I find Indian history absolutely fascinating. For hundreds of years, India was one of the most ornate and wealthy kingdoms in the world. The descriptions of how the Indian aristocracy lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rival those of the French, English, and Russian aristocracies from that same time.
If you know Indian history well, you know that Emperor Jarangir’s empress’s name was Nur Jahan. What you may not know is that her story is a slightly messy one.
The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan is Nur Jahan’s story. But it starts before she was an empress and took the name Nur Jahan – back when she was known as Mehrunnisa (and Emperor Jarangir was known as Prince Salim).
Born just after her father fell from his once-wealthy and prosperous life in Persia and fled to India with nothing, Mehrunnisa was abandoned on the side of the road to India. However, a wealthy and kind merchant noticed Mehrunnisa and brought her back to her father, rapidly taking the family under his wing in the process. Through the merchant’s guidance, Mehrunnisa’s father is able to establish himself at the court of the imperial emperor of India – Prince Salim’s father’s court. Noticed for her beauty by the empress herself, Mehrunnisa ends up spending much of her formative years as a lady-in-waiting / companion to the empress in the imperial court’s harem. But then, right as Mehrunnisa meets Salim -the future emperor of India – she is forced into a marriage she doesn’t want… to a man she doesn’t love.
Sundaresan’s portrayal of Mehrunnisa is that of the seventeenth century obedient wife… plus brains and an eye for politics… plus an all-encompassing and ongoing love for Emperor Jarangir.
An interesting story and not one without its ups and downs, The Twentieth Wife is definitely on my “recommended” list for your next long plane ride or trip to the beach. There are darker elements to the story, but, at the end of the day, it is a love story… plus the descriptions of the Indian court in the seventeenth century are just out-of-this-world awesome (and super detailed).