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The Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan.

June 17, 2014

The Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan.  Washington Square Press (2003), Paperback, 416 pages.

SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS

Old-fashioned historical fiction set in the Mughal Empire around 1600 with lots of romance, intrigue, and violence.

Mehrunnisa was the daughter of a Persian merchant who had escaped from Afghanistan and risen in the court of Akbar, the Mughal Emperor of much of today’s India. She was only eight when she first saw Salim, the Mughal prince who would later inherit the throne. Although Mehrunnisa was not of royal blood, she began to dream of someday being his wife. As a teenager she briefly met and was attracted to him. She was already engaged to someone else, however, and he was not allowed to marry her. At his father’s death, the prince became the ruler, but Jahangir. Mehrunisa’s dreams of him did not end even as she married and her husband joined the rebellions against the new emperor. After his death, in her mid-thirties, she and Emperor Jahangir were married, and she became his twentieth wife and took the name, Nur Jahan. Although the book ends here, Mehrunnisa would go ahead to become the real power behind her husband’s throne. Sundaresan continues the story in two other books in her Taj Mal Hal Trilogy: The Feast of Roses and Shadow Princess.

Indu Sundaresan was born in India, the daughter of a pilot in the Indian Air Force. She came to the United States to go grad school and has remained here. Her research for The Twentieth Wife was extensive. Brief quotes from the primary sources she used appear at the beginnings of each chapter. The book summarizes and retells much of history of the Mughal court from the last years of Akbar’s reign and the first years of Jahangir’s. At the beginning of the 1600s when the events in this book take place, the Mughal Empire had grown to encompass northern and central India as well as parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Readers follow the constant struggles for power and the various rebellions that threaten to overthrow the emperors and seize the throne. Jahangir’s reign also witnessed the arrival of significant a English presence at court, challenging the influence of Portuguese Jesuits in the country. 

I have no doubt that Sundaresan provides a factual account of all that is known about the era in which she places her novel. Like many periods in our past, the records do not include much about women and love, even for those active at the court, leaving novelists free to create the characters in their stories. The mix of factual information and imagination is the problem and the possibility of historical fiction. For me, Sundaresan’s version of Mehrunnisa and Jahangir seemed too idealized and romanticized to fit into the period. The years they spent pining for each other after brief meetings seemed farfetched. I failed to see Jahangir as the paragon that Mehrunnisa viewed him as being. I was never sure just how much of her adoration for him was simply a desire for power for herself and her family.   That wasn’t how the author presented her.

The Twentieth Wife is sure to please those who enjoy the drama and excitement of this genre. Despite my reservations, this was an enjoyable book, and I learned much about the history of India before it fell under the control of the British.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    June 17, 2014 9:45 pm

    I read this book years ago, so my memory is fuzzy. But I agree with you – I thought the story seemed fairly unrealistic and romanticized and I didn’t feel compelled to read the sequels at all.

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  1. Recommended historical fiction, memoirs, and mysteries by people of color. | Me, you, and books

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