Indu Sundaresan’s “Twentieth Wife” transports you to a Beautiful Period in Indian History

  • SumoMe

A powerful piece of historical fiction:
Set in the Mughal period, “Twentieth Wife,” captures the beautiful love story between King Jahangir and Nur Jahan amidst the rule of Akbar and Jahangir, but more importantly it speaks for those who are often unheard of when it comes to the narrative of 15th century India: women.

We all know a something about King Jahangir, Akbar’s son, from his opium addiction, and his claim to fame bell of justice, but unfortunately we know little or nothing about his wife, Nur Jahan: his twentieth wife, to be exact.

“There are few mentions of the women these [Mughal] kings married or of the power they exercised. The twentieth wife seeks to fill that gap,” writes Sundaresanin the afterword.
Her other works like, “The Feast of Roses” (2003), “The Splendor of Silence,” and “Shadow Princess,” (2010) are also based on a similar theme.

Twentieth Wife, is Sundaresan’s first published work and a powerful piece of historical fiction, in which she recreates an old love story, mostly through imagination but places it amidst events of the empire, using real names and places and grounding it in historical reality. It’s a powerful piece of historical fiction.

A tragic love story:
The tale begins with the birth of Mehrunnisa, who later becomes Nur Jahana born to a persian refugee Mirza Ghias Beg, .For the most part the story is narrated through the eyes of Mehrunnisa, Prince Salim, who later becomes King Jahangir, but it occasionally includes the voice of Akbar and Ghias Beg in some parts.
Each chapter opens with an excerpt from old historical archives and accounts that record detailed events of the Mughal empire, like A history of Hindostan, and Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, which Sundaresan uses to fixate events in historical facts.

Prince Salim is mesmerized by Mehrunnisa at the first sight of her. This young girl also has her eyes fixated and heart set on the prince, whose charm and royal standing both are enchanting. However, due to forces that are not within their control, they can’t be together. It’s a complex and tragic but beautiful tale.

The two of them grow up and their characters develop through personal struggles, family feuds, battles and wars. As you learn more about the characters and the Mughal period in general, you are constantly asking yourself one question: “when will Jahangir propose to Nur Jahan?”

“The Power behind the veil”
As you read more about Mehrunnisa, there’s one thing that will strike you about her character — her power.
It’s something you may not associate with women of the Mughal empire, but the message is clear through the story: these women may have been veiled but they were not oppressed. Whether it was Akbar’s wife, Ruqayya Sultan Begum, who was a force to reckon with in her time, or Mehrunnisa whose headstrong character often leads her into trouble, women of the royal zenana had a commanding presence in the courts.

Perhaps this is what drew Jahangir to her, a young and power-hungry prince, who grew into a more docile but slightly weaker emperor in comparison to his father, often easily influenced by people, still trying to do good for his kingdom. Intoxicated by alcohol opium but eternally by Mehrunnisa’s beauty, perhaps best summarize his two weaknesses.

Mehrunnisa, which means “Sun among women,” which is truly what she is to Prince Salim, late becomes Nur Jahan, “Light of the World,” after being crowned empress, a legend in the Mughal empire, as Jahangir’s last and twentieth wife. Unlike his earlier marriages this one is not for political or royal purposes, but purely for love.

Sundaresan breathes new life into Indian history:
The book has interesting lessons about the Mughal Empire that it shares with the reader through this magical tale. The writing is simple, but expressive, and effectively conveys the sense of magic in the love story, but also in this era of Indian history. Sundaresan gives this colourful tale a fresh perspective on the story and essentially breathes new life into a historical period that is often written of very conventionally.

It will appeal to readers who take an interest in Indian history, but also to anyone who appreciates a good romantic novel. Read it and you will be transported to this beautiful time period in history.

-Saanya Gulati

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