Devika Rangachari, author of Queen of Ice, a YA historical novel about a tenth-century queen of Kashmir, on her long relationship with Didda and the process of writing her brilliant book.
I first came across Didda many years ago in the quiet confines of a library and I remember wanting to shriek aloud in amazement—and maybe dance a jig or two around the tables. Here was an extraordinary woman, a formidable character who had effectively ruled Kashmir for around fifty years in the tenth century. Equally, here was a woman who found barely any mention in the historical narratives of Kashmir, let alone the textbooks prescribed in schools. I am a largely mild, non-aggressive person by nature and so, was surprised by the fury and determination that overtook me—the one, towards the insidious gender bias that dictates the writing of history and successfully eclipses or ‘invisibilises’ women like Didda; the other, to resurrect her from oblivion and plant her firmly in the historical narrative of Kashmir.
And so, Didda formed a crucial part of my doctoral research on women in early medieval north India. The more I read, the more my fascination with her grew. Kalhana, whose Rajatarangini (a 12th century chronicle on Kashmir), is one of the main sources on Didda, handles her with a mixture of awe and impatience—and his words bring alive a woman who was, alternately, a childlike, whimsical person and a masterful political strategist. Her story is steeped in blood and gore but she also enables Kashmir to enjoy a period of unrivalled peace and prosperity. She often leads the kingdom to the brink of disaster but snatches it back to safety with equal adroitness. Her path was littered with challenges, not only those arising from the fact of her being a woman but also because she was lame and, therefore, somewhat physically incapacitated. Yet she managed to triumph so completely that her rule was popularly seen as a standard of power and vigour for future occupants of Kashmir’s throne.
Deeply ironic, then, that secondary sources on Kashmir’s history almost always view Didda with scorn and loathing, and often even outright indifference. She was dissolute, they complain. She had no morals and was ruthless, they shudder. She was not an ideal, virtuous woman, they whine. She wasn’t important in Kashmir’s history, they conclude, so let’s turn our attention to the real rulers—the males.
I remember waxing eloquent on this and more in the company of Sayoni and Anushka—and some soothing chocolate—several years ago. I feel the need to digress, at this point, on this platypus-duo because it is entirely relevant to my tale. Sayoni has a wicked sense of humour with a very infectious laugh—and both are usually on display—but her eyes can suddenly snap to attention, and her gaze turn steely and penetrating. Anushka, meanwhile, is pleasant and soft-spoken with loads of self-deprecatory humour—but her smile can turn from charming to purposeful in an instant and hover over a suddenly serious expression.
So there I was, dipping happily into the chocolate and chattering away when I happened to look up and my body was skewered, as it were, by steely eyes and an intensely grave expression. I had a sense of déjà vu and knew we were about to embark on a conversation that would go something like this—
‘So when are you going to give us a book on her?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think I can do it.’
Steely eyes become steelier; grave look becomes graver.
‘There’ll be chocolate. Lots of it! So how long do you need?’
‘I don’t know. Oh dear! Do I have to do it?’
‘Yes, you do.’
To cut a long story short, and after much dithering and chocolate-prompting sessions and reminders and broken deadlines, I began to write, trying to quell my usual nervousness as a writer. However, my anxiety quickly dissolved in rising levels of excitement, and the story started to flow faster and faster—almost as if it was keeping pace. Not just Didda’s story but that of Valga, her companion, as well—an idea that struck me only after I began to write and which made perfect sense as a counterpoint to Didda’s feelings and actions, as a testimony to Didda’s life that was borne out of love and anger. If this sounds cryptic, all will be clear when you read Queen of Ice. For my part, I am happy to have resurrected Didda in two ways—in the academic world and, perhaps more importantly, in the world of young adults.
(To get your copy of the book: http://bit.ly/1uyBPe3)