A Snake Among The Rabbits
The chronology of world history I keep in my office for convenient reference says of the events covered by this novel only that Prince Salim rebelled in 1601 against his father, Akbar, Emperor of the Mughal Empire. He was restored to favor, and by 1605, he was emperor himself. Given to drink, he allowed power to pass to his wife Nur Jahan. Nur Jahan, the blue-eyed daughter of a Persian refugee, was born in a tent in the middle of a blizzard near Qandahar in 1577, named Mehrunnisa, Sun of Woman, and promptly abandoned along the roadside for anyone who might find her. The Twentieth Wife is her story from her birth to her marriage to Salim on May 25, 1611. It is hardly a credible story, but being part history, part legend, part myth, and part the creative speculation of the author, there is no reason the story should be credible.
In the real world, Mehrunnisa should have died at birth or, that failing, any of 40 or 50 other times in the next 34 years. At the very least, an unfortunate, arranged marriage should have swept her into the oblivion. Her birth, Sundaresan implies, was miraculous: Mehrunnisa is chosen, elect, and Allah will have his way, come what may. What follows is an exciting glimpse into the operation of the Mughal Empire. There is fratricide, regicide, rebellion, conspiracy, poisonings, power politics, bribery, embezzlement, sorcery, and all manner of skullduggery. Buckets of it, brimful.
Islam is the backdrop of this story. But, while it is ever present, it is never more than a backdrop which is something of a disappointment since in this day, anything that would offer us a clearer view of Islam would be welcomed. There are, however, occasional snippets of the strange syncretism between Islam and Hinduism that characterized the Mughal Empire. Mehrunnisa’s teachers are Hindu and one character appeals to Krishna in an attempt to keep Salim and Mehrunnisa apart.
Much of the action takes place in the zenana, the harem. In a book written by a woman set in a harem full of conniving wives, concubines, servants, maids, eunuchs and just plain hangers-on, you can bet that one of the sub-texts developed concerns feminism. And so it is, but this aspect of the novel my disappoint hard-line feminists. Woman struggle with and resent the rules and restrictions placed on them, but none ever question its fundamental correctness in anything like modern terms of empowerment and liberation. Mehrunnisa, a snake among the rabbits, resents it all most deeply but only because of the personal limitations her status places on her ability to exercise her intelligence, never in a broader sociological sense. Sundaresan, however, develops the zenana as a branch of government with its own struggles for prestige and position, but at the same time, a platform of power that even emperors must respect and fear. Compared with the consistency and wisdom of the zenana, most of the men who surround and depend on it seem little more than petulant, petty, pathetic and foolish. In this sense, in true Marxist style, a system that is corrupt to the bone, corrupts everyone, both the victims and the perpetrators.
Sundaresan provides the reader with a list of the characters, which is helpful since many of them have similar, and sometimes exactly the same, names. She also uses Mughal terms with abandon. This maintains the flavor of the times and the authenticity of the story. Sundaresan provides a useful glossary to help the reader through all the strange words and concepts. The map is attractive and a helpful addition since the action takes place all over a sprawling empire and sometimes well beyond it.
My only complaint about the novel is that Sundaresan’s prose is often excessively curt, awkward, and painfully simplistic. Generally, this style contributes to Sundaresan’s desired mood of a saga, a myth, a legend. After all, the language of the Icelandic sagas is curt, clumsy, simplistic and seldom elevated. But from time to time the reader does long for a little stylistic complexity. Sundaresan also has the habit of explicating when there doesn’t seem to be any need for explication. The Governor of Bengal’s troops are arrayed in the front yard intent on nailing Mehrunnisa’s rebellious husband and the suspense is building toward a crises certain to be bloody. Mehrunnisa reflects that she doesn’t think this will end well. Gee, I guess not.
On the other hand, Sundaresan sometimes leaves out details we would like to know more about. The Jesuits and English merchants are in conflict and we learn that the Jesuits have been around for a long time. Oh? When, where and how did these people get here and what role do they play in Mughal society? We get fleeting insights. Ironically, inconvenient claimants to the throne are encouraged to convert to Christianity which takes them out of the line without the usual blood and gore.
The explanation for some want of detail is that Sundaresan has a lot more to tell, none the least being the rest of the story, how the new empress, Nur Jahan, is going to deal with the many problems of her empire. We should have the chance to find out. The sequel, Power Behind the Veil, awaits publication. And we might hope that Sundaresan will eventually fill us in on the rest of the Mughal Empire’s interesting, complex history. Sundaresan is to be praised for her first novel and encouraged to pursue the project. Her stories give us a clear view of what is, for most of us, an obscure society that was once the world’s most advanced civilization.