Sunday, July 8, 2012

Book Review: THE TWENTIETH WIFE by Indu Sundaresan

I happened upon this book quite by chance at Crossword Bookstore, Imax Cinema. I got hooked just reading the synopsis and a few pages and decided to buy it immediately. The book kept me reading into the wee hours of the night while I had to force myself to go to bed as late as 3 am one night.

In the author’s own words 

The Twentieth Wife is a work of fiction, although it is based on reality. Mehrunnisa was thirty-four when she married Emperor Jahangir, and over the next fifteen years she ruled the empire in his name. Seventeenth-century travellers to Emperor Jahangir’s court lavished attention on her in their accounts at home, for she was at the height of her power then. None of the men actually saw her; their reports to their employers at the British and Dutch East India Companies are part fact, part legend, part gossip from the local bazaars.

They all invariably hinted at the drama surrounding her birth, a love affair with Salim before he came to the throne and the suspicion on him regarding her husband’s death. Contemporary historians usually do not agree. Yet, all the authors agree on some points: Jahangir never married again; Mehrunnisa was his twentieth – and last – wife. Although he alluded to her only briefly in his memoirs, she was the most important person in his life until 1627, when he died. Theirs was a love that formed the basis of poems, songs and ballads in India.

My take on The Twentieth Wife

The book begins with the birth of Mehrunnisa, who goes on to become Nur Jahan. The fourth child of Ghias Beg, a refugee from Persia, the baby brings the whole family luck as they travel towards India, their destination being Emperor Akbar’s kingdom. Ghias Beg manages to get a good post at the Mughal court.

Mehrunnisa – Sun among women – grows up to fall in love with Prince Salim even at the age of eight. It takes her about 26 years, a first husband – Ali Quli – and a baby girl – Ladli – before she gets married to her prince who is now Emperor Jahangir.

The story is about Nur Jahan as well as Jahangir and gives the reader a fascinating outlook on the Mughal Empire.

Fact and fiction are woven together so beautifully and perfectly that one can never differentiate between the two and that’s the wonder of this piece of literature.

I was floored by each and every description – be it the weather; the terrain; the palaces and other structures; the elephant fight; the Diwan-i-am – the Emperor’s court; the harem; the zenana ladies; the eunuchs; Ghias Beg’s travel from Persia to India – I can go on and on. I enjoyed reading each and every sentence. I am amazed at the kind of research that must have been put in to write this kind of work. It appears as if Indu Sundaresan had personally visited all those places during those times in history. Do I need to say more?

Over the past three days, I soaked in a volley of Mughal literature. All those stories I had read and heard in my school history had not prepared me for this. The characters that I had seen only in sketches appeared to jump out of the pages of the book and play their roles instigated by the author.

I simply loved the book! Thank you Indu Sundaresan for bringing history alive! You inspire me!

Click here to know more about Indu Sundaresan and her books.


  1. Sundari, your review makes me want to read this book asap. As a child I had read about Nur Jehan in Amar Chitra Katha and her character has stayed with me ever since. A lady with drop dead gorgeous look and super intelligence; lethal combo!

    1. And the plot has been woven beautifully. You should read this book :)