An Introduction and Review
When I came across an educational book published by Britannica on the 100 most influential women of all time some years back, it was kind of a disappointment to see that there were only two women of substance from India – Mira Bai and Indira Gandhi (or perhaps Mother Teresa too) who could find mention in this book.
So it was a pleasant surprise to see this recently published book “Her Stories : Indian Women Down the Ages – Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens” (Rupa publications, 2022, Rs 395/-) by Deepti Priya Mehrotra, a political scientist and an expert on gender issues who has written many ground-breaking books in past some years.
A major feature of the book is that it also tells the stories of commoners who were not as celebrated as queens or noble women but, as the author says in the introduction, ‘it is testimony to the sheer power of their personae, that somebody somewhere preserved their memory…’ The book contains stories of women from three millennia and from diverse regions of India. Starting from the stories of Sulbha and Lopamudra from the Vedic period, it traverses through the Buddha period and gradually you are introduced to the women of substance from the medieval times and lastly from the 19th century.
Reading this book was a deeply humbling and embarrassing experience as I had barely heard about these women (except for a few) who were protagonists of their times. As the author also says in the opening line of the introduction, “The more I read history, the less, it seemed, I knew about women.” Apart from telling the tales of struggles of these extra-ordinary women and adversities they fought with grit and determination, each story also gives you a glimpse into the times they lived in. Actually, the book may also nudge a reader to explore more and do her own research to know more about those times.
For instance, sample this story of a Dalit woman Nangeli who lived between 1768-1803 in Travancore state where a tax called Mulakkaram was levied on all those Dalit women who wore clothing covering their breasts. Nangeli felt keenly the injustice and humiliation the women of her community were subjected to. The burden of taxes left them with hardly a handful of rice to eat at the day end. She decided she would not pay Mulakkaram ever again. Since there was no way to challenge the state’s brutal might, she prepared herself for the biggest sacrifice. When the state’s agents came to collect the Mulakkaram, she picked up her sharpened sickle and slashed off both her breasts, one after another and offered these on banana leaves to the team of tax collectors. Of course, she bled to death but her valiant act of defiance sent shock waves across the state and the king of Travancore had to issue an immediate proclamation revoking this outrageous tax. This was the gist of a story which provokes the reader to know more, explore more about those times, in this case, only about 250 years ago.
Similarly, there are other stories from various regions and different periods of Indian history – Buddhist women of ancient India, Bhakti movement poet-saints of medieval India, women of the Mughal Court, and freedom fighters of the 18th and 19th centuries – all stories prodding the reader to know and learn more.
Interestingly, all these stories are very engaging and have sufficient story-elements in them, thus making them lucid and fascinating. The author gives the credit to the protagonists who negotiated minefields of prejudice and stigma, and their stories hold betrayal, suffering, loss and grief. “Each one strove bravely to make a better life: to reimagine the world.”
This well-researched book has many stories from the Buddha period but a short piece on Sumangalamata is particularly outstanding. She came from a working-class background and was in an unhappy union with her ill-matched husband. In her later years, on her son’s insistence, she joined the Bhikkhunis, the conglomeration of Buddhists women. A song written by Sumangalamata still available, has been quoted in the story, which portrays a startling resonance with contemporary issues – domestic violence, poverty, relationship agonies and problems in walking out of a bad marriage, also, the search for happiness, and the possibility of transforming life.
The women of substance would naturally challenge the patriarchy and there are many such stories in this book. The story of Leima Laisna, often called the first queen of Manipur who established the ruling dynasty in 33 CE with her husband, which ruled Manipur right up to 1891, is of particular interest. Her kingdom had a Department of Justice, which was run by women. The author says that Manipuri women’s radical demand for justice hails back to a tradition started by Leima Laisna. The two ‘Nupi Lans’ (women’s wars) in 1904 and 1939 resisted colonial exploitation by British who demanded forced labour from the locals. The author proudly notes that Leima Laisna’s daughters carry on her superb legacy: justice by women, for women, for all – and mentions in this context, Irom Sharmila who fasted for 16 years (November 2000 to August 2016) demanding justice and was supported by bands of women on unbroken relay fast. It may be mentioned here that a book – Burning Bright : Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur – outlining her struggle has been written by the same author.
Every story compiled in the book is remarkable and it is difficult to sift and select a few to mention here. Whether this is Akkamahadevi who lived in Karnataka in 12th century and poses one of the most radical challenge to patriarchal society through her ‘vachans’ which are still being recited and sung; or it is Karaikkal Ammaiyar’s story, the 5th-6th century Tamil poet who rejected the paradigm of domestic order and wifely virtues and whose poetry reveals her questioning mind and philosophical search – all of them amaze us with their virtues. Another notable feature of the book is that the stories which we know (of the likes of Mira, Razia Sultana, Laxmi Bai, Ahilyabai Holkar, Rani Chenamma etc) have been told with some fresh perspective.
At a time, when deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset and misogynistic practices are showing no signs of abating, or rather have been on rise in recent years in India and also perhaps across the world, this book would be a great read for everyone, of any age or gender. It should make a difference if this book is translated in regional languages and Hindi as it is important that these stories reach as many readers as possible. Also, the publisher should consider bringing out an Amar Chitra Katha type of series for the young readers.
-Vidya Bhushan Arora