The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Another book that came highly recommended by Swaram, and I was not one bit disappointed.

Starting from the birth of Mehrunnisa, a child who was born into poverty, while her parents were on the road. Her birth heralded, in a lot of ways, a big change of fortune for her father, a Persian courtier who goes on to find a place in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Mehrunnisa has a special place in her father’s heart, and she grows up to be an intelligent , astute young lady, who soon catches the eye of Empress Ruqaya, Akbar’s favourite queen. She is summoned to the zenana, and from then on, is a frequent visitor  there. One day, she meets Salim, the crown prince. She is fascinated by him and longs to meet him again. But before that happens she gets engaged to an Afghan soldier. The Emperor has sanctioned the marriage and she had to go along with it, because nobody could go against him. Just days before her wedding, she catches Prince Salim’s eye again.This time, he is so enamoured by her that he tries to get his father to annul Mehrunnisa’s engagement, but it does not work.

They both go their separate ways, Mehrunnisa,  comes across lots of unhappiness and sadness in her marriage, while the Prince adds a few more wives to his harem and becomes the King – King Jahangir.

Eventually, they do get married, and she goes on to become Nur Jahan(as she was popularly known),  his most influential wife. Apparently she went on to become one of the most powerful queens, even by today’s standards. Mehrunnisa manages to capture Salim’s attention and manages to get what she wanted at an age where most women would be grandmothers in those days. Her years of unhappiness, her multiple miscarriages, the birth of her daughter(whom she adored), none of all this took away from her charms.

Indu Sundaresan’s words recreate the Mughal era beautifully.Right from the zenanas where political battles were fought, the lives of royal families, the Mina bazaar, to the emotions that seem to rule almost all the decisions that are taken. The power that was wielded by these veiled women, hidden away in the zenana is brilliantly portrayed. Emperor Akbar was expertly manipulated by Ruqayya, his favourite queen, while Salim(Jahangir) was controlled very effectively by Jagat Gosini, his most influential queen, until Mehrunnisa arrived on the scene. For a while,Jagat Gosini, even managed to convince Salim that Meherunnisa belonged to a family of traitors, and so was untrustworthy. Finally, Salim’s attraction towards Mehrunnisa is more powerful than everything else.

If only they wrote history textbooks like this, I am sure I would have enjoyed history in school, far more.

Having said that, I had some trouble coming to terms with their ‘romance’. From the very beginning, Salim comes across as a spoilt brat, someone who is used to getting things easy, surrounded by sycophants and women(including wives and slave girls). He was more interested in drinking and hunting and having a good time, than being a responsible king-to-be. For him to be attracted towards Mehrunnisa is easy to comprehend. Meherunnisa, on the other hand, is supposed to be smart and astute, so what did she see in a man who comes across as so weak?  He tries to unseat his own father, gets swayed easily by the people around him and hardly ever interested in matters of governance. Mehrunnisa is shown badly affected by her father’s corruption, but Salim’s corruption, both moral and political, does not seem to bother her at all. Unless, it was less of a romance and more of a challenge for her, that she, a commoner could become a queen, if she wanted to. Or love is indeed blind!  Either way, it is still a fascinating read and anybody who likes historical fiction, would love it.

Just one more thought. Did you notice the cover? Doesn’t it look incongruous when the book is supposed to be a historical saga involving the Mughals? What do you think?

Edited to add: I seem to have posted an earlier version of my post 😦 Have now edited and tried to recreate what I had originally intended it to be. Apologies to all you guys who came looking for it, and thanks Deeps! I would not have known if it weren’t for you 🙂

34 thoughts on “The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

    • If only they wrote history textbooks like this, I am sure I would have enjoyed history in school, far more. – I so agree Smiths. I see that in all the books she hs written. The work which goes behind it – amazing!

      Waiting to gt hold of her other books, Swaram. The lib has got ‘The Splendor of Silence’ waiting for me. The Feast of Roses is still pending 😦 I so want to read The Feast of Roses first!

      I think she fell for him mainly bcoz she always wanted to be a queen and dreams abt marrying a prince from the very beginning no?

      I agree.. That certainly seems to be the bigger attraction for her.

      • U spoke my mind .. I was just about to write that wish the kids back at school studying the mughal era knew that it’s fascinating.. then probably history would be thought to be as interesting as science in this crazy society 😐

        I know! I used to hate history, because they made it all about wars and dates 😦

        Oh Btw Deeps I loooooveeee your header 😀

        Deeps? Sags – are you sure you are not dreaming 🙂

  1. Second 😀
    The book cover is so pretty, that sari in maroon and the zari…..

    🙂 The book cover is pretty, but I was quite surprised to see a sari in a book on the Mughals..

    • After reading the post, I see your question about the cover! mmmm…. the winning stride of a woman who dreamed of becoming the queen!

      Yes, but did you see the toe rings and the sari? Surely Mughal queens, or persian courtiers daughters would not be attired like that, no?

      I’ve always wanted to read this, got it once from the lib but it remained untouched and was returned!
      will pick it up…

      It is a wonderful read, PnA! I think you will love it.

      And I love Mughal history… been very close to my heart for some unknown reason 😀 😀

      Then I am sure you will love it!

      • I love my Mughal History because we had a new History teacher in class 7 who made history so interesting to all of us… 🙂 🙂
        Thanks to her, I think all of us remember our mughal history quite well and enthusiatically discus it when we meet on or off line 😛

  2. Aawwwwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeesome review, Smitha. Loved it. I sooo agree with you, if only they wrote history books this way… and the cover does is so inappropriate.. what were they thinking????

    Thanks Pals – Do read this and review – I loved your Palace of Illusions review 🙂

  3. I loved that paragraph on the analysis of what the girl saw in Salim. Completely agree…
    Maybe love is blind. Or did she want the power of being a queen after all??? God knows… 🙂

  4. What a great review! Now you’ve made me want to read it 🙂 . Anyway I enjoy history.

    Then do try this book, you might like it 🙂

    You are right about the cover though, it does seem a bit odd for a novel about Mughals. Maybe they used it just cos it’s eye-catching?

    Guess so. It jut felt a little incongruous to me..

  5. This is one book I need to pick up asap. I love the Mughal era.

    Great 🙂 Then am sure you will like it 🙂

    I think one craves for power when you are born rich in grey cells 🙄 and in this case she was born into a poor family that served the king. I have never understood this need to wield power and control over other human beings. That too at the cost of Love 😥

    ‘ I have never understood this need to wield power and control over other human beings’ – me neither 😦 But the lure of power is supposed to be very powerful!

    Pahhhh what were they thinking when shopping for the cover? 😯
    It looks nice, but feels so irrelevant, na? Or are we all missing something here?

  6. One of your bestest reviews, Smits! Absolutely loved it. You know I never liked historical fictions. Even in school I hated History as a subject. The only time I found it interesting was when Ma was my history teacher :).

    Oh, Is Aunty a History teacher! Wow!

    This review gives me a feeling that I will like it. I went by your review and read Palace of Illusions and completely fell in love with. So I’m sure I’ll love this too. And if I do, I’ll gift it to Ma as well :).

    I do hope you like it, and aunty likes it 🙂 It is a fascinating read, Deeps – there is something about the way she writes!

    As for the cover, yes it is difficult to associate sarees and toe-rings with the Mughal Era. But Smits, I did stumble upon an interesting piece of info that Banarasi Sarees came into being in the Mughal era.


    That is fascinating! I thought that saris were more of a Hindu clothing, in those days – thanks to Bollywood, I guess 🙂

  7. Hmm…interesting. I’m not big on historical novels so probably won’t go out of my way to get this one but will read it if I come across it. The cover doesn’t look very Mughal-era does it?? Wonder who came up with that idea!

  8. Interesting….I think I shld add this one to my list too…. 🙂

    Great 🙂 Let me know what you think of it.

    Most of us seem to like historical stories…. 🙂 🙂

    Yes, most of us do seem to.

    I do agree…”so what did she see in a man who comes across as so weak?”

    And for that cover – Probably its not Mehrunnisa…its Indu walking thru the Mughal shores… 😉 😉 LOL !!!
    lol! That must be it!

  9. Pingback: The good and bad… « A drop in the ocean

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