The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 9, 2002

Taking a walk down history lane
Aradhika Sekhon

The Twentieth Wife
by Indu Sundaresan. Penguin Books. Pages: 388, Price: Rs. 295.

IN The Twentieth Wife, Indu Sundaresan has made use of a readymade plot, real historical characters, a royal setting and real life events for the progression of her story and by skillfully juxtaposing fact and fiction, she has created a book that is very readable indeed. More so because we've all had to study the lives and times of the characters she has chosen in our history lessons. Thus, they are familiar but never have they been quite so human, fallible and fascinating.

The novel is about Mehrunissa, the 20th wife of the Emperor Jahangir, her birth, her girlhood and youth, her affair with Salim, her marriage to Ali Quli Khan, his assassination and finally her marriage to Jahangir. Mehrunissa— the Sun among Women(The writer mistakes the moon for the sun — Mehrunissa means moon of the world) — is arguably one of India's most legendary and controversial queens. Her ambition, grit, determination and her love for the emperor which came to fruition only after many years, are some of the qualities that shaped the course of the Mughal empire.


One has read, with avid interest, so many fictionalised versions of the lives of the British and French kings and queens, among them, Mary—Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth, 'The Bonny Prince Charles and Marie Antoinette. We have not been aware that Indian history too offers such a pantheon of colourful monarchs and their ladies whose lives are endlessly fascinating, the times they lived in, exotic, and the rules they lived by, strange even to us, the people whose history they form. Sundaresan attempts to bring our history to us in a highly palatable form. Says she: " When one thinks of the six main Mughal Emperors, it is usually in these terms: Babur founded the Empire,Humayun lost it…and reclaimed it, Akbar…consolidated it, Jahangir's…romantic exploits are legendary, Shah Jahan…built the Taj Mahal, Aurangzeb…was instrumental in the break-up of the Empire. There are few mentions of the women these kings married or the power they exercised. The Twentieth Wife seeks to fill this gap." Sunderasan presents the colours and textures of the times vividly . The vignettes of court life, the endless feuds, the revolts, the politics of the zenana, and the pastimes of the kings, their queens, concubines and courtiers are opulently displayed in her pages. Described in them are the Mina Bazar that was held at the palace three days in a month, days that Emperor Akbar named Khushroz or ‘days of joy', where "since the ladies of the imperial zenana went unveiled, only women were allowed to sell the goods…they shopped, haggled and bargained to their heart's content, and the Emperor joined them in their activities". Elephant fights were also held to amuse the royalty with the royal elephants in the fray and the Emperor, courtiers, the ladies of the zenana (behind screens) and the janta watching and cheering the elephant of their preferred prince.

The author also represents a sociological picture of the times, where eunuchs held a special place in armies and as attendants of the nobles and their ladies and were important instruments in the power play in the zenana. For example, Hoshiyar Khan, "chief eunuch of the zenana" who had been with Jahangir for 35 years and wielded enormous powers in the harem, had been taken from Jagat Gosini (Jahangir's Padshah Begum) and appointed as personal eunuch to Mehrunissa'. This, Mehrunisa considered to be the first of her victories in tipping the power-equation in the harem. Women were to be seen and not heard and existed only to please their menfolk. Yet, second marriages were not unheard of even among the women of the royalty. Akbar married Salima Sultan, the widow of his regent, Bairam Khan, and Jahangir married Mehrunissa, the widow of Ali Quli Khan. The purdah system was rigorously followed, yet if the Emperor desired any man's wife as his concubine, he could invoke the 'Tura-i-Chingezi', in effect, ordering the man to divorce his wife, which was considered a great honour for the husband.

Sundaresan presents a variety of characters that are legendary, yet human and believable and who dominate the colourful canvas of the times that she has chosen to represent. Emperor Akbar, whose great statesmanship cannot make up for the pain that a father feels at the betrayal by a favourite son, his Padshah Begum, Ruqayya Sultan, the benign ruler of the zenana who commands Khurram, the son of Salim and Jagat Gosini as her own because Jagat Gosini was not as respectful as she ought to have been. Khusrau, Salim's son, who revolted against him time and again, just as Salim had revolted against his own father and who was finally blinded at his orders, Ali Quli Khan, the great warrior and Mehrunissa's husband,who stood in the way of the love of Jahangir and Mehrunissa and who was finally killed. Through the story the growth of Salim and Mehrunissa is traced. We see Salim growing from a petulant boy into the Emperor Jahangir, the mighty and sometimes cruel king. Mehrunissa, the beautiful girl of eight who vows to marry Salim and finally does so 26 years later.

The Twentieth Wife is a fictional account of Mehrunissa's life before her marriage to Jahangir, but it is rooted in history. To make the account authentic, Sundaresan gives excerpts from sources at the beginning of each chapter. These include excerpts from The Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri, A Dutch Chronicle Of Mughal India, The Ain-e-Akbari and The History Of Hindostan by Alexander Dow.

Sundaresan's debut novel is well researched and presented and the reader waits for her presentation of court life in her promised sequel to this novel, 'The Power Behind The Veil'.