Monday, November 26, 2012

Book review: The Twentieth Wife

Since five days a princess, no a seductress, no an empress has absorbed my thoughts. Images of her alluring the emperor of Hindustan have constantly run through my mind. I am rejoicing my new found love for Urdu. I am speculating the riches of a bygone era, of a great ruler Hindustan ever witnessed and of the customs pervasive throughout the medieval ages of our Hindustan. Flashes of imperial gardens, traditions and royal mannerisms are distracting me ceaselessly. I want to know more, imagine more and be lost terribly in the world of imagination I swayed through for five days now. The book The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan has been more like a motion picture for me.

The novel begins with the depiction of a famished and penniless Persian family in a caravan, when the lady of the family gives birth to her fourth child Mehrunnisa, meaning the 'sun among women'. Birth of Mehrunnisa brings uncanny twist to the fate of her father Mirza Ghias Beg who is blessed with good fortune of being a nobleman in auspicious court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Mehrunnisa is brought up in the affluence of court blessings and at the age of eight she witnesses prince Salim's wedding and eyeing his charm and beauty for the first time then, Mehrunnisa decides that she would one day become a wife of Salim and thereafter the empress of Hindustan. Akbar's principal wife, Padshah Ruqayya Begum takes special interest in this inquisitive child and lets Mehrunnisa attend to her in the zenana or the royal harem (living quarters reserved for wives and concubines and female relatives in a Muslim household). The Persian beauty Mehrunnisa grows into a young lady in the atmosphere of imperial harem absorbing the culture, gossips, politics and practices of the powerful women behind the veil. Mehrunnisa grows old to be still obsessed with marrying prince Salim.

In tandem, stories of Mughal politics are woven into the story with much convenience of an adept storyteller. Indu Sundaresan has mingled historical facts of power play into the backdrop. Much detailing is given to the bloodshed conspiracy of prince Salim trying to snatch away the throne from his father. Cruelty, politics and statesmanship find improved standards of description in the novel. Indu takes the readers through milieus of political turmoil during the last decade of Great Akbar's life. When Mehrunissa's love interest Salim is busy with conspiring against his father, Mehrunissa is able to make Salim notice her and long for her companionship. Much to her dismay, emperor Akbar unaware of the budding romance commands Mehrunissa's hand in marriage to a brave soldier of his kingdom, Ali Quli. Mehrunissa enters into a matrimony devoid of love and respect, for this learned lady doesn't find a capable partner in a mere soldier. A period of childless marriage and a decade long separation from Salim bring in a lot of changes in Mehrunissa's life and also in the rule of Hindustan. Akbar dies away giving the throne to his rightful heir, Prince Salim who then transforms into Nuruddin Muhammad Jahangir Padshah Ghazi.

Several obstacles face Mehrunissa and emperor Jahangir's union. A girl child from Ali Quli, Jahangir's son Khusrau's rebellion for throne, politics of emperor's cohorts and his empress Jagat Gosini, Mehrunissa's Islamic duty as a wife to her husband all come in the way of Mehrunissa achieving the marital status with Jahangir. How Jahangir thwarts his son's attempt at dethroning him, how the emperor as well as Mehrunissa remember each other, how the emperor's new rule thrives in Hindustan, how Ali Quli gets out of the scene for Mehrunissa to unite with the emperor, does Mehrunissa's desire to become an empress get fulfilled- all these questions make reasons for a thrilling read. How Mehrunissa turns into Nur Jahan to rule the vast Indian empire is a story worth reading. The delicate weaving of history into fiction is spellbinding.

Though her debut novel, the author Indu Sundaresan has achieved the veteran talent of picturing landscapes through her words. The blossoming spring and the scorching summer get new freshness in Indu's descriptions. The colours and odours of the imperial harem all get new charm through the author's narration. It is a treat for the brain to get flown into the world of Mughals which Indu paints before us. There is never a scene which is described dully and provided lesser importance. Be it the erotic sensual acts in the harem or the bravado in battlefield, every emotion is worth involving with. Through the end of the novel I found myself holding onto my breath to know whether Mehrunissa accepts emperor's woes and what happens to the throne that is always feeble under successors' plots.

I strongly recommend this book to those who have an interest in knowing history, in getting a peek into Mughal durbars and harems. This book written with a non-Islamic perspective shows what the mannerisms of Agra court meant to an outsider. If you are wondering what influence veiled Muslim ladies had on their emperors, this is the right book for you. Do cultures of a bygone era, another religion and another outlook excite you? Then indulge in this fictional read of 375 pages. If you want to enjoy the delicacy of Urdu words thrown in casually into the story then this is the fiction for you.

I parted with the book with a comfortable feeling that I stay in times where women either Hindu or Muslim do not have to solely depend on their men to provide food and dignity in society.

This book is a part of the Taj Trilogy. The other two books are ‘The Feast of Roses’ and ‘Shadow Princess’. It is the first in the series. 

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