This new edition of Quest for Roots has been extensively updated and augmented with
many new profiles of remarkable women. Some of them are of great women who have
sadly passed away since the first edition in 1999, and have thus become eligible
for inclusion,. Other new additions are profiles of women whom we ought to have
included in the first edition but hadn’t then discovered. We now have an even more
diverse, pan-Indian and comprehensive list than we had before, and this list is
likely to grow both in scope and in variety with time.
The experience of compiling this book has been a voyage of discovery. One area where
we have been able to add many interesting new profiles is that of science, technology
and medicine, thus belying the general impression that these are fields where excellence
is reserved for men. Another field that is still woefully under represented is sports,
because women’s entry there is relatively new.
out there whose names and stories we have not yet heard, in many fields of life.
However, there are some encouraging signs. Women’s lives are now better documented,
and society is more likely to recognize their achievements today than fifty or even
ten years ago. This is in contrast with the practice even in recent times when women’s
names were routinely changed on marriage, and their whole histories before that
event might simply be wiped away. Female celebrities now rate obituaries in the
press and notices on a par with men, and the tone that the media takes when writing
or speaking about them is much less patronizing. What is more, the ‘private’ sphere
of the home is no longer so closely guarded a place, and the woman who inhabits
it is no longer expected to shun the light of public attention. There is still a
long way to go, but the perception is increasing that women’s triumphs are noteworthy
in their own right. Society is less likely now to congratulate the husbands and
fathers for a woman’s successes, or to be surprised if the achievements of a woman
in some field of endeavour are as good as the men’s.
Nearly all the women in this book are here because they built something that lives
on after them, whether it was an institution, an art form or oeuvre, a structure,
a philosophy, a technology or a social movement. They braved disincentives and prohibitions
to go out of the secluded spaces of their lives and connect with a wider world.
Sometimes they were supported by those around them, and sometimes they were hindered,
but they never gave up. They in turn became inspirations for those who came after,
who followed in their footsteps and built on their foundations. By collecting their
stories, we are creating a tradition and a set of precedents that women today can
use to inspire and improve their own lives. Read as a single text, the stories of
these women’s lives form a richly varied tapestry. When each profile is placed in
the whole, patterns and motifs become visible, as if many needles had worked on
the quilt and covered it with beautiful designs. We can see that women as diverse
as scientists and queens have faced similar problems in their lives, and have solved
those problems with the same courage and determination. Singers and activists have
faced the threat of being silenced, and have spoken regardless of the consequences.
Actors and politicians have been stigmatized for showing their faces outside the
confines of the home, but they persevered. Writers and mothers have nurtured their
offspring, whether of the body or the mind.
In spite of our best efforts, we were not able to double check all the facts and
dates mentioned here, or in a few cases find the dates of death and birth of our
subjects. We must therefore ask our readers to forgive errors and omissions. For
some ancient and medieval women, the lack of any contemporary custom of recording
the births of girls makes it impossible to ascertain these dates. We have had to
place them to the nearest century, or use the dates of their rule (if they ruled).
Even in the case of modern women, the lack of records about quite important personalities
is frankly appalling. We have had to rely largely on secondary sources, as researching
each and every personality from primary material would have been an enormous task.
However, we have done our best to cross check our facts and use works based on primary
It has been a commonplace in the discourse of men celebrating women’s contributions
to history from their own perspective, to say that women are like tender creepers,
winding their delicate leaves round the bulk of some large tree, that is the man
in their lives, whether he be father, husband or guide. We have found, to the contrary,
that these women independently developed into ‘trees’. Furthermore, the best of
them had such vigour and life in them that they were like mighty, multi-stemmed
Bodhi trees, spreading the soft shade of their nurturing attention over many initiatives,
organisations, causes, works and visions. Each of them, in her own way, learnt to
spread her branches and seek the light.
I would like to acknowledge the contribution of our advisory board, the contributors
and the sub editor Rimi B. Chatterjee and copy editor Avijit Chatterjee. I would
also like to thank Neeru Poddar for her suggestions for cover design. Rita Dalmiya
needs a special mention for without her enthusiasm and constant support, this book
would never have happened. Finally I would like to acknowledge the contribution
of Late Dr Vidya Niwas Misra, Prof. Gerry Forbes and Dr Anuradha Chanda.