The title of this post may seem at first glance to be deliberately provocative, but that’s not my intention. It is simply a question that any male writer that attempts to write convincing women must ask himself. To be more specific, the question I grappled with before I began the ‘Hastinapur’ series was this: What would it have meant to be a woman in the Mahabharat era? And how can one adapt it to be relevant for women of our times?
In my search for answers, I read as many point-of-view retellings that I could lay my hands on. I read and re-read Yajnaseni (Pratibha Ray), The Palace of Illusions (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni), and two other Telugu books that spoke about Kunti’s laments. I made notes, highlighted paragraphs, and wrote exploratory paragraphs on what I thought were the key themes that each book professed.
Glancing back over my notes at a later time, closer to writing my own book, I was surprised to find that none of the books contained women who were proud of being women. Though these were supposedly independent, control-taking characters, things always happened to them and they reacted, often by pitying themselves in dramatic dialogue (as in Yajnaseni) or by resignedly making allusions to an already sealed fate (as in Palace). I am not saying these aren’t good books; they are, but I couldn’t bring myself to like or sympathize with the main character because of her passivity.
The other curious thing I noticed with feminist retellings in general is that they’re too keen to project the woman as someone who could accomplish all that a man could. So Draupadi will be a sword-bearing, horse-riding ninja who can obliterate ten goons in hand-to-hand combat. She will be knowledgeable in war strategy and statecraft. In other words, she kicks butt. She’s not only a woman, these books inform us, but she can also do anything that a man can do and be at least as good at it.
But why? Why must Draupadi ride horses and participate in debates about politics to be known as an independent woman? Why must a woman aspire to excellence in male pursuits in order to be counted as equal? Last time I checked, men are not required either to give birth or to breastfeed their young. Why is this expectation placed on women, then? Why do women place it on themselves?
So I decided to write about women who take great pride in their femininity, who are proud of their bodies, of their emotional make up, of their sexual desires. I wanted to tell the tales of women who never felt the need to compete with men at their games to feel equal to them, whose identities came from things such as love, care, motherhood and tenderness. I wanted to write stories of women who, for once, did not apologize for being female.
Do they ride horses and take deep interest in the running of the state? No. Are they still strong characters who take action and shape events around them? Most definitely yes.
To those of you who have come here and have read this far, what does being a woman mean to you? Have you felt this constant push to prove yourself against men? Did you have to mold at least part of your identity to conform to that expectation? There is this underlying theme in modern feminism whereby women who are ambitious, driven and ruthless are celebrated, perhaps at the cost of those who are empathetic, accommodating and kind. Do you agree with it? Are we in the danger of losing track, slowly, of what it truly means to be female?