Indu Sundaresan’s The Twentieth Wife, the delightful first book of a trilogy that also includes The Feast of Roses and Shadow Princess, traces the story of Mehrunnisa from her birth to her marriage to the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Mehrunnisa would later become famous as Empress Nur Jahan. When Mehrunnisa becomes the 20th (and last) wife of Jahangir, she is 34, hardly young for the year 1611. Yet Jahangir is so enamored of Mehrunnisa that he pursues her despite knowing that her first husband, Ali Quli, killed Jahangir’s childhood cohort; her father, Ghias Beg, embezzled funds from the Imperial Treasury and her eldest brother, Muhammad Sharif, attempted an unsuccessful assassination of Jahangir himself.
Mehrunnisa, or the “Sun of Women,” is endowed with more than physical beauty, azure eyes and a bewitching smile. She is gifted with a cunning and slyness that she uses to make herself visible to Jahangir at opportune times. Mehrunnisa got the best possible education, including a mastery of the Arabic and Persian languages. In one instance, Jahangir presents Mehrunnisa with a book by Firdausi from the Imperial Library, which she had never been allowed to enter. She amazes Jahangir with her understanding of the book. She is well versed in the Imperial court affairs because her father was the diwan (treasurer) for the Province of Kabul. She’s also lucky, as Empress Ruqayya (wife of third Mughal Emperor Akbar) takes a liking to her. After Akbar’s death, Ruqayya’s stronghold in the zenana (harem, women’s quarters of the palace) wanes as Empress Jagat Gosini (wife of Jahangir, the new emperor) becomes powerful. Ruqayya promotes Mehrunnisa to offset Jagat Gosini.
In 17th century India, when women were behind veil and supposed to be in the background, Mehrunnisa offers sound political opinions to her first husband and then later to Jahangir. She is wily in recommending to Jahangir how to play the English traders against the Portuguese Jesuits. The latter had control over protecting Mughal ships until then. The British offer for security for trading ships in the Arabian Sea annoys the Portuguese. She recommends that Jahangir use the services of the British.
Mehrunnisa is extremely ambitious, becoming the empress despite coming from a family with no links to royalty. She wins over Jahangir, who had over 300 women in his harem, and who married for political reasons to expand his empire. Jagat Gosini tries her best to prevent Mehrunnisa from becoming Jahangir’s wife, but is fine with Mehrunnisa coming to the harem as a concubine. She fails and realizes that maybe this time Jahangir is marrying for love.
As the story of Mehrunnisa unfolds in the book, the reader is exposed to the intriguing conspiracies that were the hallmark of the Mughal Empire. Jahangir pursues a throne that, while rightfully his after Akbar’s death given that he’s the eldest son also requires patience. Instead of waiting, he attempts to grab the treasury when Akbar is away campaigning; tries unsuccessfully to poison Akbar and gets Abul Fazl, one of Akbar’s trusted lieutenants, killed. Jahangir even declares himself the emperor from another city. He later realizes his folly and apologizes to Akbar. However, the nobles at the court continue to doubt Jahangir’s intentions. They promote Khusrau, Jahangir’s eldest son, as the future emperor after Akbar. Jahangir gets alarmed and ends up blinding Khusrau. Later, Jahangir will get the empire’s best physicians to try to restore Khusrau’s eyesight, but they’ll only partially succeed.
Mehrunnisa’s first husband, Ali Quli, also supports Khusrau despite her opposition, and ends up getting killed by Jahangir’s men. The widow Mehrunnisa travels with her daughter to the imperial harem as Ruqayya’s lady-in-waiting. She remains fiercely independent, designing and making ghagaras (full pleated skirt reaching to the ankles) and cholis (form fitting blouse) for the ladies in the zenana. She also earns by sewing and painting in the Imperial harem.
The role played by Jahangir’s close confidants in scheming against Akbar and Khusrau deserves a mention too. Jagat Gosini uses these men to drum up a case against Mehrunnisa. But the “Sun of Women” overcomes all obstacles to become the empress, dominating court affairs for the next 15 years.