The Twentieth Wife

The Twentieth Wife

Indu Sundaresan  
Paperback, 416 pages
Simon & Schuster
February 18, 2003
 
 
From the back cover:
An enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India’s most controversial empresses – a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal Empire.  Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, The Twentieth Wife sweeps readers up in Mehrunnisa’s embattled love with Prince Salim, and in the bedazzling destiny of a woman – a legend in her own time – who was all but lost to history until now.

I confess I’ve never been all that interested in the history of India and I couldn’t even really tell you why.  I guess I’m just more of an ancient Egypt or Rome kind of girl.  But after reading The Twentieth Wife I’m happy to say that I’ve officially been won over.  Indu Sundaresan paints  a beautiful portrait of the Mughal Empire in vibrant colors, tantalising scents, and the rich culture of the multi-faith population under Muslim rule. 

Mehrunnisa is a rich and warm character, with a cunning intellect and just a touch of guile, and it was hard not to fall in love with her.  She had me spellbound from the start, and I delighted in seeing her catch the prince’s attention in the zenana when she was a child, and I shared her devastation when she fails to become pregnant during the first years of her marriage only to miscarry twice – denying her the only form of solace she can conceive of in her loveless marriage to Ali Quli. 

In the Afterword, Sundaresan describes how she set out to fill in the gaps in the incomplete historical record – provided mostly by travelers’ narratives and bazaar gossip – and bring the stories of these women who ruled “behind the veil” to life.  I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about Mehrunnisa’s life in The Feast of Roses as well as the other empresses Sundaresan has chronicled. 

Her writing style is beautiful and almost lyrical, and the pages are filled with emotion.  And best of all, she transports you to an exotic past surrounded by emperors, palaces, and harems (not to mention wild elephants and tigers) in a way that you don’t even realize how foreign it is.  I felt perfectly at ease waiting on the empress in the zenana or strolling through the marketplace with Mehrunnisa, and even watching court proceedings behind a screen or veil.  In fact, I got so immersed in her world I was almost startled when I had to put the book down and get jolted back to reality.

I have to mention that I had the pleasure of hearing Indu speak on a historical fiction panel at the LA Times Festival of Books in April as well as meeting her at the book signing that took place afterward, and she was incredibly well-spoken and personable.  It was wonderful listening to her describe her writing and the ups and downs of her genre (e.g. that no matter how meticulous your research, someone will always find a mistake and email you about it).  It was such a thrill to meet her and I know without a doubt that if I enjoy her other books as much as this one, I’ll be investing my time and money in all her future releases.

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