalkaribai, or Motibai, or Sundar, Mundar, or even Kashibai – women who played significant roles in Lakshmibai’s life, both as companions and later her comrades-in-arms.
Chandraki could be anyone of them, or all of them, or none of them, says Basu. “But she is the archetype of the insurgent minority of women characters in Indian literature. She could be Bankim Chandra’s Shanti or Devi Chaudhurani, or Amish Tripathi’s version of Sita. She could be Devi Yesodharan’s Aremis. Or, Chitrangada, the princess of Manipur and wife of Arjun, who first appears in the Mahabharata and who is later, in a delightful turn, presented as a warrior princess in Tagore’s play Chitrangada.”
She chose Rani Lakshmibai because she lived in Jhansi for a couple of years, during which period she visited Orchha, a neighbouring town and the former capital of Bundelkhand. “As I wandered around the ruins of the forts, the story slowly started taking shape that, at the time, was focused on Orchha’s attack on Jhansi, which was launched when Lakshmibai was completely vulnerable and at the mercy of various enemy forces. This was also the period of the revolt of 1857,” says Basu.
“The book was originally conceived with Chandraki in mind and Orchha as the primary setting. But, you can’t talk about Orchha, nor about the Revolt of 1857, without talking about Jhansi and its queen Lakshmibai,” she says. The rediscovery of history’s heroines, she says, is in keeping with the current milieu where women are emerging out of the closets and are increasingly seen to be fighting for their rights, and for justice.
In The Palace of Illusions, Divakaruni quotes Shikhandi telling Draupadi/Panchali that the “power of a man is like a bull’s charge, while the power of a woman moves aslant, like a serpent seeking its prey”. He may not necessarily be right about the animal equivalence, but at least now, thanks to the word warriors of this generation, the power of women through myth and history is becoming visible and audible.
- Sita, mythology’s most famous single mother: In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new book The Forest of Enchantments, she is banished by Ram, lives in the ashram and raises her children singlehandedly.
- Draupadi, the world’s first #MeToo warrior: In Ira Mukhoty’s Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History, she is shown refusing to back down after she is insulted in the open court by Duryodhan.
- Amba/Shikhandi, history’s first transgender: She was born as Amba and did severe penance to Lord Shiva for a boon that could cause Bhishma’s death, and was reborn as Shikhandini. Her life is retold in The One Who Had Two Lives, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s latest novel.
- Satyavati, mythology’s most famous mother of a son born out of wedlock: In Kavita Kane’sThe Fisher Queen’s Dynasty, the powerful great-grandmother of the Kauravas and Pandavas is also seen as the mother of Vyasa.
- Padmavati, mythology’s most famous victim of Sati: In Anuja Chandramouli’s Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen, she is powerful but also eventually vulnerable because of the times she lived in.