Friday, April 29, 2011

Reflections: Shadow Princess

To the uninitiated, Shadow Princess, is the third book in a series that fictionalizes some of the powerful, albeit, hidden personalities of the Mughal dynasty. The first two books - The Twentieth Wife, and The Feast of Roses, narrate the colorful life of one of the most influential and impressive women of the Mughal Empire - Jahangir’s twentieth, and most beloved wife - Nur Jahan (or Mehrunissa). In this third book, Shah-Jahan (Jahangir’s rebellious son) is the sovereign ruler of the Mughal lands, who is shattered at losing his dear wife, Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand). He struggles to cope with his heartbreak, and diverts his sorrow to the construction of the most spectacular tomb for her - the Luminous Tomb (or the Taj Mahal). At his time of distress, he banks on his strong and clever daughter, Jahanara, an uncanny reminder of his wife. Shah Jahan’s dependence on Jahanara is so immense, that the pristine and loving bond between father and daughter gets besmirched due to treacherous rumors. Yet, the bond never wanes, and Jahanara resolutely stays by her father’s side, till his demise. Although Jahanara has receded into the shadows of history texts, this book pulls her out and spills out her story.

Although I read the first two books last year, I had no curiosity or interest in reading the third (and I think, final) book of the series. The deceit and greed of the Mughal time period tired me. I knew what to expect from this book - the repeat of events. Greedy Aurangazeb snatches the throne, imprisons his ill father and kills his brothers. History surely repeated in the Mughal dynasty. However, what re-piqued my interest was the last book I read - The Enchantress of Florence. Salman Rushdie’s descriptions of the Mughal era made me thirsty for more, and who else but Indu Sundaresan can deliver astounding descriptions of Mughal life.

And so, I grabbed this book. The writing quenched my thirst suitably - more than adequately. Almost beyond the point of satiation. I think Indu Sundaresan has mastered the art of writing about the Mughal era - her words are poetic, romantic, and extremely elegant and beautiful. Her florid writing seems to make any scene, even the most mundane, scintillating and interesting. This is partly due to the artistic and poetic touch she gives to every detail - be it a landscape, a person, a building, a tiny artifact. Particularly, her prose shines with the meticulous details she carefully and artfully uses to describe the Taj Mahal, and its construction. I am a person who usually never pays attention to details (well almost, never). I gather the big picture and then move on. But writers like her, kindle the romantic poet in the reader. The words make us skew our rigid (boring) perspectives just a little; to slant our eyes to see the cast of colors and shadows thrown by a plain oil-wicker lamp, or to squint at the afternoon sun lighting up a garden in a million different shades.

So yes, having dedicated a whole effusive paragraph to the writing, let me get to my quibbles. I hate that I’m starting to sound like a pompous, pretentious, know-it-all book critic, but I have to say that while the writing was impressive, it didn’t capture the characters or the story well. Jahanara was described almost identical to how Mehrunissa was. I find no difference between the characterizations of the two women - both were smart, strong-willed, beautiful, influential, and bold enough to go against tradition and create scandals. If at all someone clipped a section from one of the books and asked me to identify the woman being described, I would be at a loss. Almost all the characters had the same “voice” of the narrator - all their dialogues were erudite and poetic, and it was unrealistic to me. There was no distinct characterization, except probably for Aurangazeb; even Shah Jahan started resembling Jahangir.  This might partly be due to the domination of third-person narration in the book. This may have still not been problematic had the narration not focused excessively on the romantic details. The story itself was like a small fruit, sitting inside layers and layers of flowery, extravagant husk. For instance, the description of Jahanara walking down a corridor in the palace easily ran up to (and sometimes more) than two whole pages, while Aurangazeb’s final coup and displacement of Shah Jahan and his brothers, also comes to around two pages. Since there was so much narration and little dialogue or interactions in comparison, parts of the book sounded like a history text - a lyrical one, though.

Despite my quibbles, I surely appreciated reading about Aurangazeb and Jahanara. Until now, I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that Aurangazeb was a staunch Muslim, who went against the principles of tolerance and secularism that his predecessors had embraced. In stark contrast, Jahanara was ahead of her times, well read and balanced in her views. However, it is ironical that Aurangzeb, a man who was so steeped in social and religious propriety, committed categorically callous and amoral deeds by killing his own brothers and snatching the Empire from his ailing father.

Digested Thoughts: It was interesting to read about Princess Jahanara, and the construction of the Taj Mahal. Indu Sundaresan’s writing is always a treat, but I wish the lovely writing was wielded to give more depth and flair to her characters and the historical events. 

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