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Mesmerised by the Mughal era

Indu Sundaresan's novel `The Twentieth Wife' has adeptly spliced romance with political intrigue, giving the reader a broad insight into the political climate of the Mughal period.


THE TWENTIETH Wife, a novel by Indu Sundaresan, digs deep into the past and throws immense light on the waterfront of common and imperial concerns of the Mughal period in Indian history. However, the story centres around the lambent love between Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) and Mehrunnisa (later Empress Nur Jahan). As the novel traces events leading to their marriage, every other happening during the period stands in secondary importance. To cut it finer still, the character of Mehrunnisa by itself is more primary to the novel than is the Salim-Mehrunnisa union. As the title indicates, Mehrunnisa (who became Jahangir's twentieth wife) is the frontispiece of the plot. However, the author has adeptly spliced romance with political intrigue, giving the reader a broad insight into the political climate of the era.

Recently, Penguin Books India and Madras Book Club organised a reading by the author, at the Taj Connemara.

"Mehrunnisa was thirty-four when she married Emperor Jahangir, and over the next 15 years she ruled the empire in his name....My interst was piqued. Who was this woman hidden behind the veil, around whom legend swirled wraithlike? Why did he give her so much power? In an age when women were said to have been rarely seen and heard, Mehrunnisa minted coins in her name, issued royal orders (farmans), traded with foreign countries, owned ships that plied the Arabian Sea routes, patronised the arts and authorised the building of many imperial gardens and tombs that still exist today....The accounts of her were conflicting. She was generous. She was cruel and mean-sprited. She loved Jahangir passionately. She so enamoured him that he could no longer think for himself. She dulled his senses with wine and opium. Yet she was the one he turned to in illness, not trusting even the royal physicians. From all these reports of Mehrunnisa, written mostly after her death and during her reign as empress, came The Twentieth Wife," says Indu Sundaresan, in an afterword.

Another reason for writing the novel is that Nur Jahan is an important milestone on the road to Taj Mahal. "One marriage (between Jahangir and Nur Jahan) leads to another (between Jahangir's son Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal) and then the Taj is built," says Indu.

How true is the novel to history? "Sixty to seventy per cent of the novel is historically accurate. Most of what has been written has the support of historical documentation," says Indu.

Why did she have to write a fiction, why not a non-fiction account of the era in question? "Fiction (based on history) allows you to lie creatively. I should warn the reader not to believe everything the novel says."

The author lives in Seattle, United States. When published in America in the February of 2002, The Twentieth Wife received plenary praise from critics there.


Was the novel primarily written for an American readership? "I wrote the novel neither for an American readership nor an Indian one. I wrote it because it was so much pleasure writing it. Writing about India gives me a connection to India. Distance gives a different perspective about India.

Writer and translator Uma Narayanan says The Twentieth Wife has fleshed out historical facts and brought more light into the Mughal period.

Indu Sundaresan is going to follow this book with a sequel whose central theme will be the Taj Mahal.

She calls the "paean to love" (Taj Mahal) a "marvel in marble". But there is another marvel.

"All through my schooling, my history teachers used to set me up as an example of what a student of history should not be. Fast Forward to now, I am standing before you as an author of a historical book." Drawing a conclusion from that personal anecdote, The Twentieth Wife is a marvel in itself.

PRINCE FREDERICK

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