The Twentieth WIfe – Book Review

I just finished ‘The Twentieth Wife’ by Indu Sundaresan. This book was written in 2002, but I got my hands on it only now.

This is essentially the story of Mehrunnisa- the twentieth wife of Emperor Jahangir.  The story takes us through lives of the lesser-known, but important people of the Mughal Dynasty – their women.

The book starts with Mehrunnisa’s birth enroute to India, when her parents flee Persia with three of her elder siblings.

Her father almost gives her up because he cannot afford to keep her, but she’s brought back to him by a kind soldier/noble who has taken him under his wings.

Once in India, he joins the court of Akbar & establishes himself in the Mughal government & rises to a good position.

Mehrunnisa sets her eyes on Salim, initially the errant son of Akbar on his wedding day when she’s barely nine years old. From then, she grows up dreaming of marrying him  & becoming an empress. But her dreams are thwarted when her father is forced by the emperor Akbar to marry her off to a valiant soldier from Persia, Ali Quli.

Mehrunnisa & Salim meet briefly by chance just before her wedding. Salim is captivated, but unable to stop her wedding. Her marriage takes her away from Agra & Lahore to Bengal, where her husband is posted. Married to a hard-core, alpha male soldier whose sensitive side is non-existent, Mehrunnisa pines for Salim and he in turn thinks of her often.

The story traces Salim’s frustration on not having the crown & his  rebellion against his father, egged on by his cohots.  And Mehrunisa’s loveless marriage simultaneously.

Once Salim becomes the emperor after Akbar’s death, his position is threatened by his own son who rebels against him. He manages to quell this with his well-appointed spies and loyal soldiers.

The story is fast-paced, set in the 1700s brings history alive.

We get a feel of various aspects in the lives of the royalty & especially their women, who are mostly shut in the Zenana, away from the prying eyes of the public. But still manage to be as powerful as their men and they too rule the country indirectly by advicing their men on various issues.

Mehrunnisa’s husband gets killed brutally by the army when he attacks  a General. And she’s brought back by Salim’s aide to safety in Akbar’s first wife’s Ruqqaya’s harem. Ruqqaya herself is like a self-appointed godmother to Mehrunnissa from her younger days and she’s only too happy to get them together, so she can regain some of her lost powers at the Zenana from Salim’s wife, the empress Jagat Gosini.

Mehrunnisa meets Salim again after 16 long years and this time as the emperor. His second son (Shah Jahan) is engaged to her nice who will later become the famous Mumtaz .

The story ends with Mehrunnisa marrying the emperor and gets the title ‘Nurjahan’ and is now the twentieth and the last wife of Emperor Jahangir.

Though the author claims it as a fictional story based on actual historic facts, it’s a very gripping tale which weaves around the various power struggles and seems convincing enough to be a real story. The characters are lively and one can relate to almost everyone. The events that unfold are all put together meticulously and there’s never a part which seems slack.

There’s a sequel to this ‘The Feast of Roses’ and I just can’t wait to read that now!

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1 Comment

  1. December 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm

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