Friday, June 14, 2013

Reining In

Despite my admiration for steppe heroines, I can’t help noting how quickly their strength can dissipate, leaving me wondering how much is culture and how much, for lack of a better word, necessity. This point intruded on my thoughts when I read, after many delays, Rumer Godden’s Gulbadan: Portrait of a Rose Princess at the Mughal Court (London: Macmillan, 1980) for the Dead Writers Society, a GoodReads group.

I already knew about Gulbadan—the daughter of Babur “the Tiger” (1483–1530), the descendant of Emir Timur (Tamerlane) and Genghis Khan. Babur was the only foreign ruler to conquer and hold Afghanistan and the founder of India’s Mughal dynasty, which remained in power until ousted by the British in the mid-nineteenth century. He set the stage; his sons and grandsons built on it, eventually bringing most of Hindustan under their sway.

I first encountered Gulbadan in Ruby Lal’s Domesticity and Power in the Mughal World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). From there, I hunted down and read Gulbadan’s memoir of her brother, the Humayun-nama, perhaps the first autobiography ever written by a woman and available in English as a public-domain e-book. I picked up Rumer Godden’s version because I thought it was a novel; the author had been a novelist, after all. I was looking for the kind of emotional insight and sensory information about harem life—especially in the peripatetic environment depicted by Lal—that I expect a good novel to provide.

I did not find it. Instead, I discovered a paraphrase of Gulbadan’s own memoirs, enlivened by numerous instances of the gorgeous Mughal/Persian miniatures typical of that time and place. The speculation about how harem life felt to someone involved in it is so anachronistic and, well, speculative that it is effectively useless. For a while, I couldn’t decide how to approach this blog post: the book seemed such a waste of time.

But when I thought about Gulbadan’s life—as she describes it, as Godden describes it, as Lal describes it—it struck me how constrained it seems compared to the lives of her contemporaries on the steppe. Gulbadan was born in 1521 or 1522, which makes her three or four years younger than my fictional Nasan and six years younger than Firuza. Little more than a decade had passed since the death of Manduhai the Wise. Yet Gulbadan spends most of her life going where she is told and staying there, whether she likes it or not, until a shift of power among her menfolk permits her to travel to some preferable destination. She marries and produces children but does not record the date of her wedding, her feelings for her husband, the birth of her sons. These things are irrelevant to her record of her brother Humayun’s life. So, too, are harem politics. The minutiae of women’s existence remain unexplored. Men go to war; women remain behind, to be captured or left to await their fate, placidly or otherwise.

I don’t mean by this description that women in early Mughal India had no power. Quite the contrary. In the accounts of Gulbadan and others, older women wield considerable authority as advisers, even ministers. They demand that the emperor visit them and pressure him to marry. Women warriors guard the harem, itself a fluid concept in a world constantly on the move, but these women are already, for the most part, lower-class. Women ride out on picnics, clad in “head-to-foot” dresses one step away from today’s Afghan burka. Prospective brides have opinions about the husbands selected for them, even if that husband turns out to be the reigning emperor. Some brides are beloved and travel everywhere with their husbands, like Hamida Banu Begum, Humayun’s favorite wife and the mother of
the emperor known as Akbar (the Great). Gulbadan herself urges Akbar, her nephew, to permit her to make the hajj—not a trivial undertaking for a woman living in northwest India in the late sixteenth century —and stays away for years, completing the pilgrimage four times before she chooses to return.
Hamida Banu Begum
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This picture is in the public domain.

And yet … a few generations away from nomadic life, and the dream of the warrior heroine appears already lost. If Nasan represents one end of the spectrum of medieval Eurasian women’s lives, and Gaukhar, Hocha, and Firuza sit somewhere in the middle, then Gulbadan anchors the other end, not yet completely subservient but well on her way to becoming so. Can the role of harem beauty lie much farther down the trail?

Power takes many forms, some more effective and more visible than others. What is won can be reversed—and reversed again. I’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks.

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