“The passing years had not diminished Asmat’s beauty. Time had painted some grey in her hair and etched a few lines on her face. But it was the same dear face, the same trusting eyes. She had been brave, giving him strength at night when they lay beside each other in silence, darkness closing around them, and during the day when he was home working or reading and she passed by, her anklets chiming, her ghagra murmuring on the floor. Islamic law allowed four wives, but with Asmat, Ghias had found deep, abiding peace. There was no need to even look at another woman or think of taking another wife. She was everything to him.”
I love novels which open with a birth, for what better way to start a story? The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan begins with a small family fleeing from Persia to seek refuge in India. On their way, Asmat gives birth to a baby girl. Ghias Beg, the father, already burdened by three children, decides to give up the baby. He abandons her under a tree but fate brings the baby back to her parents. A delicate child with azure eyes, they call her Mehr-un-nisa. Sun among Women.
Eight years in the future, Mehrunnisa is a sprightly kid, with a sharp mind and a keen interest in the world around her. Her father’s favourite, she is stubbornly independent. Ghias has earned a position of respect in Emperor Akbar‘s court, in Mughal India. Today he is invited with his family to the Royal Palace for the first wedding of young Prince Salim. Little Mehrunnisa is smitten by the prince. When Empress Ruqayya takes a liking to her and commands her to visit the palace regularly, Mehrunnisa fantasises of a possible future with Salim. But before their love can fully blossom, Mehrunnisa is married off to a common soldier. And so begins a lifelong struggle with destiny for Salim and Mehrunnisa – better known to us as the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his influential Empress Nur Jahan.
Though the first in a trilogy, this novel works as a standalone. Indu Sundaresan has beautifully fleshed out the legendary romance, doing justice to the people and the magic of the late 15th to early 16th century India. She has left no stone unturned in bringing to life Emperor Akbar’s court, with his celebrated aura, his many wives and their struggles for the spotlight, his patronage for the arts, his big heart and bigger ambition. Salim is a spoilt prince. He starts out a drunkard and a rebel, coaxed by Akbar’s ill-wishers. But over the course of the story, he sobers down to the best version of himself. History tells us that, like Akbar, the fourth Mughal ruler too achieved admirable feats. Sundaresan shows us how.
Mehrunnisa is not without her faults. It would be foolish to expect her to stand as some ideal of feminine empowerment. But she possesses great passion and drive. A large portion of her attraction to Prince Salim has to do with the power that being his wife would grant her. She is grounded in reality, uses her beauty to woo him; then, unconditionally, immorally, supports him through his mistakes. Circumstance requires her to be wily and she is. But later, Sundaresan ensures that we see why Salim loves Mehrunnisa, beyond the looks. What starts out as a Cinderella story progresses into a bonding of minds.
Sadly, the book seems to have been marketed as just a romance, when there is a lot more to it. It is about Salim’s transformation from a lazy brat to a good leader – Merhunnisa’s from an idle dreamer to a woman who works to get what she wants. They journey on independently until their paths cross once again. More than half the book is devoted to sieges, wars and the conflicts of inheritance between Akbar and his sons. Sundaresan muses on the social and religious demands of the times, the tongues of corruption in the court, the increasing threat of the British colonizers. There is drama, oh yes, but the book is not what people love to scoff at and label “chick-lit,” as the cover blurb implies.
To anyone not already familiar with the cast of this story, though, the names will be confusing. Right in the middle of the book, Sundaresan begins to refer to Salim as Jahangir, the title he adopts. A shortened family tree at the start of the book tells that Salim’s son Khurram is actually the future Emperor Shah Jahan. And Mehrunnisa’s niece, the one engaged to young Shah Jahan is none other than Mumtaz, for whom he erected the Taj Mahal. Only at the very end of the book are we explicitly told that Mehrunnisa is Nur Jahan. A nice trick, I suppose. Sundaresan’s research is evident in her attention to historical detail. But I wish she had stuck to one set of names.
That aside, what a lovely book. Swift, engrossing and richly atmospheric, The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan gives a neat glimpse into one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history.