Indian history has always fascinated me, and everything about the Mughal period has always fascinated me. I could not wait to read The Twentieth Wife, as it revolves around Jahangir and Nur Jahan, one of the most powerful couples of the Mughal dynasty. Set in the late 1500s, The Twentieth Wife tells the story of Mehrunnisa. Her real parents abandoned her due to extreme poverty. Later, saved and raised in the court of Akbar, she falls in love with his son Salim (who later becomes Emperor Jahangir). A young child at eight, she has decided that one day she will be his wife.
But wishes and ambition aside, some potent courtiers have vowed never to let her ambition succeed. Mehrunnisa, with her strong will and astute intelligence, works her way through the obstacles. However, only after many years, when she is thirty-four and a widow, she reaches Jahangir’s harem. Eventually, Mehrunnisa becomes the twentieth wife of Prince Salim and took on the name, Nur Jahan.
Mehrunnisa is Jahangir’s last wife. And for the next seventeen years after her marriage, she plays a pivotal role in the politics of the empire. In a period of history when women were rarely acknowledged outside their families, she become the inspiration behind the Taj Mahal, minted coins in her name and even owned ships.
The Bigger Picture
The Twentieth Wife is the first book of the Taj Mahal trilogy written by Indu Sundaresan. This debut novel’s enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure tells the captivating story of one of India’s most controversial empresses – Mehrunnisa.
Although Mehrunnisa is a compelling character and gets a nuanced treatment throughout the book, Prince Salim/Jahangir cannot say the same. He’s easily impressionable and convinced by his advisers that rebelling against his kindly father, Emperor Akbar, is a good idea. Because there are quite a few character flaws in Prince Salim, it is hard to bridge the disconnect of clever Mehrunnisa pining for such a petulant prince; once he finds courage, the relationship balances.
One of the best aspects of this novel is the research that has gone into writing this tale. Each chapter opens with a quote from a historical document concerning the events of the chapter. Sundaresan writes in a simple yet astute fashion, her language elegant and even poetic in the right places. The setting comes alive so vividly that one can smell the chai and feel the winds blowing across the empire.
Besides Mehrunnisa, other pivotal characters like Jagat Gosini, Ruqayya Sultan Begum, Ali Quli and Jahangir equally scripted in the book. The enmity between Jagat Gosini and Mehrunnisa is exciting since very early on; Jagat Gosini sees a rival in Mehrunnisa. Another excellent portrayal by Sundaresan is Mehrunnisa’s father, Ghias Beg.
Sundaresan has written a sequel, The Feast of Roses, which follows Mehrunnisa and her niece, Arjumand, who is married to Jahangir’s son, Khurram. Their love is equally as epic as Mehrunnisa and Jahangir. Shah Jahan later built the Taj Mahal for Arjumand. The sequel is going on the reading list – I want to see Mehrunnisa working through court intrigue! I want to know the love affair that inspires the Taj Mahal.
The novel undoubtedly is a masterpiece having a few technical and historical faults in it. Though it is a work of fiction, it has a solid base for the historical realities. To sum up, on the whole, The Twentieth Wife is an excellent read and gives you a genuine feel of life in the days of the Mughals. It will keep you hooked till the end, and that is why it comes with a highly recommended stamp from me.