Indu Sundaresan

"The Twentieth Wife"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka MAR 1, 2002)

"The girl sat on the edge of a goldfish pond, her feet dangling in the water. It was a heat-smothered day, but the courtyard was cool. The stone floor was chilled by a running stream of water underneath, falling into pools dispersed artistically around the courtyard. Lotus flowers and lilies bloomed white and red in the reservoirs, and huge banyan trees provided shade. The hush was broken by the soothing drone of bees and the musical tinkle of water rushing through the channels."

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Indu Sundaresan's debut novel, The Twentieth Wife, soars through time with historical detail, political tension and, throughout, a nearly unrequited love story. Political power, social customs and court life in the Mughal Empire are rendered with the sense of the poet and the eye of the researcher. Not only is the reader treated to lyrical descriptions of sight, smell, texture, and sounds of the time, but also to authentic historical and social details. Lush landscapes, brilliant silk and muslin clothing, the scents of an evening grilled meal, and floral trees blowing in the breeze all bring the dusty and nearly forgotten story of a woman - without whom there may be no Taj Mahal - to life.

This sweeping historical novel traces the life of Mehrunnisa, the daughter of a Persian nobleman who must seek refuge in India, from her penniless birth in a caravan to becoming, at age 34, the twentieth wife of Emperor Jahangir. From an early age, Mehrunnisa harbors a secret love for the prince, heir to the throne. She grows to become a woman, marries, and has a child, but never forgets her youthful dream of marrying the prince. Her mentor, the senior Empress in the imperial harem, not only teaches Mehrunnisa (whose name means "Sun of Women") about the balance of power and the intricacies of life in the zenana, but also grooms her to be a powerful and independent spirit within the confines of the veil.

Although readers will know that Mehrunnisa eventually does become the wife of Jahangir, the journey through this first part of her life is still rewarding and compelling through Sundaresan's skilled pen. The storyteller weaves these historic figures from the Mughal Empire into an interesting and successful epic novel through betrayals, love, treachery, family secrets, embezzlement, and assassination attempts. Any reader wishing to expand their understanding of South Asian history would be well served to add this volume to their library.

At a reading of this debut novel at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington, Indu Sundaresan told her audience that every child who grows up in India learns about the Mughal Empire. Women were rarely featured in the history books unless they were noted as the mother of an heir or as the wife of an emperor. If her childhood history books were anything like The Twentieth Wife, though, there would have been less of the daydreaming that she claims took place in school.

When Sundaresan was asked which aspect of the novel was most enjoyable to write, she surprised her audience by not choosing the love interest part of the story, but the "death and gore scenes," quipping, with a mischievous gleam in her eye, that there were "wonderful forms of torture" available during that era. This book is the result of seven years of research and writing, which the audience will immediately recognize and appreciate. A map, family tree and glossary assist the reader on this journey that takes place 400 years ago. A powerful and compelling story, its readers will want to know what is next in store for Mehrunnisa. Fortunately, Sundaresan is working on a sequel, that will take up where The Twentieth Wife left off, and follow the new Empress as she gains more and more power in the Mughal Empire, fights her way up in the ranks of the imperial harem and champions the cause of another prince.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Twentieth Wife at

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About the Author:

Indu SundaresanIndu Sundaresan, born and raised in India, on Air Force bases around the country. She came to the United States for graduate school at the University of Delaware and left with degrees in Economics and Operations Research. Her short fiction has appeared in The Vincent Brothers Review and on She lives near Seattle, Washington. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014