The power behind the throne
Reviewed by Balwinder Kaur

The Twentieth Wife
By Indu Sundaresan
Pages 375. Rs 399 

The Twentieth WifeWhen tales are told about empires and kingdoms, they are usually about kings. But The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan is about Mehr-un-Nissa, better known as Nur Jahan. This is the story of a woman who reached through the bars of her gilded cage and governed a nation. The author brings to life this unforgettable and enigmatic figure who occupies a unique place in history. Mehrunnisa, as she is known in the book, was the daughter of refugees Ghias Beg and Asmat; blessed with both beauty and intelligence. Through the potent combination of determination and destiny, she went on to marry Jahangir and ruled the entire Mughal Empire in his stead.

Her upbringing played no small role in all this. Always her father's favourite, she was educated and indulged. Her father was a member of emperor Akbar's court of which she heard many tales. Her first glimpse of prince Salim was on his wedding day and after seeing him at the tender age of eight, she resolved to be his bride. This desire soon became her raison d'Ítre. He occupied her every waking thought and seldom did she make a choice that did not advance her towards that goal. Mehrunnisa became lady-in-waiting to Ruqayya Sultan Begum and saw first hand the sway she held over Emperor Akbar and how she enjoyed the freedom that no other woman had. Fascinated by the dazzling opulence of the zenana (the ladies quarters of the royal court), she dreamt of being a princess, better still an empress; ambitions women weren't allowed to have.

But despite all her machinations, on Akbar's bidding she had to wed Ali Quli Khan; their unhappy marriage lasted 13 long years. His dislike for her was great and he treated her badly. Mehrunnisa's fortunes rose and fell as did her family's; she had great trouble conceiving and her father lost his position due to embezzlement. Then there were the ever-shifting sands of the Mughal Empire; sons rising against their father as traitors abounded. Her journey to becoming an empress was always one step forward two steps back but her gaze was unwavering. Whether she was at court or away from it, she made sure to keep abreast of all the latest developments and gossip.

We also get a good idea about the life in the zenana quarters and how surviving here took both skill and cunning as jealousies, intrigue and wagging tongues could make hell of heaven in the blink of an eye. Envied and scrutinised, glorified and relived in equal measure, more feared than loved they lived in a glass house; never alone. While the perks might have been many so were the pains.

When people sit down and imagine history and its most charismatic figures outside the pages of their textbooks, they seldom conceive a tale this engaging. While the plot that history provides is a writer's dream come true, Indu Sundaresan has brought it to life and filled it with vivid and enchanting colours. A world so far removed from our own becomes both real and tangible. The Mughal empire itself is a fantastic setting, sprawling and grand in its golden age. But the book ends abruptly, culminating in the marriage of Shah Jahan and Merhunissa; missing is her actual reign. This is likely to leave the reader without closure but the author has written a sequel.

The story itself is filled with mysteries, ones that the reader will speculate over just as historians have. How amongst a harem of women, Mehrunnisa was remembered for 13 years. Whether it was her wit, her beauty or a combination of both. Most of all one wonders what the real lure of Salim was; royalty and romance or freedom and power? Whether he was a means to an end or the end itself. Whether they were royal ambitions or a longing for liberty.

Being a historical romance, the story loses some of its suspense with the outcome a foregone conclusion. But what the story loses in terms of suspense of "will they?", "won't they?" inherent in a romance, it makes up for in anticipation of 'when' and 'how' as there are many touch-and-go moments for these two till they get their happily ever after; once the stars line up for them.