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Book Review: The Twentieth Wife

A novel set during the Mughal period bringing to life characters from your History books, and possessing all the qualities of a good romance novel (and alas just that!).

It is not the first time that I keep colliding with a book everywhere I turn. 'The Twentieth Wife' by Indu Sundarsena and I bumped at Kindle lists, on the book blogs, some IG handles of book lovers I follow as well as on the comments and posts of the reading  group on FB. Thus, taking the hint from Providence I downloaded it on my Kindle along with  a handful of others, a few days back. I started to read it some 3 days back and finished this novel set in 17th century India yesterday evening.

The book tells the story of the woman- Mehrunnissa, whom we all have known fleetingly and as Nur Jahan, wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir. Born in to the family of a Persian refugee, Ghias Beg, Mehrunnissa is left out on the road by the desperate father who knows he can not take care of this blue-eyed child. She is brought back to him, along with a chance at a better life for him and his family by a trader who is on his way to the court of King Akbar. He introduces Beg to the King who bestows mansabs on the man and things begin to look up for the Beg family.

The 8 year old child sees Jahangir for the first time at his first wedding and decides that she must become his wife. Meherunissa, comes to inhabit the zenana of the Akbar's Padshah Begum Ruqaiyya and picks up the nuances of the imperial life. Years before, she is able to realise her dream of marrying Jahangir, she is married off to Ali Quli Khan, a mercenary from  Persia on akbar's orders. 

Most of the novel is made of all these years that Meherunnisa spends with her husband. Interspersed among the aching that this woman feels for the king, are the revolts, rebellions, of that time as well as Portugese conversion  and arrival of English merchants.

The book ends with Jahangir marrying Meherunnisa and giving her the title of Nur Jahan. The story thereafter of the Empress of India and her niece Arjumand Banu Begum or Mumtaz Mahal and her grand niece Princess Jahanara has been published in sequels completing a trilogy known as the Taj Mahal Trilogy. 

Coming to the writing part of the novel, the initial pages are tight and the story of the family on the run and the Mughal court is interesting. The rebellions, plotting and scheming, men and power struggles of the kings' harem keep you well engrossed for more than half the length of the book. Then it begins to sag and get repetitive of sorts till the end. I was hoping for some more twists in the plots but all I got was a glimpse of the courtship period of the two protagonists.

Another put off, was the editing faux pas in the book. Having been a sub, spelling mistakes, wrong punctuation marks and missing articles- they stand out and call my attention and have a huge impact on my own reading and evaluation of a book.

The book has a distinct flavour owing to liberal the use of Urdu words and that is one thing that really sets the mood of this novel. The author in a note in the book admits being intrigued by this woman who minted coins in her name, owned ships etc and hence her journey to bring her forward from the latticed curtains behind which the women of those times lived.

In my opinion she does succeed to a great extent though it would be only proper to treat the book as fiction rather than a slice of history. Read it if history and biographies are your choice of genres.

Title: The Twentieth Wife
Author: Indu Sundarsena
Genre: Romance/ History/ Biography
Paperback: 384 pages 
Price: Rs 280 (Paperback)/ Rs 211 (Kindle Edition);
Language: English
Rating: 3.5/5


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