Friday, May 14, 2010

Reflections: The Feast of Roses

The Feast of Roses is a sequel to The Twentieth Wife. Both books bring to life Empress Nur Jahan and the trials and tribulations of the Mughal dynasty. The Twentieth Wife told the story of the rise of Jahangir after Akbar's demise, of Mehrunissa (Nur Jahan), her long romance with Jahangir, and the culmination of her marriage to him as his twentieth wife. Its sequel narrates Empress Nur Jahan's swift rise to power against envy and hatred in a man's world, and her eventual fall from her pinnacle after Jahangir's death. History leaps off the pages and comes alive, entrapping the reader in a bygone era, where power and wealth blinded people, when a Mughal woman ruled a vast empire with an iron fist, where life everyday was a calculated game of revenge, manipulation and diplomacy, so much so, that even kinship was brutally disregarded for kingship. Despite the beautiful prose embellishing and romanticizing the events and the characters, the bitter taste of a callous dynasty lingers.

Indu Sundaresan has to be commended for her efforts at dusting the pages of History and polishing the multiple facets of Nur Jahan. Jahangir was enamored by her, loved her so much that he, a Mughal Emporer, trusted his Empire in her hands. Veiled and hidden behind a lattice screen, she intelligently ruled the Empire, squashing all her adversaries in shrewd battles of manipulation. So much manipulation startles me, and the meager exercise of reading about them fatigues me. But these are the men and women who have left their marks on history, immortal for centuries to come. It's a sad fact that Nur Jahan abused many of her powers, her pride and temper interfered and resulted in impulsive and bad decisions, that towards the end, it feels fit that she was brought down from her seat of arrogance. On the other hand, one can't completely blame her, for she was in the heart of a jungle, surrounded by treacherous people, all intent on somehow clambering towards the throne. She could trust no one, not even her own brother. The game of survival had to be played with equal measures of cruelty and tyranny. And it's impressive that Nur Jahan could play such an aggressive game, that too having not been trained in any way.

With Nur Jahan's fall came the ascent of Shah Jahan, as the Mughal Emperor to take over Jahangir's place. It's aggravating that history repeated itself over and over again in the Mughal dynasty. Every son hatching a plot to secure the throne at the expense of his brothers, cousins and own father, is appalling. Indu Sundaresan burnished the character of Prince Khurram (Shah Jahan) and made him valiant, compassionate and like-able in the beginning of the book, but no matter how craftily she weaved the story, he invariably soiled as a despicable Prince who mercilessly instigated so many murders within the family, to capture the crown. And I know that his son Aurangzeb, administered on his father and brothers, equally horrible treatments to grab the throne. Some karmic cycle, with each son trying to overthrow his father and murder and imprison his brothers to amass power. Despite the strict adherence to religion, where was the spiritual/moral grounding on all these princes?

The whole era was burgeoning with so much wealth and greed, attracting the British and Portuguese who acted like ants scrambling towards mounds of sugar. Jahangir managed to deflect the British requests for treaties, but we all know how things turned out later. It's frustrating that so much wealth was squandered and lost under profligate monarchs. Although it was a treat to read about the extravagance of that era, the cloying materialism gets to the reader; that even the Taj Mahal fails to impress me as a monument dedicated to love. Shah Jahan wanted to be immortal, to be known and be praised as an Emperor who built an exquisite and opulent tomb for his wife. If Shah Jahan really were such a sensitive person to recognize and appreciate love, he wouldn't have committed such heinous crimes against his own family. An Emperor needs to assert his mark in more than one way, and Shah Jahan did so.

Well, enough of me and my idealism. One cannot change history, but the book vividly plays out the events and gives dimensions to the important characters, while nurturing awe and bitterness.

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