Ira Mukhoty is the author of three non-fiction books on the history of India and a fictional account of the Mahabharata. His non-fiction works are Heroines: powerful Indian women of myth and history (2017), Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Queens of the Mughal Empire (2019), and Akbar: The Great Mughal (2020). His latest book, Song of Draupadi (2021), is also his first work of fiction. She is currently researching her first book on Awadh. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2022, Mukhoty spoke to Scroll.in about her books and the role of women in history. Excerpts from the interview:
What is missing from the way history is documented in India? Do you think popular history as a genre fills the gaps, or at least creates interest in learning about our past?
We have a desperate situation on our hands where popular history must fill in the gaps. Our story is told in a very monotonous and one-dimensional way. As a country and a society we are very complex – we are huge, we are multi-layered and our culture has developed over centuries with many contributions from different religions and languages.
To show this complexity, we cannot rely solely on history textbooks. They often show a very simple narrative. To push back a narrow point of view, I think it’s very important to have a narrative story. What’s exciting is that a lot of people seem to be interested in it. They seem to realize the need for an alternative history – be it Dalit stories, women’s stories or Deccan stories. It is now up to the historians of the narrative to fill in the gaps.
More and more authors are also taking up the challenge of writing these alternative narratives. It’s also because you don’t have to be a history expert per se. History is not a technical subject, it can be learned if one is sincere – read the texts, read the stories to form your own interpretations and write your story.
And fortunately, many young writers and scholars have understood that there is a great thirst to see themselves reflected in history. Women want to see themselves, lower castes want to hear their own stories – readers demand representation in popular culture, and writers simply fulfill the demand. So I’m hopeful about how we read and write history now.
The Mughals have been the dominant subject of your non-fiction writings. Apart from the Mughals, what other dynasties do you find fascinating?
Mughals fascinate me because I am a Delhi person. There is so much Mughal influence in Delhi – the landmarks, 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 in historical time!
I am also interested in the Nawabs of Awadh – a dynasty that developed when the Mughals collapsed and regional powers arose. The Awadh dynasty became very prominent with a strong sense of culture. I’m interested in finding out how the queens, the women, have contributed to this culture. The Europeans had already arrived and they too were jostling for power, it makes me wonder about the dynamic between the two. This is something that interests me a lot.
Daughters of the Sun offers a unique perspective of Mughal women. Which of them is your favorite?
One of my favorite Mughal women is Gulbadan Begum. She was Babur’s daughter and after his death she was with Humayun. After Humayun’s death, she was at Akbar’s court. She saw the reign of the three great Mughals – I think when we write about the so-called great men, we shouldn’t forget to write about the women who helped them achieve greatness.
Gulbadan is of great interest to me for many reasons. She wrote first-person accounts of her experiences at the Mughal court – a very rare thing for women of her time. We must cherish these accounts. We can’t be so cavalier that we don’t recognize this perspective of history. We must give it the attention it deserves.
His accounts are very different from those of Abu’l-Fazl, Akbar’s biographer. I am amazed that in the 16th century she had the confidence to write her own accounts, despite apparently living in purdah. She also made a seven-year pilgrimage to Mecca with nearly thirty companions. She had a fiery spirit, an adventurous life! She is definitely one of my favorites.
Both Daughters of the Sun and heroines turn attention to women who have been overlooked by popular history. As someone who is actively trying to bring these stories to the fore, how has the status of women changed over the years?
The condition of women in society has evolved, but I don’t know if it’s for the better. Throughout history, women did things – they did adventurous things, took up scholarly pursuits, and even left their homes to pursue their passions.
Women have done all kinds of things, but when that gets into popular narratives and patriarchy takes over, those stories get rewritten. No matter how women had lived in their time, when we consume them as figures in history or popular culture, they become domesticated and silent spectators.
We have to tell women today that women have always had a mind of their own – you are not alone, you are not the first, there is more you can do. Women need historical role models. It’s not so much that the stories have changed but it’s the storytellers that have changed – we need to write about women as they were and as they are.
What made you decide to write Akbar’s biography? What trait of the Emperor do you find most captivating?
Akbar’s biography was not written in English or as a stand-alone biography. That’s not to say there’s a lack of scholarly writings and weird essays about him. But given that he was the greatest emperor of one of the most powerful empires in the world at the time, there isn’t much written about him. If you compare him to his direct contemporary Queen Elizabeth I, she publishes at least one new book about her every year – even in the 21st century! However, this is simply not the case for Akbar. His narrative biographies appear perhaps 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, the stories of Akbar-Birbal, the Navratnas in his court. And these are all false things! I thought we should 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 of the mistakes of his youth – marrying too many women, forcing religious conversions. These errors are reprehensible to him and he writes about them. I love this trajectory of his life and wanted to understand how it happened. I didn’t want to study him just as a great leader but as a human – his vulnerabilities, his weaknesses, the challenges he overcame. Throughout his life, he strived to become a better and more empathetic person.
Song of Draupadi is your first work of fiction. What are the unique challenges of writing fiction?
There is a lot of freedom in storytelling in fiction. When I write non-fiction, I feel a sense of responsibility to the characters I’m writing about. I feel very honored towards them and I am careful not to put my own thoughts in their head. But in fiction, I can pretend to be Draupadi. I can imagine how angry I would be to be betrayed by those who were supposed to protect me. I gave myself a lot more freedom in the construction of the dialogues, of the story.
If I was writing pure fiction, I’d still say storytelling would be the biggest challenge – in the story, you don’t have to wonder what’s going to happen next. But I never did that, Draupadi’s story is already known. In that sense, writing fiction was not much different from writing non-fiction.
Besides history, what other genres do you enjoy reading? A book that you read recently and that you really liked?
I only read literary fiction for leisure because I read so much non-fiction for work. I find it cathartic to read fiction, to live lives that I will never live. I am currently reading The big circle, the story of a woman aviator. I’ll never be an aviator but it’s wonderful to imagine what it would be like!
Which author inspired your style of writing?
I love Hilary Mantel’s writing. Think hall of wolves – even though Mantel writes historical fiction, she writes it with such scholarship that it almost reads like non-fiction. It creates an atmosphere, a setting that is very true to life. She explained how she tries to imagine what the physical world would have looked like. When I read hall of wolves, I realized that I wanted to do something similar in my writing. She was quite instrumental in discovering my writing style.