The Twentieth wife recounts the early life of Nur Jahan (nee Mehrunisa) and her turbulent relationship with Prince Salim otherwise known as Emperor Jahangir (the fourth ruler of Mughal India and Emperor Akbar's son). It traces her almost mystical birth, her petulant adolescence, a failed marriage all leading up to becoming Jahangir's twentieth wife, all woven through a tapestry of Mughal court intrigue, love and deceit- the makings of a perfect historical chick-lit. Sundaresan's captures the zeitgeist of the time perfectly and her knowledge of court etiquette is impressive and, in my opinion, the lynch pin of the novel. It allows her to create beautiful miniatures of the time by talking about clothes, the architecture and even the food with exquisite detail. I would often end my reading session aching for a lamb curry and rice and a trip to Agra.
Mehrunissa herself is a somewhat disappointing character, possibly because she started out as nothing more than a beautiful bewitching social climber, a Kim Kardasian or perhaps even a Kate Middleton of her day, spurred on by her parents who made sure she got a great liberal arts education and a fair amount of freedom for a girl in her time. But more often than not, it feels like Sundarasan is struggling to create a clever and beguiling protagonist by giving her some political insight and overplaying her ability to withstand a bad marriage and infertility. This is probably because not much is known about her. The story of her early life is fabricated since very little was known of the woman until she wed Jahangir. It's quite possible that their erratic courtship is also unfounded. What is clear is that she was beautiful, wily and well versed in court politics possibly because of her closeness with Ruqayya. Sundarasen makes it clear that what Mehrunissa wanted most as a young girl was to be Empress and any real love for Prince Salim developed much later on. But who could blame her? Life was terrible for Mughal women unless you were a royal woman of importance. Things must be bad if becoming a concubine was an honour for the family and you best shot at a good life. But Sundarasen's curiosity stemmed from the influence Nur Jahan wielded during her reign as Empress and ergo the novel and a journey through a somewhat interesting romance. No doubt once the two got to know each other, they made a formidable team.
The problem with historical fiction is that you cannot create likable characters and have to depend on men like Prince Salim, arrogant, ambitious and without any redeeming qualities. This is why fiction is so much better to work with. In many ways, Mehrunisa reminded me of Anne Boleyn. She teases Jahangir in the same way that Anne does Henry and uses her charms to make sure she became a queen and not a concubine. The Empress Nur Jahan, however, did not lose her head. Instead she went on to rule Mughal India in the Emperor's stead -he was in an opium filled haze, and was his last wife. She became formidable and that is Sundarasen's fodder for the sequel and I have a feeling I will like that Mehrunnisa much more. Let's be clear, this is no Wolf Hall. The pretty prose drags the book down in the middle and Mehrunisa's ebony hair featured one too many times. But there is no doubt the author is a gifted story teller that brings a glittering time to life- a time when we bathed in almond milk, had jewels that made the Kohinoor look like a trinket, and English monarchy look like peasants. I have already ordered the sequel and made plans to visit Fatehpur Sikri and revel in all its gloriousness.
Verdict: Buy. Perfect monsoon read while you munch on samosas and sip coffee.