In Conversation | Books

‘Imagine Gulbadan seeing the Jesuits for the first time’: Ira Mukhoty

Her Story: Ira Mukhoty

Her Story: Ira Mukhoty

The little that we know about the queens and princesses of the Mughal dynasty in India is shrouded in mystery and prejudice. The sense that we get is of disempowered Mughal women eclipsed by the sheer magnificence and masculinity of the padshahs. Ira Mukhoty repositioned them in our imagination with her book, Daughters of the Sun , which came out last summer. We realised that the ubiquitous European accounts did not tell the whole truth — there was much that remained concealed.

In this interview, Mukhoty talks about the extraordinary women who have taken over her life. Excerpts:

What inspired you to take up this particular period, from the 1520s to the early 18th century? Why did you choose the Mughal women rather than, say, the Rajput women?

In my first book, Heroines , one of the eight women I talked about was Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan. I found her story the most compelling and being a Delhi woman myself, was astounded at how much of her story had been forgotten.

Her Story: Akbar’s mother travels by boat to Agra.

Her Story: Akbar’s mother travels by boat to Agra.

 

I found that entire period — the wars of succession around the end of Shah Jahan’s reign and the siblings involved in this deadly game — fascinating. My initial idea was to write a book only around these four siblings: Jahanara, Roshanara, Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb.

But my editor encouraged me to look further and that was when I realised that the vaunted ‘Timurid legacy’ that Jahanara claimed for herself had come in with Babur and the women who accompanied him, and that those women were equally aware of the allure of this ideal. For Rajput women of the same period, on the other hand, the records are much more elusive and inaccessible.

Are you attempting to liberate history from its narrow focus by telling it in a narrative, reader-friendly format?

There seems to be a new awareness among publishers and writers that Indian readers are becoming increasingly interested in

history written in an accessible, engaging way. There has always been excellent history writing by academics in India, but this is restricted to a tiny, academic clique.

As a result, most of the lay audience in India is relatively unaware of many developments in history and, instead, is raised on a diet of myths and popular legends. Narrative history is therefore a tremendously challenging genre because there is an unspoken pledge to the reader to present as factually accurate an account as possible, but in a nuanced and entertaining way.

In perhaps a first for history-writing in India, your book posits European presence as almost incidental to the grand enterprise of the Mughal empire.

Other countries have such a strong sense of their histories. It has always irked me that a lot of our history books and indeed even our novels, mostly lack a strong, easily identifiable Indian identity.

 

Our writing is not deeply anchored in the physical, geographical, cultural reality of the country and so we are more familiar, for example, with Wordsworth’s poetry than with Ghalib’s; more conversant with the visual history of the rose than that of the harsinghar or the chameli.

I thought it would be interesting to place my book very firmly in the Indian context, and then view the ‘others’ through this lens, instead of the other way around. And so instead of the Europeans recording Mughal women, we can imagine Gulbadan [Babur’s daughter and biographer] seeing the Jesuits, and being dismayed by their manner and attire.

In this context, how effective is it to tell history through women’s perspectives?

Almost all of written history ignores the role of women. Recorded history, which begins in 5000 BCE, deals with women only 0.5% of the time, which gives us a scale of the problem. In ignoring the role of women we not only reduce the status of women, naturally, but we are also forced into a reductive, simplistic reading of events. The nuance and texture are removed from history.

When we read, for example, about Akbar never refusing his mother and foster-mothers anything, or Babur dropping all protocol in his eagerness to meet his family, it adds to our understanding of these men. Akbar’s insistence that widowed and divorced women be allowed to marry, or his dismay that girls were given a smaller share of inheritance whereas they needed it more, is refreshing and astonishing even in the 21st century.

Does your writing present a counter-discourse to the Western narrative that pretends to be neutral but is actually anti-Islamic?

I won’t disagree with that because, for me, writing history arose from a visceral need to ‘de-colonise’ my notions of Indian history. Mughal history, especially, since it coincided with the period of forays by Europeans into India, has been shaped in popular memory by the writings of these men.

 

I felt it would be useful to swing the narrative arc away and view these events from an indigenous point of view, to re-claim this history, in a way, and place the Europeans within the Indian framework, as interlopers and grifters initially, on the sidelines of Mughal history, at a time when this empire was arguably the greatest in the world. For colonial writings, it’s good to remember, was deeply influenced by the Western writers’ own prejudices towards Islam, which was a force they long had a violent association with.

In taking up this particular subject, did you want to show that Islam is not an anti-women creed?

I knew that a lot of what we had inherited as Mughal history from British writings about that period was tainted by complicated British attitudes towards Islam. What I had not realised was the extent of the misinformation about the status of Mughal women in particular. This I discovered as I started on my research and found that they were highly educated, influential, respected, wealthy and ambitious. The Timurid Mughals were not intransigent about the purdah of their women, which remained more porous, with women being ‘visible’ in many ways.

The interviewer is Professor of English at Panjab University, Chandigarh.


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Printable version | Jul 6, 2022 2:51:58 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/imagine-gulbadan-seeing-the-jesuits-for-the-first-time-ira-mukhoty/article26406126.ece