A few months ago, my family took a trip to Delhi and Agra to physically see the place where my Dad was posted. You see, he’s a bank employee, and those buggers just love tossing people around to every state this country has. Anyway, we decided to visit the Agra fort. Beautiful architecture! I think everyone needs to witness this monument and be awed by its sheer size and design.
My Dad and I were standing in the Diwan-i-Aam (the hall of public audience), silently admiring it while our guide continued to explain its features in such rapid Hindi that I swear, it sounded like a Bollywood rap. I looked up at the marble lattice-work screen behind which the zenana ladies of the Mughal period used to be present to witness the court proceedings. That is when my Dad told me: “A few years ago, I came across a book called The Twentieth Wife. Because of the book, I can imagine what the palaces would’ve looked like at the time of the Mughals. Give it a try. Nice book”.
Now Dad’s advice is not to be taken lightly, and Dad’s suggestions, even more so. Hence, I made my way to the most-loved bookstore in Bangalore – Blossoms Book House. And in 10 minutes, I was on my way home with my newest treasure, The Twentieth Wife.
The Twentieth Wife is the tale of Mehrunissa, a beautiful and intelligent girl who grew up to be the most powerful woman of the Mughal era- Nur Jahan. This is the only bit I am willing to disclose about the plot. As the story progressed, I was drawn deeper and deeper into history’s pages. Just as Dad had told me, I could imagine the red sandstone walls of the fort, the throngs of people gathered at the Diwan-i-Aam, with their jeweled turbans glittering and throwing splendid colors on the walls, the laughter of the zenana ladies while they ran about their palaces, the bustle of the bazaars with traders in all kinds of wares trying to sell their merchandise while the ladies haggled over the prices, the tantalizing aromas of the biryanis and kheers, the sheer splendor of Akbar’s reign and his love for Salim, the power-play and politics that governed the palaces and the beauty and wit of Mehrunissa herself.
I was so enthralled by this magnificent piece of literature (absolutely no sarcasm. I mean it!), that I HAD to know what happens next. So off I was to purchase the second installment, The Feast Of Roses. Now I could’ve just rented it, or probably borrowed it from someone, but I have this need to own books. *My precioussssss*.
The Feast Of Roses tells us of Mehrunissa, now re-christened Nur Jahan (light of the world) by Emperor Jahangir, post her marriage to the ruler of the vast Mughal empire. And yet again, I was transported to the magnificence that was the Mughal era! Honestly, I did not want to escape from that period, where India was at the prime of her wealth and splendor.
However, my primary take-away from both books was this – As a society, we have evolved. The books describe an era where women had minimal or no rights at all. Their voices were to be hushed, their faces always veiled, their thoughts and opinions, ignored. Mehrunissa displayed how powerful a woman could be in a man’s world, despite being behind a veiled. She did not want to settle for anything less than what she thought she deserved, and was surprised at her daughter Ladli, and her neice Arjumand’s (Mumtaz Mahal) lack of determination. She exercised all her will and ability over the empire and was considered the ruler of the Mughal empire in the truest sense, and is now, my role-model.
So I take this opportunity to thank Indu Sundaresan, the author, for giving us these wonderful pieces of work which are so detailed, so precise and so filled with gossip! I can hardly wait to read the next installment, The Shadow Princess.
All you book-lovers, reading enthusiasts and history-lusting folks, I recommend you’ll read these books and fall in love with Mughal India just as I did.