Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reflections: The Twentieth Wife

I belong to the fraternity that shirks History. If you were part of the generation of textbook-burdened-school-goers from India, you will (probably) share my sentiments of dreading a Social Science/History exam. The most stressful periods of my school life were rampantly dominated by such exams and quizzes. With an examination system that encouraged rote memorization of the book from cover to cover, I was left palpitating at the mere sight of a History textbook. I toiled to remember all the ridiculously long and confusing names of Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princess, the plethora of conquests, wars and revolutions, the huge arrays of dates associated with numerous occasions etc, while unfortunately I missed the big picture of the fascinating tales and their repercussions on our present generation. After a few days of cramming information, my memory would typically burst and ooze with facts, all of which I would furiously dump on my exam paper, and leave the hall with a light head. Needless to say, I am therefore pathetic with History, probably to an embarrassing extent. Until last week, if you had (cruelly) decided to wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me, "Name one son of Akbar's", I would have likely blinked at you a couple of times, tried to ascertain that you are no phantom and then mumbled, "Birbal?" Seriously.

So, when I was approached with a book based on Nur-Jahan, a historical-fiction revolving around the Mughal dynasty, all my bitter memories from school came flooding back and I steadfastly refused to give the book a try. But, after a lo-ot of reassurance and high praises for the book and the author, I was babied into eventually reading it, and even appreciating it. I now look forward to reading its sequel and if you shuffle me out of bed with the question, "How is Ali Quli and Ghias Beg related?", I would confidently prattle on. That should suffice to give one an idea about the book if it can cause such drastic changes in someone who only had a vague memory of who Jahangir was.

The Twentieth Wife is an engaging read on the life of Mehrunisa (Nur-Jahan), her long, intermittent, torrid yet unfulfilled romance with Salim (Jahangir), her inexplicable bewitchment over his passions for her, and her eventual rise to power as Jahangir's most favorite and powerful wife. Through Mehrunisa's story, Indu Sundaresan weaves in the revolutions that hacked the Mughal Empire, with sons callously clamoring for the throne, unmindful of battling their own father and brothers, of all the treachery and hankering for power, the politics, and the insidious ploys manipulating women as pawns in a merciless game. All the major events chronicled in the book are facts recorded by historians. The only fictional elements are the imaginative interpretations of the characters' day-to-day life, and the fabrication of how the romance between Mehrunisa and Jahangir bloomed and came into fruition.

The book transports us to the era of monarchy and opulence. The culture of the Mughals, their traditions, and practices adds a crucial dimension in understanding the various power-ploys. In a culture that granted immeasurable power to the Emperor and only to the Emperor, where everyone around him had no choice but to bend and dance to his whims, on some level we can empathize with all the characters' constant struggle to establish some freedom and identity. I could especially sympathize with the hundreds of women in the Royal harem, whose only goal in life was to please the Emperor, and secure a son through him to firmly establish themselves as someone to be respected. A woman hardly had any respect if she was not lucky enough to be the Emperor's favorite wife or concubine. In such a hostile place, where every woman carefully guarded her youth and beauty, where fathers shamefully displayed their daughters, vying for them to be a royal concubine to somehow enter the palace, and where the women hatched ploys and cunning tricks to keep themselves above the rest, Mehrunisa almost effortlessly grabbed the coveted position amidst all the numerous oppositions. The materialism, shallowness and the ruses of the jungles of the harem, are sickening, yet make for an absorbing read. Within this context, it is all the more fascinating to read about the life of this powerful woman, who practically ruled the heavily patriarchal dynasty. I am yet again thankful to be born in this era,  and living in a democratic society that supports female empowerment.

I had always seen Jahangir cast in a reproachable light. All I remembered from school was the cruelty he meted out to his own son and his father, all in greed for the throne. But Sundaresan presents the story from the perspectives of the characters, employing some literary license to soften the jagged edges of the unpalatable truth. Jahangir emerges as a valiant hero, who, despite his misgivings, is a kind-hearted virtuous man, pushed to perform cruel acts because of the confluence of ill-advisers and his passion to rule the Empire. Indu Sundaresan brings out the conflict of emotions that Akbar and Jahangir go through in the throes of the revolts - the mixture of love and frustration tainted with anger and wrath of betrayal; crushingly disappointing, and unbelievably infuriating. It raises interesting questions on whether it is unrealistic to expect a bond between fathers and sons when there was hardly any interaction between the two for a bond to form. In that era, Princes were raised by servants and queens, many times not even by their own mother.

Indu Sundaresan's writing serves as the most alluring component of the story. Her lyrical prose sets a captivating story flowing. I would highly recommend such books to young students who have a distaste for History. It has definitely piqued my interest to learn (or re-learn) Mughal history, this time being enthralled with the whole experience.


SecondSight said...

So glad you enjoyed it! The book definitely made me more confident with the history lesson too :)
I felt there were interesting lessons in female empowerment to be learnt from the way Mehrunnisa and the others handle the events life throws their way, and what seems so much like a 'man's world' isn't really so. Though maybe these are stronger in the sequel, which awaits you... :)

Neeraja said...

Look forward to reading the sequel! :)

Sanjini said...

Hey.....Based on your book review I am reading the book now. I am 3/4 done with the book. ITs a very interesting read. I totally agree with your review. When I read the book I feel grateful for being born in this century when there is more freedom and meaning to women!

Neeraja said...

I'm glad you find the book interesting :) It definitely is thought provoking in terms of how far women have come to be recognized in the society!