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The Twentieth Wife: A Novel    by Indu Sundaresan order for
Twentieth Wife
by Indu Sundaresan
Order:  USA  Can
Washington Square, 2002 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Twentieth Wife is the seventeenth-century tale of Mehrunnisa, later known as Nur Jahan, Empress and beloved wife of Jahangir, one of the great Moghul Emperors of India. The Taj Mahal was actually built in memory of Nur Jahan's niece, who married Jahangir's son Shah Jahan. Mehrunnisa was an extraordinary woman who, at the mature age of thirty-four, married Jahangir (as wife number twenty) and subsequently ruled the empire in his name. This book tells her tale from birth to her (second) marriage, to Jahangir. It is to be followed by a sequel.

It is a fascinating story, not only that of Mehrunnisa, but also of her family, who fled as penniless refugees from Persia. Mehrunnisa, the Sun of Women, was born en route and barely survived. Her father, Ghias, found employment at the court of the great Emperor Akbar and the family thrived under his patronage. As a child, Mehrunnisa glimpsed, and was infatuated by, young Prince Salim at his first wedding. There she also had another fateful encounter, with Ruqayya, Akbar's main consort and the power in his harem. Ruqayya took a liking to the child and made her a frequent companion.

The book reflects a thorough job of research and presents the key events of the times, in particular the conflicts between Emperor and son that persisted through these dynasties. The author portrays young princes, overly influenced by their advisors, making rash bids for the throne, which fail due to the ruler's powerful intelligence network. As Prince Salim is wed to successive wives and yearns for power, Mehrunnisa grows up yearning for him, but is instead betrothed to Ali Quli, a Persian general in Akbar's employ. She encounters Salim in a fateful meeting that will linger in both their memories - but still must wed the soldier.

Empress Nur Jahan is a remarkable historical figure, in many ways comparable in influence to other women who were strong rulers, like Catherine the Great of Russia. While I enjoyed this story of her early years, I wondered if it truly did her justice. The characterization is somewhat flat, glossing over the ambition of a young prince willing to have his loving father poisoned for the sake of power, and the ambition of a young woman whose obsession with him allows her to ignore such actions. However the historical context and surroundings come alive, so that the reader can almost smell the aromas of the wedding feasts or see the colorful spread of silks and jewels in fabulous settings like the harem's Mina Bazaar.

If you have ever wondered about the powers exercised by the veiled figures in the zenana, or about the great Moghul Emperors of India, then read this book. It's an intriguing historical tale of dynastic politics, rivalry and a lifelong romance, to be continued in Power Behind the Veil.

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