Fascinating glimpse into Mughal era 
Reviewed by
Aradhika Sharma

Shadow Princess
By Indu Sundaresan.
Pages 364. Rs 399. 

THE romance of the Mughal era has always fascinated me. It was my favourite era even when I was studying history. I have simply loved to read accounts of the Mughal times, their customs and systems, the formality in the courts, the gossip and the machinations in the courts and in the zenana. After the Mahabharata, I believe the stories of Mughal India are the most replete with human drama, pomp and majesty. Every emperor was distinct in his characteristics and achievements; each of them left legends of bravery, kingship, statesmanship and romance that still live on and form a part of modern Indian cities and legend.

The women of the Mughal era are renowned for their mystique, beauty, romance, power-broking and intrigue. Movies have been made on the love-blighted Anarkali, punished by her loverís cruel father, who was otherwise a benevolent king. Volumes have been written on Noor Jahan, the most powerful queen, who dictated the fortunes of an emperor and virtually ruled his vast kingdom. Paeans have been written in praise of Mumtaz Mahal, whose passion for a king inspired the monument of love commemorated, the gleaming Taj Mahal.

Indu Sundaresanís Shadow Princess is the third book in a trilogy. It is a heady sequel to the The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. The Twentieth Wife was the fictional history of Meherunissa and The Feast of Roses, the story of Mumtaz Mahal. The last of the trilogy, Shadow Princess, is the story of Jahan Ara, the daughter of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan.

The notable thing is that while the central figures of all these novels are the princesses (or queens), the books are steeped in history. Sundaresan has a very great sense of the past and has researched the milieu and the times minutely. You may even find that when you look up from the book after a prolonged period of reading, you do so with a sigh and a certain sense of disorientation. Sundaresan has transported you into another era, you see, of battlefields and zenanas and of princes conspiring or amirs nodding their heads in an august assembly at the Diwan-e-Khas.

It is in the Burhampur Fort in1631 that the story begins. The Emperor is scripting out strategies to gain supremacy in South India, while in the womenís quarters, his beloved queen, 38-year-old Mumtaz Mahal, is in the throes of childbirth, which will lead to her death. Mutazís death deals a terrible blow to her loving husband, who grows white-haired in the night that he grieves for his wife. It is now that Shah Jahan loses interest in life and rule. The reigns of the empire and monarchy start slipping out of his fingers enervated with melancholy. His withdrawal in this manner leaves room for his four sons to conspire against each other and against him, in order to seize the empire.

The rivalry is especially intense between the 16-year-old Dara Shikoh and the 13-year-old Aurangzeb, both of who see themselves as the next emperor. Finally, in 1658, Aurangzeb imprisons his father and kills his three brothers to become the king of the Mughal dynasty.

Against this background, Sundaresan tells the story of the beauteous and clever Jahan Ara who becomes the most powerful woman in the zenana. Only 17 when her mother dies, the burden of being a prop to her father and of becoming the leader of the zenana as well as looking after her younger siblings, foiling or supporting their intrigues and power play, falls upon her young, slender shoulders. She becomes her beloved fatherís consort, in all but the bedroom. Though she becomes the most important woman of the time, she has to sacrifice her youth and her hopes for romance and marriage to do so.

Though the story is mainly about Jahan Ara, who becomes an adept player in the court matters, even creating her own network of spies and informers, the three generations of women of the Mughal court are well represented. The legacy of the iron lady Meherunissa is a recurring theme in the book, which is set against the backdrop of the luminous tomb dedicated to the lovely Mumtaz Mahal. The legacy is taken forward by Jahan Ara.

The reader gets a very real picture of the culture and politics of the time, the manners and the lifestyle, the dress and the decorum. In addition, Sunderasan is adept at creating the mood with her words, which can actually have the reader feel the pall of gloom as Mumtaz Mahal gets buried in the pouring rain, or of pounding excitement when in a midnight polo game Jahan Ara defeats her paramour while sour-faced eunuchs look on.

Shadow Princess is a very satisfying read, especially for those who love historical romances and dramas.