This story of seventeenth century Mughal India is the first in a trilogy of novels describing the history behind the construction of the Taj Mahal. In The Twentieth Wife, Indian author Indu Sundaresan introduces us to Mehrunissa, later known as the Empress Nur Jahan. The Taj Mahal was actually built in memory of Nur Jahan’s niece, but that part of the story must be told in the other two books of the trilogy as this one concentrates on the tale of Mehrunissa and her love for Prince Salim, the future Emperor Jahangir.
Born to Persian refugees who are fleeing their country, Mehrunissa is abandoned by her impoverished father, Ghias Beg, on the road to India because with no money, no job and no home, he fears that he and his wife will be unable to take care of her. Luckily, fate steps in and Mehrunissa is rescued by the merchant, Malik, who befriends her parents and helps Ghias Beg find a position at the court of the Emperor Akbar. Growing up at court, Mehrunissa is taken under the wing of Akbar’s favourite wife, Ruqayya, and spends a lot of time in the zenana (harem) listening to gossip and witnessing the rivalries between the Emperor’s other wives and concubines.
Mehrunissa is only eight years old when she has her first glimpse of Prince Salim, who is marrying his first wife. That first glimpse is enough for her to make up her mind that one day she too will marry Salim and become Empress. When Salim falls in love with her several years later, it seems that Mehrunissa’s wish could come true…but of course, things don’t go exactly as planned! The Twentieth Wife follows Mehrunissa and Salim (or Jahangir as he becomes known) through years of separation, unhappy marriages and political intrigue. Do they eventually marry? Well, the title of the novel gives us a big clue so there are no surprises there, but the path that leads to Mehrunissa becoming Jahangir’s twentieth wife is a long and eventful one, and you can expect plenty of drama along the way: rebellions, assassination attempts and the scheming of Mehrunissa’s rival, Jagat Gosini.
I found a lot to like in this novel, but not everything worked for me. My biggest problem was that with the romance between Mehrunissa and Jahangir forming such a central part of the story, I didn’t find that romance convincing enough. I struggled to see the attraction of Jahangir during the first half of the novel. He was an alcoholic and an opium addict, too easily influenced by unscrupulous advisers and was even plotting to have his father murdered. He started to redeem himself later in the book, but is still not high on my list of favourite romantic heroes!
As for Mehrunissa, I found it difficult to accept that she could fall so passionately in love at the age of eight with a man she didn’t even know and that her love for him could continue into her adult life despite only meeting him once or twice more in all that time. I got the impression that she just wanted to marry him because he was a prince rather than who he was as a person and I didn’t start to really believe in their romance until near the end of the book.
I did like the way Sundaresan writes about India. The Twentieth Wife is a very descriptive book: the clothes, the buildings and gardens, the food and drink, the traditions and rituals of court and the zenana are all described in vivid detail. I do enjoy reading historical fiction novels set in India, though I’m sorry to say that most of the others I’ve read were written by non-Indian authors (M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions is my favourite). I wasn’t aware of Indu Sundaresan until I saw The Twentieth Wife listed as one of Aarti’s suggestions for A More Diverse Universe and I’m pleased I decided to give it a chance. I’m not sure I like this book enough to want to continue with the sequel, but it was good to have learned a little bit about a period of Indian history I knew nothing about. While I didn’t love this particular book I would still be happy to try one of Sundaresan’s others outside of the Taj Mahal trilogy.
This was my second read for A More Diverse Universe hosted by BookLust.