Author feature: The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

By | July 25, 2016

I receive rather a lot of emails about new and forthcoming books, but when author Indu Sundaresan got in touch about her novel The Twentieth Wife, I thought it was one that might just appeal to some of my readers. First published in the US in 2002 and is still in print, it hasn’t previously been published in the UK, Australia or New Zealand, but is now available in these countries via Amazon, in Kindle and paperback editions:

The novel was converted into a television series, in 42 one hour long episodes, by the Epic Channel in India.  Originally shot in Hindi and aired in India in 2014, The Twentieth Wife television series (titled Siyaasat) is now available (from June 1st, 2016) on Netflix UK, Australia, New Zealand, France and other countries.

The Twentieth Wife won the Washington State Book Award in 2003, and Indu is the recipient of the Light of India Award for Excellence in Literature.  Her work has been translated into 22 languages/countries and she’s currently at work on her seventh book.  Having been asked by readers for a UK/AUS/NZ version many times, she’s understandably thrilled to have it happen now.

With thanks to Indu, here’s a full description:

In the winter of 1577, a young Persian nobleman fled his homeland and headed east toward the glittering Mughal court of Emperor Akbar in India. Ghias Beg was not travelling light. He had with him a pregnant wife and three small children. When the family stopped at Qandahar, his wife gave birth to a baby girl. He named her Mehrunnisa. Destitute, tired and hungry, Ghias almost gave away this child…and got her back again, not knowing at that time, that Mehrunnisa would bring immense fortune to his family for generations to come.

Because thirty-four years later, this child, born during a winter storm in a nomadic encampment, became Akbar’s son, Emperor Jahangir’s twentieth wife. And consequently, the most formidable woman in the Mughal dynasty that built the Taj Mahal in India.

Bright and brilliant as a child, Mehrunnisa learned the politics and the power structure of the imperial harem long before she stepped into it—one of Emperor Akbar’s wives, Empress Ruqayya, took a liking to her and kept her by her side in the zenana, the harem. As she grew up within the harem, Mehrunnisa met Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) and they fell in love. But, Emperor Akbar decided to betroth her to a common Persian soldier at his court. At seventeen, Mehrunnisa was married to the Persian soldier, and when Akbar died, Salim took the throne as Emperor Jahangir.

Other difficulties came to plague Ghias Beg’s family during the years of Mehrunnisa’s loveless union. Ghias embezzled money from the imperial treasury; his oldest son was put to death after being discovered in a conspiracy to assassinate the emperor; Mehrunnisa suffered many miscarriages and finally gave birth to a daughter. And then, Mehrunnisa’s husband killed one of Jahangir’s favorite ministers, and died himself in the scuffle.

With the burden of all these calamities hanging over her, Mehrunnisa returned to Agra – the seat of the imperial court – widowed, with a daughter.

A chance meeting at the harem’s Mina Bazaar between the Emperor and Mehrunnisa rekindled their love, and finally, in May of 1611, she became Jahangir’s twentieth—and last wife. At that point, the family’s fortunes changed forever.  Mehrunnisa made sure that her niece (her second brother’s daughter) was married to one of Jahangir’s grown sons in 1612.  Many years later, this son became the next emperor, Shah Jahan, and when this niece died in childbirth, he built the Taj Mahal in her memory.

The world knows of the niece, Empress Mumtaz Mahal, and her breathtakingly luminous tomb, but Mehrunnisa was more powerful, and much more influential.

In an age when women were said to have been rarely seen and heard, Mehrunnisa minted coins in her name, issued royal orders, traded with foreign countries, patronized the arts, and authorized the building of many imperial gardens and tombs that still exist today.  She stepped beyond the bounds of convention.

All of this came through the man who adored her to the point of obsession.

Who was this woman, hidden behind the veil, around whom legend swirls wraithlike?  Why was she so firmly placed in Emperor Jahangir’s affections?  Why did he give her so much power? The Twentieth Wife is her story.

The Twentieth Wife is the first book of the Taj Trilogy. The Feast of Roses (book 2) recounts Mehrunnisa’s life as empress, from 1611 to 1627. Shadow Princess (book 3) begins with the death of Empress Mumtaz Mahal, for whom her husband, Emperor Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal, and is the story of their daughter, Princess Jahanara, whose life is forever overshadowed by the magnificent tomb her father built for her mother.

Find out more about Indu and her work on her website and through her Facebook page.