Sunday, 2 October 2011

Kim's Review: The Twentieth Wife

Everyone who has heard of the Taj Mahal is familiar with the name of Mumtaz Mahal, but what do we know about the women from the Mughal era. Especially those women who played an important part in the Mughal Empire and its politics? Virtually nothing! Unlike the Royal women of the Tudor court or the French Revolution, nothing is known of the Royal women in Indian history save a few like Jhansi ki Rani, Kittoora Chenamma or Mirabai.

It is this gap that Indu Sundaresan's books seek to fill and do an admirable job of it.

The Twentieth Wife is the story of Mehrunnisa later titled Nur Jahan. Starting with her father Ghias Beg's fall from grace in the Persian Court, his impoverished flight to seek refuge in Emperor Akbar's court and the ignominious birth of their 4th child - Mehrunnisa at Qandahar along the route.

A chance encounter with Mirza Masud - a trader soon to become benefactor, enabled Ghias Beg to complete his journey with his family and gain audience with Emperor Akbar. After a few initial meetings, pleased with his intellect and learning, the Emperor appointed him as a courtier and his fortunes again began to rise.

When Mehrunnisa is 8, the whole of the Mughal court at Lahore gathered to celebrate the wedding of
Prince Salim to Princess Man Bai of Amber and at the celebrations, she comes to the attention of Padshah Begum - Ruqayya Sultan Begum who demands her regular presence at the harem for conversation. In love with Prince Salim and in the eternal hope of glimpsing him, she is only too happy to comply with the Empress wishes.

This routine continues through Prince Salims next 2 marriages, until her father is appointed Diwan of Kabul for the next 4 years before being recalled to Lahore.

But in the meanwhile Price Salim now 22, is goaded by courtiers into thinking he deserves to be Emperor and his father who has ruled for 35 years should step down. Unlike in Europe and similar to Pharaonic Egypt, primogeniture does not entitle succession and all 3 sons have an equal claim to the throne. Impatient to rule, Prince Salim bribes Akbar's physician to poison him enough to incapacitate but not kill him. Akbar who hitherto did not even send his Sheiku Baba, away on military/political missions because he could not bear to be away from him, is shattered when he realises that the same Salim has poisoned him and their relationship deteriorates from this point. However Khurram, Salim's son with Jagat Gosini is a firm favourite with the Royal couple and is brought up by Ruqayya Begum as her own son.

On her return from Kabul, Mehrunnisa returns to her companion duties with the Empress and takes responsibility for Khurram when his nurse is away on personal business. All the time, she keeps watching and learning and waiting for an opportunity to capture Prince Salim's attention.

However fate intervenes, in an attempt to keep Ali Quli Khan Istajlu, a brave Persian soldier anchored to the Mughal court, Emperor Akbar commands that he be married to Mehrunnisa. Ruqayya who hopes that Mehrunnisa will be left with her when Ali QAuli goes on campaign, is only too ready to endorse the decision.

Her life with Ali Quli is not an easy one. And with Emperor Akbar's failing health, Prince Salim has to contend with his eldest son Khusrau's desire to rule. However on Akbar's death it is Salim who is crowned Nuruddin Muhammad Jahangir Padshah Ghazi.

For his alliance with Prince Khusrau in his rebellion, Ali Quli is exiled to Bengal where Mehrunnisa after many years of childlessness and 2 miscarriages, finally gives birth to a daughter - Ladli Begum. And while she is in exile, Jahangir betrothes his son Khurram to Mehrunnisa's brothers daughter - Arjumand Banu.

Mehrunnisa travels with Ladli to Lahore for the engagement and the Emperor who spots her, is so enamoured with her all over again, that he invokes the tura-i-chingezi - asking Ali Quli to divorce her, so he can marry her himself. Ali Quli refuses and starts another plot of dissent, but is killed in the madness that follows.

She is forced into hiding with her daughter and inspite of commanding her return to Agra, Jehangir does not even attempt to meet her for over 4 years. But instead of returning to her parents house, she takes up a position as the dowager Empress Ruqayya's lady-in-waiting.

In the meanwhile the Portuguese Jesuits come to Mughal India to convert and then merchants from England come to trade.

Mehrunnisa again comes to Jahangirs attention and this time he isn't willing to let her go as easily. She holds on, until he promises marriage and thus she becomes the twentieth and last wife of Jahangir. The only one of the Emperors wives whom he marries for love and not as a political alliance.

It was very interesting for me to notice the commonalities and differences between the harems in the Mughal court as evidenced in this book and the Chinese court as seen in Empress Orchid and The Last Empress.  Hoshiyar Khan (Emperor Jahangirs eunuch) and those in the Chinese Court have so much in common.

Indu is an engrossing writer and seems to have done a lot of reaerch into culture, customs, costume and food habits of those times. While many facts are historically know, there is a lot of fiction thrown in and that is what makes this book so enjoyable.

I can't wait to read The Feast of Roses, but I don't have that book yet, so I will have to skip a generation and read Shadow Princess instead.

Rating: 4 / 5

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