Title : The Twentieth Wife
Author : Indu Sundaresan
Publisher : Harper Collins
The great Mughal empire with all its expansiveness, grandeur, opulence and flamboyance has always mesmerized and intrigued historians, storywriters and commoners alike. Mughals (the word which is actually derived from Mongols) came from middle Asia towards India and reigned over most of the Indian subcontinent in the period 1526 to 1757. Though the royal emperors like Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb have long been resting in the annals of India, yet their styles, their polished faculties for art and culture, their elaborate mannerism, their harems, their foods still hold the unabated charm to enthrall many.
Indu Sundaresan brings back a slice of that era spanning from Akbar's reign to that of Jahangir's focusing more on their counterparts - the Mughal women and especially Mehrunnisa - a lady ,who, true to her name was like a Sun among women. She grew up fantasizing about being Salim's wife some day but her dreams were brutally shattered when emperor Akbar commanded her father to marry her off to a valiant soldier of Persia - Ali Quli. Salim, who got enamoured by Mehrunnisa's beauty at a couple of chance meetings could not do anything to change Akbar's words. Being in a loveless marriage, enduring the stigma of being a barren lady for a long time after marriage, Mehrunnisa never got over her first love and nor did Salim. As fate would have it, they both met again and the dormant love between them got a chance to rekindle again. After long torturous years of waiting, Salim (now emperor Jahangir) got to make his own choice, entirely devoid of any political aspiration - to marry his love of life Mehrunnisa who was given the name Noor Jahan by him. The controversial empress, the twentieth and last wife of Jahangir, went on to become a very powerful entity in Mughal lineage.
The author very meticulously talks about the veiled women wielding strong influence over the emperors, the political games played on either side of the curtains, supremacy and code of conduct in harems, open revolts of sons against their respective fathers for the prized crown, marriages for political gains or supremacy and much more.
I think I am a little biased towards the stories with strong female protagonists who let their grace, wisdom and strength of character introduce their identities to the world. In 'The Twentieth Wife' Mehrunnisa is undoubtedly an epitome of poise, intelligence and patience. The beautifully written tale is based in parts on historical facts, gossips of bazars during that time and traveller's accounts with gaps filled with fictional spice and the result is a wonderfully weaved world full of flavour and fragrance. The amount of research that the author must have done for this piece of writing is evident from every detail that has been given due regard throughout the narrative. All the characters, their strengths and vulnerabilities are understandable and relatable. Indeed a very fast paced story with no dull moment in the whole of 376 pages long book rather every page teases you more and more for the events that are waiting to unfold in the subsequent pages. It is a sheer pleasure to read this story so must not be missed.