Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Title: The Twentieth Wife
Author: Indu Sundaresan
Publisher: Penguin 
Pages: 388
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

‘The Twentieth Wife’ is the first one from Indu Sundaresan’s Taj trilogy, though I read it after reading ‘The feast of roses’ which is the second one. There are three books in this series about Mughal empire but each can be read independently. But be rest assured, if you have read any one of them, you would invariably end up reading all of them. (By the way, the third one is called 'Shadow Princess')

I have always felt that writing a historical fiction can be very difficult, since you are dealing with historical characters and facts. You can fictionalize the interactions but you need to stick to the facts. The research required is also immense.

What drew me to this series is the love story of Jahangir and Nur Jahan. We have all heard enough about Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal, but little is known about Mumtaz’s more ambitious and powerful aunt Nur Jahan who defies convention and prevailing status of women in the society, to rule the empire alongside her husband Jahangir, of course, from behind the veil.

‘The Twentieth Wife’ begins at the time when Mehrunnisa was about to be born. Her parents and siblings were fleeing from Persia to India. She takes birth during the journey. From that moment, the penniless family’s fate turns and Mehrunnisa’s father Ghias Beg lands up with a job in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Mehrunnisa first encounters prince Salim (later known as Jahangir) when she is all of eight, when she accompanies her mother for the prince’s first marriage. Overawed by the glory of the palace, the freedom enjoyed by women of emperor’s harem, and captivated by the prince himself, Mehrunnisa decides that one day she too would marry prince Salim.

The book is about this unconventional and extraordinary woman, Mehrunnisa, but the book goes beyond her quest to become an empress. It offers glimpses of Mughal dynasty and conflicts around the throne. Encouraged by his cohorts, prince Salim revolts against his father Akbar to claim his rights on the throne. Ironically, he also finds his son Khusrau in contention for the throne.

Due to the turn of fate, Mehrunnisa is married to Ali Quli, a soldier, despite the fact that Salim wanted to marry her. The story has its cinematic twists, with Mehrunnisa and Jahangir separating for several years, and then reuniting after death of her first husband. On one hand, Jahangir is besotted with her; while on the other, Ali Quli though initially impressed by her beauty, never thinks much of her. Being a soldier, he is usually absent for several days.

It is also interesting to note that an emperor used to have hundreds of wives and thousands of concubines and slave girls in his harem. The marriages were usually for political and strategic reasons. Mughal emperors had also married Hindu princesses. The zanana harems were in itself a fascinating place of power play amongst the incumbents. The emperors would have several children and many times they would not even get to know or see their children for a long time. Their inter-personal relationships are quite apparent in the conflicts for the empire, where father-son would consider each other as rivals.

The book also has a passing reference of Salim and Anarkali affair. Anarkali was supposedly a slave girl.

In a society, and in times, when women were lost into ignominy in a male-dominated society, Mehrunnisa enters Jahangir’s harem at an age of 34 years as his 20th and last wife. This ambitious lady grows in power and influences Jahangir’s rule significantly. Though in her determination to fulfill her dreams, she often comes across as haughty, manipulative and extremely ambitious.

Historical love stories are always alluring, and Indu Sundaresan’s deft handling of this little known love story makes it a very interesting read. The author succeeds in recreating the essence of Mughal era through her vivid description of prevailing culture, ambience, customs, food, etc.  

The book is interesting and will appeal to anybody who loves a good historical fiction, or even just a good book!

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  1. Looks like a interesting read .Have heard about this a lot .I guess I should add it in my reading list

  2. Absolutely, go for it. And trust me, you will end up reading all 3 in the series.

  3. historical fiction!! hmmm..btw, good blog ya..

  4. Hmm thts a good review.. Albeit a suggestion... is it good tpo almost reveal the entire plot???

  5. Hi Meena, of course, the entire story cannot be revealed in the review but in this case, more than what happens next, how it all happens is interesting. The story is not so much a secret. But I do apologise if I have given out too much without a warning :-) yet reading this book will be a great experience.

  6. So glad to see that you enjoyed this one, I did as well. Great review!

  7. Hi Amy, thanks for your comment. By the way, you are one voracious reader, and I always wonder how do you manage to read so many books and on varied subjects too. Keep it up!

  8. I accidentally found that you have read and reviewed this! I love Indu Sundaresan's writing and all three books in the series are wonderful. It's always an highlight in her stories that the atmosphere she creates takes you straight to Mughal era. I am currently reading her new book on history of Kohinoor and once again I am amazed how good writing can be so effortless.

    Great review!

    1. Hey thanks :)
      I loved both these books and Mehrunnisa's character and story are fascinating. I love Indu Sundaresan's writing as well. I would look forward to your review of her new book. Incidentally, I was looking up if she had written any other books