A Queenís Gambit 
Balwinder Kaur

WITH knowledge comes understanding and it is interesting to revisit the past with this advantageous perspective that endows us with the ability to appreciate the causes, effects and consequences of the choices made by historyís chosen ones. The Feast of Roses recreates the turbulent times of 17th Century India under Mughal rule. Following up her well received debut novel The Twentieth Wife, Indu Sundaresan continues the fascinating tale of one of historyís most intriguing women. Following her marriage to Emperor Jahangir, Mehrunnisa is now the Light of the World: Nur Jahan. 

The Feast of Roses
By Indu Sundaresan
HarperCollins. Pages 456. 
Rs 399. 

The long honeymoon following their wedding has not dulled her ambitions and Mehrunnisa immediately begins testing the waters and pushing the boundaries of her position. She slowly increases her influence with the skill of a shrewd strategist and a seasoned politician. Opposition is everywhere and her rivals are many; primary among them is Queen Jagat Gosini who conspires with Jahangirís childhood friend Mahabat Khan. But where there are rivals there are alliances and Mehrunnisa forms her inner circle consisting of her father, brother and Jahangirís most prodigal son Khurram later known as Shah Jahan. In order to secure Khurramís loyalty she weds him to her niece Arjumand, the beloved Mumtaz Mahal. 

Soon Mehrunnisa is Padshah Begum and to curb her growing influence her pregnancy is sabotaged. This backfires, earning the harem the Kingís wrath and filling Mehrunnisa with a desire for vengeance. Mahabat Khanís meddling does not cease and he sows seeds of doubt in Jahangirís mind, which culminates in an actual physical row between Jahangir and Mehrunnisa. This is, however, a temporary setback and during the titular Feast of Roses Jahangir makes a symbolic public apology, further enhancing her importance. But trouble is brewing closer to home, with Khurram distancing himself from Mehrunnisa on the say so of his wife. 

Jahangir falls ill and Mehrunnisaís devoted care deepens their bond allowing her greater administrative control. And when Jahangirís illness returns she runs the Empire in his stead. When he recovers, coins are minted in her name in recognition of her efforts and soon she is ruler in all but name. To ensure his succession, Khurram begins collecting both troops and supporters. But his preemptive efforts are resented and Khurram is exiled to the Deccan. Despite a successful campaign in the Deccan, Khurram still isnít in the Emperorís good graces and his discontentment grows. 

By capturing one heart, Mehrunnisa ruled an empire for 16 long years. But nothing lasts forever, even the mightiest succumb to the ravages of time and the inevitable turning of the wheel of fortune. Her power to compel love and loyalty is limited largely to Jahangir and all her alliances have disintegrated by this point heralding her decline. With Jahangirís health declining the swelling ranks of malcontents and detractors grow. With his death imminent, they lose no time in consolidating their gains with indecent haste and a singular lack of grace. All those in the quest for power are frenzied. Princes and princesses are used as pawns to fulfil the ends of those around them, even relatives showing little or no attachment to them personally. These royal sons are blighted by the ill-fated combination of being handicapped and sabotaged; incapable and unwilling; misled and manipulated. Rulers were not merely crowned, they took their thrones by force and wrote their destinies in blood. Shah Jahan inherits Jahangirís proclivity for violence and suffers the same fate as his father; doomed to a cyclic homicidal desire for power. Rendering true Jahangirís own observation that kingship knows no kinship.

This book has all the elements of a sumptuous read: Secrets, intrigue, romance, revenge and murder. It is an enthralling mixture of a macabre comedy of errors and a Greek tragedy; written in beautiful and picturesque prose. Indu Sundaresan has sifted through numerous historical records quoting them regularly; anchoring her fanciful flights of imagination in fact. The writer provides an insight into the thoughts of the key players and bystanders through multiple points of view lending the tale a visceral and experiential tone. 
The author repeatedly hints at future complications and trouble ahead. But these attempts to titillate break the fictive dream. Towards the end, the narrative takes on a decidedly more fatalistic tone with each ill-fated action and ill-conceived choice bringing all those involved only closer to their unhappy endings.