Wiley But Not Wise
Through fortitude and luck, Mehrunnisa, a Persian refuge from Afghanistan, became the 20th wife of Jahangir, emperor of the Mughal Empire from 1605 to 1627. This union of love made Mehrunnisa into Empress Nur Jahan. The Feast of Roses is the story of her reign. This is Sundaresan’s second novel about Mehrunnisa. The first, The Twentieth Wife , tells Mehrunnisa’s story up to her marriage to Jahangir.
My outline of world history says only that Jahangir was given to drink, and that, as Empress, Mehrunnisa ran the show. It wasn’t that easy, of course. Mehrunnisa, who repeatedly reflects that she wishes she were a man, forms a junta with her father, brother and the heir-apparent to the throne, Shah Jahan, and ruthlessly exploits Jahangir’s love to seize ever increasing authority and power. In the process she violates most conventions of Mughal society. For starters, she leaves the zenana, the harem, to stand beside her husband at public audiences where she begins making official pronouncements. This offends Jahangir’s advisors who are also his lifelong friends, male chauvinist pigs that they are.
Well, possibly they are, but as the story progresses, it becomes ever more difficult to sympathize with Mehrunnisa. She is the most powerful person in the world’s most advanced civilization, but while she is wily as a fox, she isn’t necessarily wise as an owl. She crushes opposition in the zenana where she ruins lives and alienates her few supporters. They get their revenge. A well-contrived accident terminates Mehrunnisa’s pregnancy and her potential for mothering a dynasty. She exiles Jahangir’s chief advisor to Kabul where he swears vengeance. She has to arrange a less than desirable marriage for her daughter who is unenthusiastic about producing males who will have to fight for the throne. Even her co-conspirators in the junta come to despise her.
Overall, she proves to be petty, deceptive, domineering, manipulative, vengeful, arrogant, ruthless and a whole string of other bad things. By two-thirds of the way through the book, when the reader is about fed-up with her, Mehrunnisa comes to the stunning realization that nobody likes her. Of course, pride comes before a fall, and when the fall comes it is at once spectacular and a pathetic unraveling of her best-laid plans.
The publisher styles this as a ‘historical romance’. Could be, since there is plenty of romance. There is Jahangir’s love for Mehrunnisa, but as power corrupts her, that love, really an increasingly twisted obsession, becomes absolutely irritating. Jahangir is simply not doing his job and the reader wants to shout, ‘Fool, slap her up-side the head and get back to work’. In fact, he does exactly that, but in the standoff that follows, he proves the weaker of the two.
Then there is Shah Jahan’s love for his first wife, Mumtaz Mahal. That love, which goes a long way toward destroying the junta, gives us the Taj Mahal, her tomb. But even as Shah Jahan shifts his allegiance from his empress to his wife, Sundaresen reflects that he is just substituting one woman’s domination for yet another’s. And he isn’t even bright enough to realize it.
In The Twentieth Wife one gets a glimpse of what the Mughal Empire must have meant to its average citizen and the impression isn’t bad. This horde of desert nomads seemed intent on governing well. In The Feast of Roses, this impression evaporates. We see little of the average citizen, but the court life is portrayed as opulent, splendorous, magnificent and finally, decadent and disgusting. In a courtly hunt, a lion is fattened on donkey, and just before the hunt, spoon-fed opium so that two empresses can compete for the kill while guarded by 500 retainers and assisted by 5,000 drivers. A chess game is played on an indoor board large enough to accommodate living characters, including elephants playing the rooks. In the ‘feast of roses’, Mehrunnisa walks on a pathway of rose pedals a half-inch apart, each perfect and turned right side up. That’s enough to bring out the latent Marxist in any reader.
Then there are the foreigners whom the Mughals rely on increasingly even while they despise them. The Portuguese issue sailing permits for Mughal ships. The covers of these permits portray the Virgin Mary, a stupendous insult to the Mughals. And the Portuguese aren’t above high jacking ships and passengers when they don’t get their way. As for the British, they act pretty much like they are going to act throughout their colonial history.
Sundaresan does what she can to help us through some pretty dense history. There is a good list of major characters and a partial genealogy. Use it because the characters, some with more than one name, come fast and furious. There is also a useful vocabulary of foreign terms as well as a good map that is worth consulting if you aren’t sure where places like Agra, Surat and Goa are. Sundaresan is also scrupulously honest with us. In the closing essay, she identifies her major sources and confesses where she has played fast and loose with history and where she turns to blatant fiction.
My major criticism of The Twentieth Wife was stylistic. Sundaresan was guilty of indelicacy in her use of adjectives and some pretty choppy descriptions. This wasn’t entirely bad. It gave the novel a primitive feel that seemed to accord well with the story. These tendencies haven’t entirely disappeared in The Feast of Roses and that is just as well. Descriptions, however, flow much better and her use of adjectives is much more mature. Several passages are nearly sublime.
Whether one wants to see this as an historical romance or a political and feminist statement is up to the reader. What Sundaresan gives us in these two novels, however, is a fascinating story and a worthwhile examination of this very strange empire that is practically unknown to most Americans. I, for one, hope Sundaresan has much more to tell us about India.