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For the History Buffs

Post by pollyanna on 2013-08-15, 09:19

Hi Girls!!! Happy Independence Day!!!

History Lovers and the ones who are hooked on to the current pot-boiler, Jodha -Akbar, some highly recommended books from Indu Sundaresan(though these books are not from Akbar era and focus more on Jahangir's wife, Nur Jahan and her daughters)

The Twentieth Wife
The Feast of Roses
Shadow Princess

The Twentieth Wife

The kings and queens of India, like the great potentates of many eastern countries, are unknown to most North Americans. Those rulers known to Westerners are known primarily because of passionate romances or some connection to Western history or Western religion. Thus Cleopatra and Mumtaz Mahal are well-known to western minds, but not Boedica, the Candace of Ethiopia, Madame Wu or Jiang Qing. In Indu Sundaresan's lush historical romance, The Twentieth Wife, we read of Mumtaz Mahal's aunt, Mehrunnisa, a woman known to Indian history as Nur Jahan.

The history of Nur Jahan is cluttered with legend, gossip and propaganda. As such, the writer who wishes to create a novel about this formidable woman has a daunting task: sifting has to be done and choices have to be made. The author must choose those elements that best suit the purpose, mold, and fit of a particular genre. Indu Sundaresan chooses to use the genre of romantic historical fiction. The genre has its limitations and its requirements. Those readers who like the genre will like The Twentieth Wife. Those who are uncomfortable with the genre will find the book problematical.

When the story begins, it is 1577. Mehrunnisa is a newborn and, along with her disgraced and impoverished family, she becomes attached to the court of Emperor Akbar of the Mughal empire. This comes about through serendipitous, almost divinely destined, circumstances: the family can not afford to keep her and has abandoned her by the wayside, but destiny steps in (Sundaresan chooses not to use the legend that describes a cobra so overtaken by the beauty of baby Mehrunnisa that it guards her in her abandonment). Like all fairy-tale heroines, Mehrunnissa is a woman of great beauty, charm, and seemingly magical destiny. Sundraresan's decision to use many other aspects of the real-life legends makes the story almost a fairytale.
The author is a wonderfully descriptive writer. The setting comes alive so vividly that one can smell the chai and feel the winds blowing across the empire. The politics and social hierarchy are also well-depicted. Through the descriptions of sights, sounds, smells and tastes, the reader is plunged into a world that is miles and aeons away, and yet which seems familiar and real. The narration has the feel of a fairytale. And yet the story does not rest firmly in this category because Mehrunnissa is not a typical fairytale heroine.

For one thing, she is not particularly likeable. She has a sense of entitlement that is off-putting and which makes it hard for readers to identify with her. Her youthful desire to become a prince's wife seems arrogant and obsessive, just the kind of thing a spoiled rich kid would want. The fact that she falls in love with the prince without really knowing him makes the obsession seem childish and shallow. When Sundaresan throws us the literary feminist bone -- Mehrunnissa didn't want to be like all the other powerless women of her time and that is why she wanted to be the relatively free favored wife -- the reader doesn't quite believe it.
But Mehrunnissa is beautiful and destined for great things. Soon -- of course! -- she is the favorite of the Emperor's Favorite wife, Ruqayya. Finally she meets Salim face to face and it's love at first sight. But, as plot devices require, Salim meets and falls in love with her too late. Mehrunnissa is to be given in marriage to Ali Quli, a loutish Persian soldier. Later, she meets Salim again. While she is praying, of course. They share holy pure love-filled passionate kisses, but alas, destiny and plot machinations have other plans. After enduring miscarriages, infidelities by her husband -- who also betrays Salim -- Mehrunnisa finally gets her wish: she and Salim/Jahangir finally marry.

The trouble with this fairytale is the main character. Mehrunnissa has it too good even from the start. She is a schemer, scheming for someone she doesn't know and something she considers her divine right. This kind of character needs to have the reader on her side. History does not know for sure when Mehrunnisa conceived her love for the prince.. The legends and histories vary. But the author has chosen to use those aspects of the legend that show Mehrunnissa as a beautiful destined one waiting for her love. And this choice is a mistake. Beauty, charm, blessedness, a feeling of entitlement and waiting around simply don't cut it for a heroine. In fairytales, the average reader wants to root for an underdog, not a pampered rich girl who believes she should have a prince. And the little suffering tossed Mehrunnissa's way never succeeded in winning this reader over.

In the zenana (the royal court's women's quarters), scheming to be top dog is par for the course. The author obviously wants the reader to be on Mehrunnissa's side. For the most part, at least. This means that readers have to make a mental shift to accept polygamy and Mehrunnissa's scheming to usurp the top wife's place as merely the trials of true love. A stunning beauty who wants to usurp the top dog position from another wife and to be the wife of a substance-abusing prince -- the typical bad guy who changes because of the love of a good woman -- whom she has only met three times? And who is Mehrunnissa: (a) a princess coming into her true destiny and true love, (b) a grown woman who allowed childhood fantasies to direct her life, or (c) an ambitious person one doesn't like. This is a hard task for a writer.

Sundaresan is aware of her task. She obviously knows that her principal audience -- romance readers -- need a comfortable love story. This is obvious because she anticipates every possible discomfort her reader might feel and has written the story to prevent offense. For instance, she makes Salim's second wife, Jagat Gosini, an imperious snob (and the daughter of a fat ruler, no less.) This may or may not be historically true but the literary choice helps dissolve any modern and/or puritanical discomfort the reader may feel about Mehrunnisa's pursuit of Salim. With wife #2 thus judged, wife #1 being milquetoast material, and the other wives safely glossed over, the reader can safely, in the appropriate literary way, indulge a malicious glee in seeing wife #2 get her comeuppance (we are even supposed to be happy that wife #2's son was taken away).

The intrigue between the two scheming women is a literary device romance writers often use. Lovers of the genre will appreciate it. But for others, it seems like nothing more than two high school queen bees battling it out over the star quarterback. Prince Salim may be Indian, but his romantic type is all-American: rich, bad-boy profligate who will find salvation in the arms of a good woman, preferably of lower (but not-too-low) birth. All this leads to the major problem with the book: kneejerk characterization that make plot development both predictable and offensive. For instance, Mehrunnissa's Persian husband would have to be a lout -- the better to ease the discomfort of romance readers.

Literary genres are static, as are society's ideas of "great women." History books are not concerned with ambitious, unpolite ugly women. Instead, they praise those women whose ambitions are subtly clothed in finesse and feminine wiles... and a great face and body don't hurt either. Sundaresan is unwilling to challenge these long-standing ideas. Mehrunnisa is admired because she is ambitious without being bitchy. She is even kind (although this seems more like another literary device designed to gain sympathy). The book will find its true audience. It is my deep regret that I am not the book's perfect reader. The book is wonderfully written but it's not for me. And yet for those who love a good yarn, the book is poetic, the historical age is well-depicted, and the characters are vivid.

By choosing to make Merhunnissa's story a romance, Sundaresan allows what were probably genuine historical interactions to be too influenced by literary good guy/bad guy conventions. The author shows no sense of irony in depicting a girl who is daddy's favorite desiring to be the favorite among an Emperor's bevy of women. Freud would have a lot of fun with this book. But for me, the literary manipulations are too obvious at times. Mehrunnisa is too perfect, lucky and blessed to identify with. Who wants to see someone like this at the top?

The Feast of Roses

The Feast of Roses is the second of two novels by Indu Sundaresan about the life of Mehrunnisa, the twentieth wife of Emperor Jahangir of India in the seventeenth century. Best known as Empress Nur Jahan, “The Light of the World”, Mehrunnisa comes from humble if worthy beginnings, but captures the Emperor’s eye as a beautiful young girl long before he is able to claim her as his wife.

Mehrunnisa has been raised around the women of the zenana, or harem, with a powerful patron who senses her potential and trains her in the ways of court life. Mehrunnisa is married and sent to a distant post with her husband, who is in current disfavor with the imperial court. After the birth of her daughter, Merhrunnisa is widowed, and Emperor Jahangir uses this opportunity to return her to his court and marry her -- hence the title of Sunduresan’s first novel, The Twentieth Wife. The first novel portrays Mehrunnisa’s earliest years and her youthful attraction to the emperor, ending when they are finally joined in marriage.

The outcome of this fascinating historical romance is the topic of The Feast of Roses, which addresses Mehrunnisa’s life as the most influential wife and trusted empress of Jahangir’s reign. Older than most when she comes to the zenana, Mehrunnisa is still strikingly beautiful and the emperor is content with her, his beloved companion and lover, the other wives ignored for the sake of his obsession.

Certainly there are ill feelings toward the powerful Empress Nur Jahan as she insinuates herself into court life, standing beside the emperor as none of his other wives, her requests granted without question. Her enemies include boyhood friends of the emperor and forgotten wives, all who find themselves outside the charmed circle of power.

Sequels are frequently disappointing, but A Feast of Roses never loses its fascination and awareness of history. The research is meticulous, but more than that, the author humanizes her characters, bringing them vividly to life against the turmoil of a divided court. Most extraordinary is the character of Mehrunnisa: her bravery, loyalty and independence, virtually unheard of in seventeenth-century court life and ritual. One of those women who refuse to be a mere footnote of history, she is an early role model, a shing example of women who rise above time and place.

This novel portrays a common woman who captures the heart and mind of an emperor, selected as his most beloved and favored wife and thereby changing the face of history. That a woman of such ignoble birth can achieve a position of power is a testament to Mehrunnisa’s intellect and courage as she advises the emperor in matters of state, particularly when his health begins to fail. The author has given her protagonist a real presence, even though Mehrunnisa is banished by her enemies after the emperor dies.

It is ironic that the Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Jahangir’s son Khurram in memory his deceased wife, surpasses in notability the memory of the Empress Nur Jahan, truly a “Light of the World”, a woman of great achievement, centuries before her time.

Shadow Princess

The death of Shah Jahan’s Exalted One of the Palace, Empress Mumtaz Mahal, in 1631 is the catalyst for Sundaresan’s powerful tale of the conception of the Taj Mahal and the rivalry of the Shah’s sons for the throne. The ruler of the Mughal Empire is devastated by the death of his wife after the birth of their fourteenth child, and it is only the creation of her magnificent tomb that offers the grieving man solace. Having killed all his living male relatives to secure the throne for himself, the formerly pragmatic Shah is reduced to a distraught and withdrawn widower to the detriment of his kingdom. 

With four sons, the dynasty is secure, but the political machinations behind the scenes offer a glimpse of the ruthlessness of those who claim the throne.
Although the newest daughter, born at her mother’s demise, is of little consequence in this riveting and exotic tale, the Shah’s two older daughters are caught up in a rivalry that poisons their relationship, each standing behind a chosen brother to succeed their father. At seventeen, Jahanara is her father’s favorite, the one on whom he depends after the loss of his beloved. Suddenly plans for Jahan’s marriage to Mirza Najabat Khan are put on hold, the young woman stepping into her mother’s footsteps to fill the void in her father’s life and make the critical political assessments he is too grief-stricken to make.

But fourteen-year-old Roshanara covets the same man for herself, a fact that creates a dangerous schism between the sisters that affects any close relationship they might have had. While the Emperor is consumed with the elaborate plans for the grand tomb known as the Taj Mahal, the siblings fracture into two factions, Jahanara supporting Dara, the oldest son, and Roshanara behind a younger, more ambitious brother, Aurangzeb.

Alternating chapters between the building of the Taj Mahal and the politics of the succession, the author paints a vivid picture of the demands on Jahan’s life, her father’s unwillingness to let her go, her passion for a man she is not allowed to marry and the devious actions of a sister who would have Mirza Najabat Khan for herself, no matter the damage to Jahan’s heart or reputation. Behind the walls of the zenana, we learn the subtleties of politics, the seething ambitions of sons whose father has yet to relinquish power and the sacrifices expected of royal daughters with limited choices.
Jahanara’s life is constricted yet bold, loyal yet tempered by a passion that allows her to seek love in the forbidden. 

While the Shah builds his monument to the dead, his sons and daughters make irrevocable choices with far-reaching consequences. While foreign religions seek inroads to the great Mughal Empire, the distracted Shah ignores the threat at his own risk. It is Jahan that is the star of this novel, fit for the throne were she not a woman but destined by fate to bridge the love of a father and the man who holds her heart. With exquisite detail, Sundaresan relates a tale fraught with emotional complexity, giving voice to the women behind the ruthless men who rule a besieged Mughal Empire.

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Re: For the History Buffs

Post by jayalakshmi on 2013-08-17, 18:18

wow!!!pallavi i did not know about these books... ...Well i cannot say anything about how good these three books are, but i must say this is a beautiful and very informative article!!!
It will be great to see more of such articles in future!!!


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Re: For the History Buffs

Post by riyya6 on 2013-08-18, 09:03

Tfs... Very informative

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Re: For the History Buffs

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