“…………..He reached out and smoothed the still sweaty hair from her forehead. Cradled in Asmat’s arms and swathed in some old cloth lay a perfect little child.
“Our daughter.” Asmat handed the baby to Ghias...”
I’ve always had a soft corner for historical fiction. Swashbuckling adventures filled with intrigue, wars, action, stratagem and romance in an era long gone by some how seems to be a potent combination. India, with its rich history, would seem like an obvious and endless resource for such writing, where the core events or characters are real, but the story itself is woven from imagination. Robert Graves wrote one of the finest pieces of historical fiction in the time of Roman splendor, I, Claudius. But few Indian authors attempted it. Of course, the finest writer of Indian historical fiction was undoubtedly the magnificent writer and nationalist Kalki Krishnamurthy. His stories (in Tamil) set amidst the backdrop of wars between the great Chalukya, Pallava, Chola or Pandya empires made irresistible reading. But few authors have attempted this in English.
Indu Sundaresan, in her book The twentieth wife starts to fill this void in Indian literature. This book grabs your attention from the very first page. It is set at the height of the Mughal empire in India. Akbar is emperor, and Salim his heir. But this is not their story. It is the story of a woman who went on to perhaps become the most powerful queen medieval times have known. Her name was Mehrunnisa, “Sun amongst women”. History remembers her as Nur Jahan, “light of the world”, empress of India and queen of Jahangir’s heart and mind.
Like all good historical fiction writers, Sundaresan has done her research well. The Mughals left behind good written records, translated in to many languages. The Europeans too wrote profusely about the Mughals, so there is much reference material. But, as was custom, the queens of court were not even seen by the public, leave alone written about. Yet, Nur Jahan was well known to be incredibly powerful, and all acts of Jahangir were said to have her approval. But who was she? Where did she come from? How did she, Jahangir’s last wife, become so powerful? This is a story of a beautiful, strong, determined and intelligent woman, but is also a story of love and anguish, and is seen from a women’s perspective, from within what the aristocratic women’s society might have been in Mughal India.
It starts with Mehrunnisa’s birth, when her father Ghias Beg is escaping penniless from Persia and making his way to India. She is abandoned at birth, then found again by her parents, and grows up in the shadow of the imperial Mughal court. There she is taken under by Rukayya Sultan Begam, Akbar’s “padsha begum”, the senior most queen of his harem, and Akbar’s confidante. Mehrunnisa learns of the ways of intrigue within the zenana, as she grows in to a beautiful woman. And she comes to love the prince, Salim. But there is separation, marriage to Sher Afghan, wars, rebellion (where Salim rebels against his beloved father), reconciliation, ascent to the throne, and more rebellions by Salim’s (Jahangir’s) son. In these turbulent times are the schemes and stratagems within the royal harem, with the Rajput princess Jagat Gosini, Jahangir’s favorite wife, waiting for Jahangir to ascend the throne, so that she could displace Rukayya Sultan as padshah begum. And amidst all this is Mehrunnisa’s love for Salim, and Salim’s pining for Mehrunnisa.
A well crafted book, where historical fact blend with a beautiful and rich imagination, and an excellent writing style. The hallmark of a good historical fiction book is that upon reading it, you want to read more by the author. I do not plan to waste any time before I read Sundaresan’s sequel to this book, A feast of roses, where Nur Jahan goes from being wife of Jahangir, to padshah begum and empress of India.