"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."
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 MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Twentieth Wife (February 2002)
- The Feast of Roses (May 2003)
- The Splendor of Silence (September 2006)
- Shadow Princess (March 2010)
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- Visit Indu Sundaresan official Web site
- California Literary Review interview with Indu Sundaresan
- Seattle Times review of The Twentieth Wife
- Las Vegas Sun review of The Twentieth Wife
- The Mughal Empire
- History and Politics page on Jahangir and the Mughal Empire
- Desijournal.com review of The Feast of the Roses
- Excerpt from A Splendor of Silence
- India Currents review of A Splendor of Silence
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About the Author:
Indu 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 iVillage.com. She lives near Seattle, Washington.