Fiction, Indian Tales of the Great Ones

Born in 1870 into a Parsee family in India, Cornelia Sorabji (1870–1954) became a writer and a lawyer. By the end of the Victorian period, many elite Indian men had traveled to Britain to study. Cornelia Sorabji became the first female law student at Oxford University, where she studied from 1889 to 1894. Since women were barred from practicing as lawyers in Britain until 1919, after graduating she returned to India. There she used her legal skills to work for the interests of women property holders who lived in purdah. In 1923 she was called to the English bar, but continued to practice in India. She was in favor of continued British rule, and in later years lived in London. Apart from Indian Tales of the Great Ones, written for children, she published a number of other works including Love Life Behind the Purdah (1901), India Recalled (1936), and her memoir India Calling (1934).

Indian Tales of the Great Ones is a book of children’s stories that was published in Bombay, India, and London. The central elements of the story are based on Indian history. In 1236, following the death of her father, Raziya came to the throne after a succession struggle with her half-brothers. She only ruled for four years, before she was defeated in battle by opponents. However, she is remembered in Indian history as a wise and capable ruler, even though her gender handicapped her ability to rule in a Muslim world.

Source: Sorabji, Cornelia. Indian Tales of the Great Ones. Bombay: Blackie and Son, 1916.

“Raziya was the daughter of Altamish, one of the Moghul slave kings if Delhi who lived in the thirteenth century. She is the only woman besides our own Queen Victoria who has ruled Delhi. Atamish had sons also; but when he was dying he said: ‘You will find no one better fitted to rule the kingdom than my daughter Raziya.’ And after his nobles had suffered for some time the cruelty and injustice of Raziya’s half-brother, they began to see that the king was right. And Raziya herself helped them. The King had given order that anyone who had a petition to make should appear at the great Mosque in Delhi, on a Friday morning, wearing a coloured garment, and his petition would be heard forthwith. Now, on a Friday morning when all the men worshippers had assembled at the Mosque for the weekly prayer, Raziya made herself brave to go among them dressed in the veil of the Prophet’s green—a figure whom none could miss. And the people remembered the custom of the good King who had denied a hearing to no one; and they said: ‘The King’s daughter is herself today a beggar.’ So they listened, making it easy for Raziya to speak. And Raziya said: ‘My brother has killed his brother, and now he would slay me.’ And all the people, as one man, vowed to help her. And Raziya was put upon the throne of Delhi. And Raziya ruled as few men have ruled in Delhi. She loved justice and mercy, and she gave both to her people. She led them to battle, pitching her own tent in the place of greatest danger; she was generous and wise, and entirely forgetful of her woman’s self. All this her people knew of her; and all this historians have said of her. But one old man, who wrote the longest tale of her gifts and virtues, tells us the reason of her failure to rule India: ‘She was a great monarch, but she was a woman, and she ruled as a man.’ The Moslem people of those days could not forgive her that. They could not forgive her that, being a woman, she came before them with a face unveiled; that, being a woman, she did successfully the work of a man, and asked no woman’s reward. And so, though they took her love and protection for so long that they forgot the cruelty of her brother who had reigned before, they turned against her in the end and dethroned her, and put her in prison. From prison later, she escaped, and led an army to regain her kingdom. And perhaps one day she might have won it back, but for a sad thing that befell her. In the battle which she waged she was defeated, and fled alone to the jungles. Passing through a field, she saw an old peasant at work, and begged for some food, for she was starving. The man gave her a piece of bread, which she ate gladly; and then being worn out, she tied her horse to a tree and lay down in the field to take a short rest. She wore the dress of a man; but the peasant saw her jewels gleaming, as she slept unprotected in that lonely spot. He knew that she was a woman; and no more afraid of her, he killed her and buried her there, in a corner of a field outside the walls of that Delhi which she had ruled. So Raziya lost her kingdom because she was not enough of a woman to make her people love a woman ruler; and she died, because she was a woman, and without protection. And her story is told here, for the reason that that we know now that the old historian was wrong; and that a women need not fail even in the great work of a sovereign, only because she is a woman. Raziya failed because she thought that for success she must put aside her womanhood. Our Queen Victoria succeeded. And one of the things we know that she gave to her people was that same great heart of a woman and a mother, which poor Raziya believed that she must slay.”