Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Book review: The twentieth wife

“…………..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.

16 comments:

Minal said...

I read the first line before the title of your post and the entire story came back. Recently completed reading the Twentieth wife. It's indeed an excellent book.

And I simply loved the name: Mehrunissa, sounds so heavenly and meaning so beautiful!

Hiren said...

Thanks for the info. Looks like a must read.

Sunil said...

Minal.....i thought the name was fantastic also. Sounds musical. Most names in Asia had meaning, and the meanings are usually quite flattering, so i was not surprised, but this name had a ring to it for sure.

Hiren...i think you will enjoy the book.

Shalini said...

I loved reading your review of The Twentieth Wife. It is one of the really good books on the history and romance of the Mughals. Some other great books in the same vein are Timeri Murari's Taj: A story of Mughal India and Jahanara by Lyane Guillaume. Two books which are on my to read list are: Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal by John Shors and The Feast of Roses also by Indu Sundaresan.

cloud9ine said...

with ref to historic period fiction, try 'The Pillars of the earth' by Ken Follett which really differs a lot from his usual spy books

Red said...

There are a couple of middling Mughal historical romances by Jyoti Jaffa, Beloved Empress (Mumtaz Mahal) and Nurjahan (Nurjahan).

Though Subhadra Sen Gupta writes for a younger audience, her short stories rock ( Sword of Dara Shikoh).

Charu said...

I haven't read 'the twentieth wife' - sounds interesting, will find it to read... but I recently read 'taj' by Timeri Murari - it is a fascinating account of Mughal india during the period of Shah jahan and the way Taj mahal came about. Mehrunnisa in that account comes across as a scheming and cunning woman, a side to her I have never read about before - faint suggestions that she did not really love Jahangir as much as sshe loved the throne or as much as he was besotted with her...

MumbaiGirl said...

Was thinking about getting the book-now definitely will!

Sunil said...

Shalini.....thanks for the suggestions. Timeri Murari's book has been on my back-list for a while. Jahanara i actually hadn't heard of!

Cloud9ine.....i thought the story of Tom Builder was Follett's best effort. It was a good book......well researched and written.

Red.......I had heard of Subhadra Sen Gupta, but never read her. I actually like books for younger audiences.....all the way to the very young (Dr. Seuss), so suspect i'll enjoy her books! Thanks.

Charu....Mehrunnisa was undoubtedly cunning and scheming. You cannot become empress of India (or any other place) if you are not so. But her relationship with Jahangir was complex. She deeply loved him, but loved power and the throne (perhaps) more. It becomes more complex later as Khurram (later Shah Jehan) marries her favorite niece, but her daughter (from her first marriage) Ladli marries a younger son of Jahangir. So......though she's very fond of Khurram, she wants her daughter's husband to become emperor, and the intrigue just gets one level more complex. She reminded me a lot of the lady Libia (from I, Claudius), wife of Augustus Caesar.

Mumbaigirl.....go for it.

GREATBONG said...

Thanks for the review...ever wondered how cinematic such stories are? But alas, despite having such marvellous stories in your own backyard, we find ourselves copying story ideas from other sources.

Anu said...

I loved this book. It's one of my favorites, I enjoyed both the books by Indu Sundaresan. I am waiting to read your review on "A Feast of Roses". The author really did her research before writing this book.

Sunil said...

Arnab.....it's a pity they don't make too many historical fiction movies. I enjoy those greatly as well....and they make for great drama. Mughal-e-azam was such a classic. And yes...there is no shortage of original material. Only a shortage of original talent :-)

Anu......yes...i hope to lay my hands on the book soon. This one was well written and researched (though i caught out little points that weren't related to the story itself....like emperor Jahangir sipping spiced tea. Now, that would have been highly unlikely (though he certainly could have sipped coffee) because tea was introduced in to India by the british in the early 19th century, and became ubiquitous in a few years. But not in Jahangir's time :-)) But it made good reading...

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penandpaper said...

Hey, incidentally, I read “A feast of Roses” before. My review is here http://recommendbooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/feast-of-roses-by-indu-sundaresan.html
Now I am looking forward to read the prequel. I have been reading such good reviews about the first book that I a definitely reading it after I finish my current book. I was completely hooked to this genre but in between I shifted to the topic of “Women in Muslim countries”. But perhaps now is the time to go back to the historical romances. I also hunted several other books like there’s "Taj: A Story of Mughal India By Timeri N. Murari", there’s “Jahanara”, “Beneath the marble sky” to name a few.