Welcome to Fantasy Magazine! We’re so happy to bring your story “The Petticoat Government” to our readers. Can you tell us what inspired this story and how it came about?
Thanks, I’m excited to be here. Maham Anga was a real person, albeit an under-explored historical figure. I came across her while delving into the history of the subcontinent—which is where I’m from. And then, I found out that she was a clever, ambitious, almost ruthless woman, but also one of the only women who had managed to ensconce herself as regent in a world where women possessed nothing, least of all political power. The term, “Petticoat Government” was used in a derogatory way by the men who came after her to undermine her efforts—and scorn the very notion of a woman in political power.
Ever since I read that term, I couldn’t let go of it. I knew it was the title of this story. But there was so little that was known about Maham Anga and so much of it was interpreted in a cliched manner that I began to shape her history myself. What kind of past would she have had in order to have such drive? What sacrifices would she have to make to get what she wanted? I had to take a lot of liberties so I would say the story does not rely too much on biographical facts. It was more that this time period, and this woman who actually existed, became a medium for me to speak some truths.
I saw a lot in this story about the various approaches to and applications of power, such as the contrast between Akbar and Adham’s indolence and arrogance and Anga’s circumspection. Of all the powerful people in the story, Anga is the only one who wasn’t in a position to expect it from the beginning, and had to work for it. Was this part of the story from the beginning, or did it emerge during the writing process?
It was definitely part of the story from the beginning. It was the utter helplessness of the women around her, and their inability to break free of the tedious path they had been set on, that made Anga rail against those chains. The contrast between the brash behavior of her sons and her own careful words and actions was deliberate. They feared nothing because even if they lost everything they would still be free simply by virtue of their sex. Anga had to always tread carefully because a single wrong step could mean a descent into the life most harem women had.
What did evolve during the writing process was the ending. The ending went through many iterations as I struggled to find a version of success for Anga that was believable, because the real Maham Anga’s life ended in defeat.
The Koh-i-noor showing up in a story featuring kings and emperors immediately gave me Particular Feelings, and the story associated with it strikes more loudly than ever today. Adham, in particular, felt to me like the incarnation of the “second generation” of arrogant imperial power. How much did the nature of imperialism shape this story?
The Koh-i-noor is a real diamond but to children growing up in Pakistan it is a fabled and legendary stone. It was very natural for me to embed it into this fantastical story and more so because it fit the time-period to some extent. Now that you mention this angle, I can see further nuances and that’s a great example of how readers bring new dimensions to a story.
Since the stone was found by the Mughals, I don’t know if it hints at imperialism in this story, but if we extrapolate then certainly the stone is representative of it. With Adham, my intention was to juxtapose his behavior with Anga’s and most of that entitlement was due to the privileges afforded to his sex. In a modern context, with all that is going on in the world, I definitely agree that the lost diamond of a lost empire reflected in a story about a woman’s struggle and rise to power is poignant.
The quote “I had witnessed what happened when women relied on men” hit me as if it was the story’s thesis statement. There’s a deepness here of men causing devastation through their entitlement and women having to clean up after them. What drew you to emphasize this idea?
Wow, that is a very insightful way of putting it. This phenomenon of entitled men and suffering women is universal, but my experience of it derives from my culture. I think I was using this story to speak out against this status quo, and while this story takes place in historical times, the imbalance between how men and women are treated has not improved substantially even in recent times.
In that vein, even media portrayals of powerful women are difficult for ordinary women to relate to. They’re painted as quite cutthroat and this idea is perpetuated that an ambitious woman cannot also be a nurturing mother, with the idea of the latter being promoted as good. There’s already a lack of economic empowerment in my country for women, which is the first step towards emancipation and freedom of choice, and I feel those kinds of portrayals make women even less inclined to pursue independence. There have been quite recent accounts of women facing traumatic incidents simply because they stepped out of their houses, and the very streets in the dark are owned by men. So, the concept was something that was very close to home.
Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about? What can our readers look forward to seeing from you in the future?
At the moment I’m working on a couple of short stories, and I’m trying to write the second draft of my novel—it isn’t easy! I hope that these stories reach their final form and find wonderful homes like this one has. Until then, I have a story coming out in the Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction Vol. II which is now available for pre-orders on Amazon and should hit stores soon. I’m also excited for people to read my very first horror story that is coming out in Chiral Mad 5.
If you’re interested in reading more work right away, my winning story “The Puppetmaster” is available on the Salam Award website, and “The Shape of Snowflakes” is available to read in an earlier issue of The Translunar Travelers Lounge—which was the first magazine to ever accept a story of mine, and give me hope that I could be a writer.
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