1. Heroines has such powerful women features in it, were these whittled down after many choices or were these ladies the ones you wanted to portray from the start?
Some of these women were with me from the beginning. Draupadi, for example, was always going to be in the final cut because i love her vulnerability, her revolt, and her fearlessness. Most of the other women are at least familiar to someone with a north-Indian background but as I developed my idea of what constitutes a ‘heroine’, some women fell by the wayside. I had initially chosen Nur Jahan, as an example from the Mughal empire, but then as i studied her, realised that she was a talented, remarkable woman certainly, but not ‘heroic’ in the sense that I was beginning to develop. So I switched to Jahan Ara, less well known, but so lucid, searching for a divine purpose, and with so much personal integrity.
2. Are there any characters you wanted to include but could not for whatever reason?
There are women, who came up in the course of my research, who I couldn’t include either because there was a severe lack of primary materials on them, or because they were unfamiliar to me personally and would have required a lot of extra research for me to become familiar with. Chand Bibi, Gauhar Jan, Rani Durgavati, Rani Abakka etc
3. Will there be another book with them? A part two?
I would love to do a part 2, with much more obscure figures. Because historical data is missing, i would prefer to write them up in a historical fiction style, to allow myself a little bit of liberty in imagining their lives. For “heroines’, i tried to be as factual and accurate as possible so that does limit quite severely what I can or cannot say.
4. If you were to pick any “heroines” from the current generation, whom will they be?
I feel that all these young women, who refuse to play by the rules, who are not cowed down by the patriarchy, are heroic. Whether it is Laxmi aggarwal, who survived an acid attack to create an association to help burn victims, or Jyoti Singh who fought for her life, or Irom Sharmila, who has sacrificed so many years of her life for justice for other women. Ordinary women who do extraordinary things because these things are not expected of women, like the Phogat girls who became wrestlers, Mary Kom, and the legion of women who push the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ lives every single day.
5. I can imagine how much research this involved, and there’s so much I learned from your book that is different to what I’ve been taught about some of these ladies in school! How long did it take to do the research?
The research process was really intense and all-consuming. I had to be very disciplined and not get derailed and lured into other avenues of research because I kept coming across such amazing facts and anecdotes. The actual research took up half the time I had allotted myself for the book, the other half was the actual writing so 9 months research 9 months writing. Like having a baby!
6. It doesn’t seem like women’s situation has changed much in India, in law’s torture, societal pressure and being blamed for everything bad that happens even if they are the victim. Do you thinks books like these will make a difference in society?
I think that’s an interesting observation that comes out from the book. That this is not a new situation for women in India. That women have stood up to have their voices heard for centuries. So women today should take comfort from that; that women were never this ‘Sita’ type of subservient woman the way society would have us believe but were always living extraordinary lives, heroically, despite opposition. I think this should be seen a a call to arms, a proclamation that women have never been silenced, and that we needn’t see ourselves as victims anymore.
7. Are there any fascinating books you’ve read while researching this? Any recommendations?
I read a wide range of books to do with Indian history through the ages. Some of my favourites have been biographies written in different centuries, from different perspectives, such as-Besieged by Mahmood Farooqui, 1857 by Vishnu Bhatt Versaikar, Begums, Thugs and Englishmen by Fanny Parkes. Also books that covered unusual topics within history such as- Feasts and Fasts, A history of food in India by Colleen Taylor Sen, India Conquered by Jon Wilson, The First Firangis by Jonathan Gill Harris, Raj of the Rani by Tapti Roy,
8. Finally, what are you working on right now?
Am working on my 2nd book for Aleph. It is a book on the women of the Great Mughals, from Babur to Aurangzeb. I want to bring them out from behind their veil of invisibility, so we can re-discover how influential and interesting they really were. And I can finally talk about Nur Jahan!
Ira Mukhoty is the author of Heroines, a book on heroic Indian women, both in reality and in mythology. She 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. Heroines is her first book although she has written for various publications on Culture and Travel. *Image from Aleph