Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun is so engrossing, one is filled with resentment, every time the demands of real life intrude and yank the reader back from a glorious past that has been recreated with exquisite craft. Much has been written about the mighty Mughals but their women have been ignored to the point of criminal negligence. Mukhoty seeks to redress this by writing about revered matriarchs and sisters, cherished unwed daughters, talented wives and wily milk mothers. Characters like the remarkable Khanzada Begum who was the rock that had the backs of both Babur and Humayun, Gulbadan Begum, who honoured Akbar’s personal request to write about her royal father and brother, Maham Anaga, Akbar’s milk mother, the often unfairly maligned Noor Jahan, and Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s daughter and the woman Aurangzeb respected the most, grace these pages and their lives are constructed with painstaking attention to detail.
Mukhoty’s mission is to strip away faulty perceptions about life in a Mughal harem perpetuated through the critical gaze of Westerners and she is mostly successful. The general assumption is that women languished within a cloistered space in the zenana, frittering the years away in misery softened only by opulence. Many mistakenly believe that these ladies when not engaged in sexual excess or popping out babies, spent the time scheming to make their sad existence count. Anxious to set the record straight, Mukhoty paints a version of these forgotten women that portrays them as highly educated, cultured, confident go – getters whose talents were nurtured and prized. These were no wilting lilies left to languish in languor but hardy women who rode with their men into battle, covered great distances across dangerous terrain, delivered babies while in exile, proved themselves to be expert entrepreneurs and administrators, patrons of art, and builders amongst other things. Proud of their Timurid heritage, the Mughal women were visionaries who bolstered the resolve of their menfolk and helped shape an empire that was worthy of their illustrious bloodline.
However, in her zeal to set right a skewed perspective, Mukhoty overdoes it a tad. Choosing to dwell solely on the achievements and positive attributes of the royal ladies, she glosses over intrigues, petty jealousies and downright villainy that was certainly displayed. A particularly revolting incident involves Maham Anaga ordering the deaths of two girls coveted and captured by her son, for fear of their revealing his dangerous machinations against Akbar because ‘a severed head makes no sound’. The author seems content to give this character a pass merely rueing the fact that she was ruined by the actions of the men in her life. Noor Jahan gets similar treatment in order to show her in a sympathetic light. Surely women need not have their warts and blemishes concealed in order to earn our admiration?
This flaw notwithstanding, Mukhoty in choosing to champion the best of the Mughals, who did not deserve the shabby treatment meted out to them by history, has achieved something amazing and deserves to be championed too!
This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.