The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
Published by Washington Square Press in January 2002
About the Author
Indu Sundaresan was born in India and grew up on Air Force bases all over the country. Her father, a fighter pilot, was also a storyteller—managing to keep his audiences captive and rapt with his flair for drama and timing. He got this from his father, Indu’s grandfather, whose visits were always eagerly awaited. Indu’s love of stories comes from both of them, from hearing their stories based on imagination and rich Hindu mythology, and from her father’s writings.After an undergraduate degree in economics from India, Indu came to the U.S. for graduate school at the University of Delaware. But all too soon, the storytelling gene beckoned.
This seventeenth century epic is one of the few books I’ve read a number of times. It details the story of one of our most controversial and legendary empresses – Empress Nur Jahan of the Mughal dynasty. I recall reading about her in our history books in school. There was just one line about her – wife of Jahangir and the first Empress who had her face imprinted on the coins used then. It didn’t strike me as remarkable then. It was just another line to learn and write about. But this book by Indu Sundaresan made me realize just how powerful this woman was. The first book of the Taj Trilogy goes back to before she was Empress Nur Jahan. Back to when she was Mehrunissa, daughter of Ghias Beg, a Persian refugee who was fleeing violent persecution in Persia. Her fateful birth in a roadside tent during a ferocious winter storm was a turning point in their family’s fortune.
She grew up on the fringes of Emperor Akbar’s beautiful palace, blessed with intelligence and beauty. Mehrunissa first encounters Salim (Emperor Jahangir’s birth name) on his wedding day and decides with a stubbornness that she will also be Salim’s wife some day. She was eight years old then and unaware of the ambition that would consume her. The story builds from here, chronicling the challenges she has to face and the limitations she has to endure being a woman born during this time.
The author has made history beautiful with this book. It transports you to a time of Emperors, diamonds, wars and power struggles. Mehrunissa is politically astute and restless and I love how this heroine knows the workings of the harem and the court, the pride and dignity she has despite the hardships she endures and the absolute faith she places in a man who has seen her twice.
I know it is a fictional work and there are certain liberties that are a given but I do think the first book in the Trilogy, though well researched, is basis court gossip and tales that have been handed down through the centuries. Indu has documented the accurate facts and events that have really happened and how much of it is spun by her to make it readable. The second book in this Trilogy is far more detailed and closer to history.
In a time of brutality and war, she shows exactly how much power a woman can wield, even if it is behind a heavily embroidered veil.