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Review

Her Stories – Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Her Stories –Indian Women Down the Ages — Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens

Author: Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Publisher: Rupa Publications

This is a motivating book and a curious one too. Talking about several women of substance, it goes to jog your memory about their contributions to the respective arenas.

Her Stories–Indian Women Down the Ages- Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens by Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a bold account of the women who have been overlooked and ignored. A political scientist with cross-disciplinary interests, Mehrotra counsels civil society organisations on gender and education issues. Having taught social science at Delhi University and TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), she is the author of pioneering books that include Home Truths: Stories of Single Mothers, A Passion for Freedom: The Story of Kisanin Jaggi Devi, Gulab Bai: The Queen of Nautanki Theatre and more.

Says the book’s blurb: “Some were celebrated, others vilified. While some were casually neglected. Yet, the story of these women lived on Her-Stories is a discussion of women from Indian history whose contributions have been all but forgotten. These were poets, performers, warriors, saints, philosophers, activists and more, yet we hardly remember their courage and contributions. The time has come to bring their history to the fore.

“Their stories describe desperate situations, ingenious strategies and brilliant sparks of feminist consciousness. Rather than accounts of isolated ‘great women’, these stories place at the center the ordinary woman, in all her splendid diversity, multifaceted struggle and achievement. The women profiled were encouraged and supported by others—their achievements represent the aspirations of many in the past and provide inspiration for us in the present.”

Spanning different regions of India, the book presents in chronological order from the second millennium BCE to the mid-nineteenth century India stories of women who have been thinkers, doers, movers and shakers who have subverted hierarchies, brought peace out of chaos and survived despite routine devaluation. Philosopher Sulabha, philanthropist Vishakha, fearless Uppalavanna, wandering bard Auvaiyar, justice maker Leima Laisna, astronomer Khona, mountain queen Didda, radical poet Akkamahadevi, intrepid Sultan Razia, martial artiste Unniyarcha, poet-saint Janabai, Gond Rani Durgavati, historian Gulbadan, cultural ambassador Harkha, pepper queen Abbakka, fakira Jahanara, brave Onake Obavva, Dalit rebel Nangeli, dancer-diplomat Mahlaqa Bai Chanda, lion queen Jindan, Nawab Begum Qudsia, sharpshooter Uda, guerrillera Hazrat Begum and feminist writer Tarabai Shinde.

Writes Mehrotra in the introduction: “Where mainstream histories display yawning gaps, feminist scholarship, and Dalit, subaltern and gender studies have gradually unearthed rich data, and made analytical advances. Some gaps persist, for historical sources are inevitably limited. One needs to sift through document, legend, myth and hagiography, to arrive at the most plausible truth. While remaining true to evidence, through empathy and imagination facts grow wings and characters come alive.”

The book is incontestably a saga of valiant women achievers, dissenters, fighters and advocates who changed the wave of complacent human existence. Igniting the spark of feminist consciousness, it celebrates the stories of women with forgotten glory. 

In ‘Didda: Mountain Queen’, she contends: “Didda ruled in Kashmir for 50 years: nearly half of it is as an absolute sovereign. She earned the rare distinction of bringing stability into the fractious kingdom. Didda’s father-in-law, Parvagupta, was a clerk until in 949, he killed King Sangramdeva and grabbed the throne, only to die within a year. His son Kshemagupta took over, and proved as incapable as his young wife, Didda, was capable. Kshemagupta married Didda immediately after assuming power, slyly calculating that her royal lineage would provide legitimacy to his rule. Didda’s father was Simharaja, king of Lohara, and her maternal grandfather was Bhima Shah, powerful ruler of Kabul and Gandhara. Didda was in her mid-20s when she married, later than the usual age of marriage—quite likely because she suffered from a disability.” 

Mehrotra reasons about the book: “Critical feminist subaltern historiography asks new questions and makes fresh interpretations. The move away from androcentric elite history breaks down walls, releasing a surging ocean of human beings who have much to tell. Women characters emerge from nooks and crannies; each different, in varied circumstances, yet each laboring against the grain of patriarchy, in some or the other aspect of her life. For centuries, patriarchy has defined and limited, reserved the public sphere for men and assigned subsidiary roles in the private domain to women.” 

“Mainstream male-stream-history has colluded with these constructions, naturalizing women as stereotypical daughters, wives, mothers symbols  of domesticity, rather than active human being Dalit and working-class women have been, additionally, naturalized as workers whose labor belongs to the elite.” 

In about three hundred pages, Mehrotra writes about the injuries without making it an insipid narrative. She captures the drama concealed beneath the surface. If the women she dwells on in the book were not just victims, but makers of history and of literature, philosophy, law, medicine, science, art, architecture, music and religion, Her Stories goes that extra mile to bring out the tale of survival in a system rooted in domination and defeat.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Rising

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Rising: 30 Women Who Changed India’

Author: Kiran Manral

Publisher : Rupa Publications

Several books have been brought out on Indian women, coinciding with International Women’s Day this year. These books, in their own style tell the story of how women have shattered glass ceilings and have ventured into what had been perceived earlier as ‘men’s domains’. 

In today’s India, women exercise their right to vote, contest for Parliament and Assembly, seek appointment in public office and compete in other spheres of life with men. This inclusivity shows women enjoy more liberty and equality than a hundred years ago. They have gained the freedom to participate in affairs of the country, whether it is science, technology, finance and or even defense.


Rising: 30 Women Who Changed India by Kiran Manral looks at what moulded these women: the challenges they faced, the influences they had, the choices they made and how they negotiated around or broke boundaries that sought to confine them, either through society or circumstances. The book is an ode to inspirational women who transformed India in a variety of ways. It is a chronicle of valiant achievers and also a depiction of stories about those who swam against the tide. 

From diverse backgrounds and different generations, they have risen through sheer grit, determination, bolstered with passion, and are, today, names to look up to, to be mentioned as examples to the next generation, giving them courage to reach out to their dreams. From politics to sport, from the creative and performing arts to cinema and television, from business leaders to scientists, legal luminaries and more, this book features the stories of these much celebrated, fabulous women: Sushma Swaraj, Sheila Dikshit, Fathima Beevi, Mahasweta Devi, Amrita Sher-Gil, Amrita Pritam, Sonal Mansingh, Lata Mangeshkar, Anita Desai, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Harita Kaur Deol, Madhuri Dixit, Bachendri Pal, Rekha, Chhavi Rajawat, Karnam Malleswari, Shailaja Teacher, Hima Das, Naina Lal Kidwai, Shakuntala Devi, P.T. Usha, P. V. Sindhu, Ekta Kapoor, Kiran Bedi, Mary Kom, Menaka Guruswamy, Tessy Thomas, Aparna Sen, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Gayatri Devi, among others. 

Mumbai- based Kiran Manral is a writer, author and novelist. In previous avatars, she has been a journalist, researcher, festival curator and entrepreneur. A recipient of  multiple awards such as the Women Achievers Award by Young Environmentalists Association in 2013 and the International Women’s Day Award 2018 from ICUNR, Kiran has authored  a couple of fictions and non-fictions too. Her interests are eclectic. 

Writes Kiran in the introduction: “Every story is replete with takeaways, lessons to be learnt, not just professionally but otherwise too. These women have lived life on their own terms, becoming a beacon of hope to many others, women and men alike. If after learning about these inspirational women, a young girl, anywhere in the country thinks to herself that could be me! 1f she can do it, so can I, this book would have served its purpose.”

About Fathima Beevi she writes: “Even before the phrase ‘glass ceiling’ entered common parlance, we had a female judge in the Supreme Court already smash it. With a quiet efficiency that defined her career, on 6 October 1989, M. Fathima Beevi became the first female judge in the Supreme Court, a position she held till her retirement on 29 April 1992.For all her achievements, she remains an enigma, shunning the spotlight and living a quiet life in her hometown post her retirement. Her photographs show a determined expression: her head firmly covered with her saree’s pallu, spectacles lodged on the bridge of her nose and her matter-of-fact demeanour.” 

Written in a crispy style loaded with factoids, the book makes for an enthralling read. The story of Hima Das — who rose from obscurity to international acclaim, a journey that took her from a small village in Assam to the podium of international athletic meets — is as absorbing as realistic. 

 “There’s an iconic photograph that encapsulates Hima Das. Her eyes are twinkling with joy, she’s holding the Indian flag aloft behind her, an Assamese gamusa (a piece of red and white cloth, a cultural identifier) draped around her neck. It had been a long journey from the muddy fields she started training in back in her village near Dhing, in Assam. Back then, she ran barefoot. Basic running shoes was an indulgence, branded shoes were a dream. She ran first for her school, then her district, and when she reached the state level, she got her first pair of real sports shoes. They were an ordinary pair of running shoes, but she wrote ‘Adidas’ on them, along with its logo. One day, she would be able to buy herself a pair of Adidas shoes. Years later, Adidas would name an entire line of shoes after her, but she had to earn that, through struggle, sweat and blood.’ 

On 31 August 2019, Amrita Pritam was commemorated by Google, her centenary birth anniversary, with a doodle. It wrote: “Today’s Doodle celebrates, one of history’s foremost female Punjabi writers, who dared to live the life she imagines.”

Kiran says in her book: “In her writings and her life, she leaves behind a legacy for women writers in India which urges them to defy social constructs and constraints, challenge them, and to live and write as she did — unencumbered.”  

The book about thirty most successful women makes for an interesting read.It is a glorious tribute to the womenfolk who have shattered all maximums and have spurred others to claim individual space.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL