Ira Mukhoty was educated in Delhi and Cambridge, where she studied Natural Sciences. Read her interview at WIC India Dehradun Community Literature Festival 2017.
When did you first know you were a writer?
I am an accidental writer! I am actually a scientist by training but eventually came to writing through a love of Indian culture and history and a desire to learn more about this area. Then as I discovered how very neglected Indian history, especially Indian women’s history, has been, I wanted to share these stories with other people.
Your very first book talks about strong women from Indian mythology and history. What induced you to write about subtly side-tracked women characters?
Raising two daughters, I wanted to tell them about strong women characters they could relate to, and even aspire to as role-models. But in all the stories of Indian women, there was so much erasure of their personalities and idiosyncrasies. All we had left was a bland homogenization of all these women, who didn’t even seem like real women anymore. So I wanted to re-discover them, with a fresh perspective, seeking to make them relevant to our times again.
From a travel and culture writer, how was your journey to being a book author?
Travel and culture writing brought me to history and mythology. Then as I had more time, as my children were no longer so small, I had the mental space to extend that writing into a book. Writing requires an enormous amount of discipline, and an absurd amount of self-motivation, which was not something I had when I was younger.
I am personally empathetic to Draupadi for being married to five men without seeking her approval, then to be humiliated at a public platform by the deeds of her husbands and then with her tale of revenge. What are your thoughts about the character “Draupadi”?
I am also very drawn to the story of Draupadi, who was put into the impossible situation of being married to five men, a situation which was not of her choosing and beyond her control. Despite these terrible circumstances, and her humiliation, Draupadi had such a strong sense of justice and self-belief that her anguish and her fury shine through in her character. She is a completely believable character because she has human emotions, insecurities and doubts. Yet she is magnificent in demanding justice for her honor, despite the weakness of the men in her life, and her determination to be avenged. For me, she is an inspiring antithesis to the bland and subservient image of the ‘good’ pativrata which is the ideal according the patriarchy. Draupadi questioned the strength of her Kshatriya husbands, she questioned Yudhisthir’s understanding of his Dharma and she never, ever agreed to ‘compromise.’
Which of the characters that you have written about in your book are your favorites?
Apart from Draupadi, a favorite character is Jahanara Begum. Despite being a Delhi woman myself, I was shocked to discover to what extent the erasure of Jahanara’s legacy and memory had made her all but non-existent in our collective consciousness. Unusual for Indian women of that time, Jahanara was incredibly ambitious and driven, building a significant chunk of her father Shah Jahan’s new city, Shahjahanabad. Yet all that was erased by the British post 1857 and no efforts were ever made to restore her legacy. Jahanara was also an incredibly eloquent and persuasive diplomat, trying to prevent the bloody war of succession between her brothers.
What do you think; did equality of women exist in Indian mythology?
I think Indian women, in myth and in society, from the dawn of time, have resisted attempts to restrict them. Indian society has been patriarchal, and mythology reflects that, by and large, for a very long time. However individual women have reacted to this, and have usually been allowed the freedom to express themselves. From the philosophical debaters like Gargi and Maitriyea, to powerful women like Satyavati and Draupadi and Kunti, our mythological characters are actually much more complex and strong that a simplified reading would imply.
From the ancient ages to the present day, in your opinion, how much has the position of women changed over the centuries? Have men played any role in this conversion or is it just because of our efforts that our position has changed?
Sometimes it appears that the older societies were less rigid about making women fit into the mold of the perfect woman. Amrapali was a beloved courtesan and she chose her destiny with perfect economic and social freedom. Razia Sultan was accepted leader of the Delhi Sultanate. During her own time, no one questioned her right to rule. Society seems to have become more demanding of women, of their need to fit into a certain mould of Indian womanhood. But overall gains have been made for women, certainly, and men have definitely been part of the change. It is essential for men to participate in this movement, and to know that a truly liberated womanhood can only lead to a nation’s increased prosperity and strength.
What are the challenges that you feel are still there for women to overcome?
The challenges remain what they were even in ancient times – the right to control our own destinies, and the right to be guardians of our own mental, sexual and economic lives. In a recent Indian human development survey, a shocking 80% of women respondents said they required permission to leave their homes to visit a health centre, so that tells us something about what a long way we still have before women are treated as responsible adults, with truly equal rights.
Are there any male role models in the present day whose lives have shown that they foster equality for women?
Yes of course there are, because so many men are actually very conscious of these issues and encouraging of women’s rights. But the narrative needs to remain about women claiming these rights for themselves, not being ‘allowed’ to do so by men
What do you hope readers feel after reading your books, any takeaways?
I hope that readers will realize, that our heroic women were human beings first, subject to the same challenges and frailties and vulnerabilities that we also face. They are heroic because they had to overcome these uncertainties. They were not just bland, ready-made goddesses in the way we are often led to believe. They are not all perfect Sita figures; in fact they are transgressive because they always question, in some form or the other, this notion of a perfect Indian womanhood. And I hope this can be an inspiration to my readers.
What are your current and future projects? Will they also be women centric stories or they will have diverse topics?
My current project is a life of the women of the Great Mughals; from the women who rode in on horseback, from the snowy wastes of Central Asia following Babur to the incredibly wealthy yet sequestered daughters of Aurangzeb, with their poetry and architecture. Because of the myth of the harem, transmitted to us by fascinated but misguided European colonizers, we have believed that all the Mughal women lived in the zenana and were of no consequence, except to create sexual intrigue. Nothing could be farther from the truth and I love discovering all these fascinating lives.
My project after the Mughal women will still be historical non-fiction, but will deal mostly with men.
What are some of your beloved works with women as the main characters?
Arundhati Roy’s A God of Small Things, Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, and Lisa Moore’s February
What would you advise to young writers who aspire to write women centric books?
Writing books that talk about women, especially historical whether fiction or non-fiction, is a great field for young writers because so little has been done that all remains yet to be written. So I would encourage young writers to take this up as an area that definitely needs to be discovered.
What are your thoughts on literature festivals? How important are they for society and writers?
Literary festivals are wonderful because they bring readers (hopefully!) to the writer which is an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience. Writing, generally, tends to be lonely work and writers work with tunnel vision and tend to remain disconnected so festivals are a great occasion to interact with like-minded readers, other writers and people who have interesting ideas.
Any message that you would like to share.
Spend less time trying to be ‘likeable’, spend more being yourself.