Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Book Review: The Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan

You can’t help but like Indu Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa. Just like Maria in Sound of Music, Mehrunnisa is both mischievous and honest, revolutionary as well as dutiful. Far too intelligent for a woman of her times, we are talking late sixteenth century here, Mehrunnisa is her father’s favourite child though she is neither a boy, nor his first born. It’s love at first sight for Mehrunnisa as it is for Prince Salim, aka Jahangir. Mehrunnisa sees Jahangir for the first time at Jahangir’s wedding ceremony as he marries his first wife, Man Bai, a Rajput princess. Mehrunnisa is only eight and she thinks Jahangir is beautiful. She is a constant visitor to the zenana, thanks to fact that Ruqayya Sultan Begum, one of Akbar’s favourite queens, likes her. As she grows older, Mehrunnisa gets to know of Jahangir’s vices – he is addicted to drink and opium, but she continues to adore him.

Jahangir on the other hand sees Mehrunnisa for the first time after she is engaged to be married to Ali Quli, a Persian soldier. ‘Ya Allah! Was he in Paradise? Words from the Holy Book came unbidden to his mind………………………She was all that and more………………..The girl sat on the edge of a goldfish pond, her feet dangling in the water. It was a heat-smothered day, but the courtyard was cool. …………………………….Salim fell headlong in love with a pair of surprised blue eyes.

One of the best things about Sundaresan’s The Twentieth Wife is her depiction of the state of women in those times and how Mehrunnisa had an uphill fight on her hands at all times. Well-educated, thanks to her father, Mehrunnisa realises very early on that women in the Emperor’s zenana wield more influence than women anywhere else, though they face a number of restrictions too. The harem could play as much a role in influencing the Emperor as the royal court did, especially when the Emperor is the easily influenced, wine/opium addict Jahangir. If history records Mehrunnisa to be a calculating and conniving woman, Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa is an impulsive girl who doesn’t hesitate to flirt with Jahangir in the hope that Jahangir would persuade his father Emperor Akbar to cancel Mehrunnisa’s engagement to Ali Quli and allow her to marry Jahangir instead. We even see Mehrunnisa intentionally spill a goblet of wine on Jahangir just to make sure he notices her – this happens at the time of Mehrunnisa’s neice Arjumand’s bethrothal to Prince Khurram, the betrothed parties were later known as Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Mehrunnisa is very much married to Ali Quli when she does the wine spilling. When one finally gets to the kissing scenes, by this time Mehrunnisa is a widow and a lady-in-waiting to Ruqayya Sultan Begum, we see a proactive Mehrunnisa kiss Jahangir and seduce him.

To top it all, Mehrunnisa knows her price. After Jahangir finally succumbs to her charms and offers to make her his concubine, Mehrunnisa rejects him. No, a concubinage won’t do. Mehrunnisa wants to be a wife, though she’s gonna be the twentieth one. As we all know, Mehrunnisa did get what she wanted.

The story ends immediately after Mehrunnisa weds Jahangir and is bestowed the title Nur Jahan, with the result that we don’t see Mehrunnisa running the empire in Jahangir’s name, as Jahangir spent his days intoxicated with wine and opium, though Sundaresan does show Mehrunnisa dying to play politics and be an administrator even before she marries Jahangir – we see Mehrunnisa wondering why the Emperor doesn’t play the Portuguese against the English. I understand that Sundaresan’s subsequent novel The Feast of Roses is all about Mehrunnisa’s reign after she marries Jahangir. The third book in the Taj Trilogy, Shadow Princess, is the story of Jahanara, Mehrunnisa’s grandniece and Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter.

Wars of succession and rebellions by princes wanting to take the crown before the death of their father were common during Mughal times, a practice which actually started with Jahangir. Jahangir failed to win the crown by force and even as he revolted against Akbar, his son Khaurau was making plans to jump the queue and become King. Sundaresan’s book depicts these fights and the various schemes and plots that go with them, pretty well.

Sundaresan writes well, her language simple, but still elegant and even poetic at the right places. Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa is a lovely lady, beautiful and honest, though impetuous. In one instance, we see Mehrunnisa, in a fit of anger, throw a gold bangle gifted by Jagat Gosini to her daughter Ladli, into a well. Other characters like Jagat Gosini, Ruqayya Sultan Begum, Ali Quli and Jahangir himself are equally well sketched, in depth. The rivalry between Jagat Gosini and Mehrunnisa is especially interesting, since very early on, Jagat Gosini sees a rival in Mehrunnisa for Jahangir’s affections. Mehrunnisa’s father Ghias Beg is another excellent portrayal by Sundaresan. At first we get the feeling that Ghias Beg is a noble and honest man, but later we see that he too has feet of clay.

If there was one thing about The Twentieth Wife that I didn’t like, it is the manner in which Jahangir’s interest in Mehrunnisa waxes and wanes and Mehrunnisa catches Jahangir’s attention time and again, only to run away like a frightened doe at the last minute, though she has been wanting to become his queen since she was eight. Of course, Sundaresan offers various explanations for such capricious behaviour, but I didn’t buy most of it. As mentioned earlier, Jahangir sees Mehrunnisa for the first time when she is already engaged to marry Ali Quli. Jahangir is bewitched and bedazzled by Mehrunnisa, but does not make any effort to find out who she is or pursue her. Mehrunnisa keeps hoping that Jahangir would contact her and arrange for her engagement to Ali Quli to be called off, but nothing happens. A few days later at a Mina bazaar, a veiled Mehrunnisa manages to catch Jahangir’s attention once again, when she audaciously frees two pigeons she was meant to be holding for him, but nothing much happens after that. A few weeks later, a third meeting takes place, this one arranged by Ruqayya Sultan Begum, who hopes that ‘some sense could be drummed into them’. I couldn’t figure out why Ruqayya Sultan Begum would think a meeting would make the couple come to their senses. This time they kiss, Jahangir tells Mehrunnisa that she smells of roses, Mehrunnisa tells Jahangir that her mother makes rose water for their baths and other silly stuff as may be expected in such circumstances. Finally Jahangir offers to send a proposal to her house through the Emperor. As I expected Mehrunnisa to jump with joy, she tells Jahangir that it wouldn’t work, that she is already engaged. Mehrunnisa is worried that breaking off her engagement will dishonour to her father!

Many years pass before Mehrunnisa meets Jahangir again. Jahangir has finally become Emperor, Mehrunnisa has become the mother of a girl and Mehrunnisa's husband Ali Quli has fallen afoul of the Emperor, having sided with Jahangir’s son Khusrau as he rebelled against Jahangir. Mehrunnisa’s neice Arjumand’s is getting engaged to Prince Khurram. Jahangir doesn’t even remember Mehrunnisa and Mehrunnisa needs to spill a goblet of wine on Jahangir to make him notice her. And notice her he does – ‘she had an aristocratic nose, rosebud lips and a slender frame. The court painters would die for a sitting. Her breasts heaved under the silk choli. She was blushing, the colour lending her charm.’ Jahangir is bewitched enough to invoke the Tura-i-Chingezi, the law of the Timurs, whereby any man could be ordered to give up his wife for the King.

We are told that the invoking the Tura-i-Chingezi is an honour for the man ordered to give up his wife and that it would be unusual to invoke it on a rebel like Ali Quli. Nevertheless, Jahangir goes ahead with his plan, though he is warned that Ali Quli would not feel so honoured and might resist. And resist he does, in the process killing the Governor of Bengal, Qutubuddin Khan Koka and getting himself killed. The soldiers who were with Koka ransack Ali Quli’s house and Mehrunnisa is nearly killed or raped! You would think Governor Koka would be properly briefed by Jahangir regarding the object of his affection and that some contingency plans would be made to secure Mehrunnisa, but you would be wrong. If a brave man named Haider Malik had not taken it on himself to protect Mehrunnisa, the Mughal empire’s history, as narrated by Sundaresan, would be different!

It takes Mehrunnisa six months to reach safety, with Haider Malik’s help. Once again she becomes Ruqayya’s lady-in-waiting in the zenana, where she stays put for four years, during which time Jahangir makes no effort to contact her. When a meeting does happen, it is fixed by Ruqayya Sultan Begum, this time because she wants Jahangir to meet Mehrunnisa and induct her into his harem as a rival to Jagat Gosini. We are told that Jahangir ‘was stuck dumb by the sight of her. Four long years. And every day he had thought of her, every night she had come to his dreams. He had known she was in the zenana, but had not gone to seek her.’ But once Jahangir sees Mehrunnisa, all caution is thrown to the winds and a courtship ensues, during which we see Mehrunnisa resist Jahangir, ask for a week’s time to decide and then finally accept Jahangir, only to reject him again when she is offered concubinage rather than marriage.

I was conscious of the fact that Sundaresan’s writing was constrained by history as it actually happened. For example, history does record that when Jahangir finally married Mehrunnisa, she had been in his court for four years. Thus, it is not possible for Jahangir to have married Mehrunnisa as soon as she got back to the zenana after Ali Quli’s death.

Amongst books set in the Mughal period, I would rate The Twentieth Wife much higher than the first two books in Alex Rutherford’s Mughal Quintet, namely “Empire of the Moghul – Raiders From The North” and Brothers At War. I think Dirk Collier’s The Emperor’s Writings is a much better book than The Twentieth Wife, but then, The Emperor’s Writings is a work of non-fiction and its air of authenticity cannot be matched by a work of fiction. It is not uncommon for fiction writers to take extreme liberties when writing fiction based on well known historical figures. For example, in Tariq Ali’s novel based on Saladin the Great, which is part of his Islam Quintet, Ali tells us that crusaders attacked and sacked Mecca. Sundaresan doesn’t take such extreme liberties with her narration.

To sum up, on the whole, The Twentieth Wife is a good read and gives the reader a genuine feel of life in the days of the Mughals.

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