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The Feast of Roses    by Indu Sundaresan order for
Feast of Roses
by Indu Sundaresan
Order:  USA  Can
Atria, 2003 (2003)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Feast of Roses continues a fictional account of the life of Mehrunnisa (Nur Jahan), Empress and beloved wife of the Moghul Emperor Jahangir, that began in The Twentieth Wife. The sequel opens in Agra two months after their wedding, when Mehrunnisa and her daughter Ladli finally feel safe. The strength of this series lies in its description of the imperial context, of luxurious surroundings and sumptuous feasts, and of life in northern India, 'every night sweat-stewed'. The storyline flows more smoothly than in the first episode and events move fast, with shifting partnerships and betrayals.

Jahangir is putty in Mehrunnisa's hands and she steadily wins privileges from him, the first being to appear in public at his side at the jharoka, his daily audience. Of course, this makes her enemies, the foremost being Jahangir's boyhood friend and advisor Mahabat Khan, who plots with the Emperor's second wife Jagat Gosini. Mehrunnisa's friend and ally, the old Empress Ruqayya, warns her of the transitory nature of power (a warning she should have taken more to heart), and teaches her how to manage her possessions and to gather intelligence. Mehrunnisa successfully grasps for more and more wealth and influence. She controls the royal seal and finally becomes the most powerful figure in running the Empire.

After rare conflict between Jahangir and his twentieth wife, he restores her name and pride by giving her a 'feast of roses', a pathway of rare Isfahan rose petals, each with a single drop of rosewater in its center. There are detailed and colorful descriptions of a tiger hunt, and of the happy, careless five-day Festival of Holi. The logistics of the travel of a Mughal Emperor and of war-making are fascinating in their scope. And there is another great (and rival) romance, engineered by Mehrunnisa to her eventual regret, between the heir Khurram and Mehrunnisa's niece Arjumand. Indeed, the Taj Mahal was eventually built as a memorial to Arjumand, who was later known as Mumtaz Mahal.

Early on, Mehrunnisa forms a junta with her brother Abul, her father and Prince Khurram. But after the latter marries Arjumand, his ambitions strain the alliance, and Abul takes his son-in-law's part. As Jahangir becomes progressively more ill, the English and Portuguese vie for control of the seas and influence on the Empire, Mehrunnisa's enemies join against her, and her own family betrays her in games of power, proving again and again that 'Kingship knows no kinship'. In The Feast of Roses, Indu Sundaresan displays for us another rich tapestry of Mughal history, light on characterization but lush in historical context.

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