Ira Mukhoty is the author of three non-fiction books on Indian history and a fictional retelling of the Mahabharata. Her non-fiction works are Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History (2017), Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire (2019), and Akbar: The Great Mughal (2020). Her latest book, Song of Draupadi (2021), is also her first work of fiction. She is currently researching for her first book on Awadh. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2022, Mukhoty spoke to Scroll.in about her books and the roles of women in history. Excerpts from the interview:
What is lacking in the way history is documented in India? Do you think popular history as a genre is filling the gaps, or at least creating an interest towards knowing our past?
We have a desperate situation on our hands where popular history is having to fill in the gaps. Our history is told in a very monotonous and unidimensional manner. As a country and a society, we are very complex – we are huge, we are multilayered, and our culture has developed over centuries with many inputs from different religions and languages.
To show that complexity, we cannot rely on history textbooks alone. They often show a very simple narrative. To push back against a narrow viewpoint, I think it is very important to have narrative history. What is exciting is that a lot of people seem to be interested in it. They do seem to realise the need for alternative history – be it Dalit histories, women’s histories, Deccan histories. It is now left to narrative historians to fill in the gaps.
More authors are also rising to the challenge of writing these alternative narratives. This is also because you don’t have to be a scholar of history per se. History is not a technical subject, it can be picked up if one is sincere – read the texts, read the narratives to form your own interpretations and write your story.
And luckily, a lot of young writers and scholars have figured out that there’s a great hunger to see oneself reflected in history. Women want to see themselves, the lower castes want to hear their own stories – readers are demanding representation in popular culture and writers are simply responding to the demand. So I am hopeful about the way we are now reading and writing history.
The Mughals have been the dominant subject of your non-fiction writings. Apart from the Mughals, which other dynasties do you find fascinating?
The Mughals are fascinating to me because I’m a Delhi person. There’s so much Mughal influence in Delhi – the monuments, the food we eat, the languages – and they are also very close to us in time. The last Mughal emperor was around less than 200 years ago which is not very long ago in historical time!
I’m also interested in the Nawabs of Awadh – a dynasty that came up as the Mughals crumbled and regional powers were springing up. The Awadh dynasty became very prominent with a strong sense of culture. I’m interested in finding out how the begums, the women, contributed to this culture. The Europeans had already arrived and they were also jostling for power, it makes me wonder about the dynamics between the two. This is something that greatly interests me.
Daughters of the Sun offers a unique perspective of Mughal women. Who among them is your favourite?
One of my favourites among Mughal women is Gulbadan Begum. She was the daughter of Babur and after he died, she was with Humayun. Following the death of Humayun, she was in Akbar’s court. She saw the reign of all three great Mughals – I think when we write about so-called great men, we must not forget to write about the women who helped them achieve greatness.
Gulbadan is very interesting to me for many reasons. She wrote first person accounts of her experiences in the Mughal court – a very rare thing for women of her time. We need to cherish these accounts. We cannot be so cavalier that we do not acknowledge this perspective of history. We must give it the attention it deserves.
Her accounts are very different from those of Abu’l-Fazl, the biographer of Akbar. I’m amazed by the fact that in the 16th century she had the confidence to write her own accounts, despite apparently living in purdah. She also went on a seven-year pilgrimage to Mecca with nearly thirty female companions. She had a feisty spirit, an adventurous life! She’s definitely one of my favourites.
Both Daughters of the Sun and Heroines turn the attention to women who have been neglected by popular history. As someone who’s actively trying to bring these stories to the forefront, how has the status of women changed over the years?
The condition of women in society has evolved but I’m not sure if for the better. Throughout history, women were doing things – they were doing adventurous things, undertaking scholarly pursuits, and even leaving their homes to pursue their passion.
Women have been doing all sorts of things but when it enters the popular narratives and the patriarchy takes over, these stories are rewritten. No matter how the women had lived in their own time, when we consume them as figures in history or popular culture, they become domesticated and silent spectators.
We need to tell women today that women always had a mind of their own – you are not alone, you are not the first, you can do even more. Women need role models from history. It’s not so much that narratives have changed but it’s the narrators who have changed – we need to write about women as they were and are.
What made you decide to write Akbar’s biography? What trait of the emperor do you find most captivating?
Akbar’s biography hasn’t been done in the English language and not as a standalone biography. That’s not to say there’s any dearth of scholarly writing and odd essays on him. But considering he was the greatest emperor of one of the mightiest empires in the world at the time, there’s not much written about him. If you compare him to his direct contemporary Queen Elizabeth I, she has at least one new book about her every year – even in the 21st century! However, that is simply not the case for Akbar. His narrative biographies appear maybe once in a few decades.
For some reason we think we know a lot about Akbar but we don’t. We mostly know fables about him – the epic romance of Jodha and Akbar, Akbar-Birbal stories, the Navratnas in his court. And these are all false things! I thought there is a need to remember the great emperor, he is the pride of India. We should know his story and the people who helped him rule so wisely.
The most captivating thing about Akbar is that he was a man who learned from his mistakes. He repented the mistakes of his youth – of marrying too many women, forcing religious conversions. These mistakes are reprehensible to him and he writes about them. I love this trajectory of his life and I wanted to understand how this happened. I did not want to study him just as a great ruler but as human – his vulnerabilities, his weaknesses, challenges he overcame. Throughout his life, he strived to become a better, more empathetic person.
Song of Draupadi is your first work of fiction. What are the unique challenges of writing fiction?
There’s a lot of liberty in storytelling in fiction. When I write nonfiction, I feel a sense of accountability to the figures I’m writing about. I feel very honour bound to them and I’m careful to not put my own thoughts into their heads. But in fiction, I can pretend to be Draupadi. I can imagine how angry I would feel about being betrayed by those who were supposed to protect me. I allowed myself a lot more freedom in constructing the dialogues, the story.
If I was writing pure fiction, I would stay the storytelling would be the biggest challenge – in history you don’t have to wonder about what’s going to happen next. But I have never done that, the story of Draupadi is already known. In that sense, writing fiction wasn’t very different from writing nonfiction.
Apart from history, what other genres do you enjoy reading? Any book you read recently that you really liked?
I only read literary fiction for leisure since I read so much nonfiction for work. I find it cathartic to read fiction, to live the lives I will never live. I’m currently reading The Great Circle, a story about a woman aviator. I will never be an aviator but it’s wonderful to imagine what it would be like!
Which author has inspired your writing style?
I love Hilary Mantel’s writing. Think Wolf Hall – even though Mantel writes historical fiction, she writes it with so much scholarship that it almost reads like nonfiction. She creates an ambience, a setting that is very true to life. She has spoken about how she tries to imagine what the physical world would have been like. When I read Wolf Hall, I realised I wanted to do something similar in my writings. She has been rather instrumental in discovering my writing style.