The Twentieth Wife
by Indu Sundaresan
I found this book recommended in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, because of its depiction of Mughal India, which I didn’t really know a lot about. I actually started reading this before I went to the British Isles, but didn’t finish it, so I immediately rented it again after I got back.
The Twentieth Wife is a fictionalized account about the early life of Mehrunnisa, a Persian refugee who became the most famous Empress of Mughal India, through her marriage to the Emperor Jahangir. Liberties are taken, of course, but Mehrunnisa’s life is very well documented and quite dramatic on its own. While Mehrunnisa and Jahangir are enamored of each other for decades, obstacles upon obstacles throw themselves in the way–rebellions, Mehrunnisa’s mean first husband, more rebellions, and Jahangir’s scheming Empress.
This novel is meticulously researched, which is absolutely fantastic. Each chapter opens with a quote from a historical document concerning the events of the chapter, and Sundaresan has helpfully included an index of characters and an glossary of Hindi words, which are italicized in the text. My only complaint is that a handful of Hindi words in the text aren’t available in the glossary, and the constant italicization of such common words in the text can be jarring.
All that research really helps bring the atmosphere alive. Humidity, mild winters, late monsoons, and marvelous gardens are all described vividly and briefly. The riches of the Mughal Emperors are also spared no detail (Jahangir’s coronation is particularly stunning), as are Mehrunnisa’s clothes. Beauty is everywhere in Mehrunnisa’s world of royal women, as she goes in and out of the royal harem in her life. It’s a nice touch when the details grow drab and dull while Mehrunnisa is living in a faraway military station, assigned to her husband as a punishment.
Mehrunnisa herself is an interesting character. A romantic and independent woman, she dreams of the Emperor during her loveless and arranged marriage to Ali Quli, a Persian soldier, but she never comes across as pathetic. Her relationship with the Empress Ruquayya, Jahangir’s father’s wife, has them occasionally thick as thieves but also quite aware of their class differences. Her love for Jahangir changes from a childish crush to a sincere love to a desire to put the impressionable prince under the right influence–hers. Of course, Mehrunnisa is also stunningly gorgeous, according to historical reports (which are probably inflated, as the Muslim Mehrunnisa was usually veiled to outsiders) and the fact that she’s our heroine in this tale of thwarted love.
Unfortunately, Jahangir doesn’t get quite the same nuanced treatment. As Prince Salim (Emperors change their name upon gaining the throne), he’s easily impressionable and convinced by his advisers that rebelling against his kindly father, Emperor Akbar, is a good idea. He also drinks too much and whines as a prince. Instead of trying to reconcile these character flaws with the romantic Emperor he becomes later, Sundaresan simply blames everything on the advisors, who do not get their comeuppance. In the beginning, It’s hard to bridge this disconnect of clever Mehrunnisa pining for such a petulant prince, but once he mans up, the relationship balances.
This is a slight problem throughout the novel–Sundaresan just wants to believe the best of her heroine and her family, even when history says different. For instance, Mehrunnisa’s father, Ghias Beg, embezzles a great deal of money from the royal treasury. It’s shrugged off, because Sundaresan has written Ghias Beg as a wonderful father and grandfather. Happily, the royal women don’t suffer from this–Jahangir’s Empress and the Empress Ruquayya are schemers with hidden motivations, trying to gain power in the world of the royal harem.
There’s also the fact that the novel cuts off at Mehrunnisa’s marriage to Jahangir, as she schemes to use the politics of the royal harem to become chief Empress–I wanted to follow her through her reign as Empress. Sundaresan has written a sequel, The Feast of Roses, which apparently follows Mehrunnisa and her niece, Arjumand, who is married to Jahangir’s son, Khurram. Their love is equally as epic as Mehrunnisa’s and Jahangir’s–Arjumand is the woman the Taj Mahal was built for. The sequel is going on the reading list–I want to see Mehrunnisa working through court intrigue! I want to see the love affair that inspires the Taj Mahal! The Twentieth Wife is a good novel, don’t get me wrong, but I find it frustrating that it cuts off right before everything gets so much more interesting. Not that Mehrunnisa’s early life isn’t interesting, of course, but I want to see the payoff beyond the wedding.
Bottom line: The Twentieth Wife is a good novel about the very interesting Mehrunnisa, Persian Empress of India, but, frustratingly, it’s only the beginning of her story. I would recommend reading its sequel directly after, although I have not read it yet.
I rented this book from the public library.