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"All Love Stories Strike A Chord"
Photographs by Richard Kent
Published: Volume 13, Issue 4, July-August, 2005
She had a vision of what she wanted to do, how she wanted to live her life – all this without too much input from the male principals in her life. Her struggle in many senses is the struggle of women of today no matter which country they live in.

Her fictionalised narratives – significantly tracing the love story of Emperor Jehangir and Nur Jahan – set against the backdrop of the Mughal Empire at its peak, expertly weave together fact and fiction to make compelling reads. Verve keeps a date with award-winning, US-based novelist, Indu Sundaresan

Indu Sundaresan’s novel, The Twentieth Wife and its sequel, The Feast of Roses, are set against the backdrop of 17th century India when the Mughal Empire was at its peak. The novels are rich in details of the darbars of the emperors, Akbar and Jehangir, descriptions of the lush imperial gardens and lavish royal palaces, the cut-throat politics, and, most significantly, the love story of Emperor Jehangir and the daughter of a Persian nobleman, Mehrunissa.

Mehrunissa was later given the title of Nur Jahan by Jehangir and became his 20th wife. She not only captivated the heart of the emperor but also exerted a tremendous amount of power and authority over the empire from behind her veil. It is ironic, though, that Nur Jahan’s story is overshadowed by that of her niece, Mumtaz, in whose loving memory Emperor Shah Jahan built the peerless Taj Mahal.

Sundaresan’s books redefine the way Indian history is told. Instead of the usual text book narrative, she accentuates the vibrancy and magnificence of the time, making it incredibly interesting. Her work is striking not just because of her immaculate research and vivid imagination, but because she believes in these characters and has relived these characters through the course of her writing. Her intense passion for the subject is infectious and makes the reader increasingly thirsty for knowledge.

The Twentieth Wife won the 2003 Washington State Book Award. Sundaresan’s narrative expertly weaves together fact and fiction to make a mesmerising historical read, which, as the Seattle-based author tells HINA OOMER-AHMED, is a rare genre in India.

The success of The Da Vinci Code seems to affirm that readers are interested in history if it is interestingly told. Both your books are steeped in history…

I think there is always an interest in the past, and, if presented well, in the form of a good story with a strong plot and structure and well-developed characters, history comes alive. Otherwise, it is academic and dry, much like my history classes were when I was a child. It was only when I read novels where the characters began to live that my interest in history was kindled. This is what I hope to achieve with my books.

Did you feel that a historical novel set in India would be of interest to a global audience?

Nur Jahan’s story has a global interest even though she lived in the 17th century, in a harem, behind a veil. She was an intensely ambitious woman and was vilified for that in later writings. She had a vision of what she wanted to do, how she wanted to live her life – all this without too much input from the male principals in her life. Her struggle in many senses is the struggle of women of today no matter which country they live in. Also, the love story of Nur Jahan and Jehangir is one of the most celebrated love stories in Indian history, and all stories of love strike chords of familiarity in readers of any culture.

Why did you choose to write about Mehrunnisa?

I came upon Mehrunnisa/Nur Jahan’s story during my last year of graduate school at the University of Delaware. One winter evening, when I was homesick, I wandered into the library and typed the word ‘India’ into the computer. I returned home that evening with an armload of books, among them a book on the Mughal harems – how the women lived, how much power they had, the intrigues and mysteries within the harem. This sparked my initial interest in Mehrunnisa’s story and I read more about her and researched extensively before I wrote the two novels on her life.

How much of the content of The Twentieth Wife is fact and how much is fiction?

Most of the novel is based on fact – about 70 per cent. In my initial drafts of the novel, I put down all the facts, kept to the timeline and chronology. But as I revised and edited, I worked on adding tension and drama to the narrative, explored her inner character a little more and inserted scenes that created a seamless flow to the story.

We have all read the story of Emperor Jehangir and Empress Nur Jahan but you have given us a personal context in which we can perceive them. Was this one of your goals when you decided to write these books?

I grew up reading historical fiction mostly based on the lives of the kings and queens of England. When I began to write my two novels I could not find any fictionalised accounts of the lives of Nur Jahan and Jehangir, or indeed, very much historical fiction from India at all. A fictional account allowed me to explore the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of that period. I wanted to see for myself how characters would have reacted to the deaths of beloved family members, betrayals by courtiers and sons, how they loved and hated. In other words, how they lived.

There are many shades in Mehrunnisa’s character.

The most popular perception of Mehrunnisa, which still prevails today, is that she was mean and ruthless, cunning and sly. A lot of this comes from the time after her death, when Emperor Shah Jahan ruled. After Jehangir died, Shah Jahan and Mehrunnisa embarked on what was essentially a cold war. Shah Jahan stripped her of all her power, and sent her into exile in Lahore. He also made sure that all court documents referred to her from then on as a conniving woman who had tricked his father into marrying her.

The fact was that she was beautiful, charming, intelligent, well read and an able politician and statesman. The women in the zenana seem to wield a considerable amount of power through their husbands.

Was the veil more a tool of empowerment rather than oppression?

In 17th century India, the veil was a symbol of privilege. The more common women did not cover their faces or stay at home in harems. They had to sweep their courtyards and go to the bazaar and draw water from the well. Nobles at court, both Muslim and Hindu, were rich enough to marry more than once and keep their wives at home in relative comfort. But the power itself came via the male principal.

In Mehrunnisa’s case, Emperor Jehangir loved her and trusted her above everyone else and he essentially transferred the reins of the empire to her. Between 1611 and 1628, she was Emperor in all but name. She signed her name on royal documents, had a seal made with her name on it, and even had coins minted under her patronage. No other Indian woman that I know of has had this ultimate privilege of having her name and likeness on the country’s legal tender without having acquired her title on her own.

To most people Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are the ultimate embodiment of love. But it seems from your novels that the love of Jehangir for Nur Jahan was no less. The world knows of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s love because of the Taj Mahal. But Jehangir loved Nur Jahan just as passionately. She was the love of his later life – he married her when he was 42 and she was 34. For the next 16 years, until he died, no other woman took precedence in his life.

What motivated you to become a writer?

My grandfather and father were brilliant storytellers. I’d like to think that I’ve inherited their storytelling gene, but use it differently, on paper. My father told me bedtime stories and he had two ongoing sagas that he made up every day – Jumbo the Elephant, and Silver the Horse. He had an impeccable flair for timing and always stopped the story midway, like Scherazade in The Arabian Nights, and left me to mull over how the story would end. It made me think during the day and made me write stories in my head. But I always thought that I was going to be an economist; I have Master’s degrees in Economics and Operations Research. But after I finished graduate school, I bought a computer and wrote a novel. Then I wrote another one and then I wrote The Twentieth Wife, which was published seven years later.

Has writing these novels brought you close to India and Indian culture?

I write only about India because for me, writing about India while living away is an opportunity to visit the country of my birth as often as I want in my mind and on paper. And I keep in touch with the past that has shaped me and my thoughts.