Friday, March 9, 2012

The Feast of Roses

I recently finished Indu Sundaresan’s “The Feast of Roses” and I thought the book made a really good read. It is not a literary masterpiece by any benchmark, but Sundaresan has done extensive research on Jahangir and Nur Jahan and it shows.

I have read the prequel, “The Twentieth Wife” too, but as a history enthusiast, this book held my interest more, for “The Twentieth Wife” is largely the love story of Nur Jahan and Jahangir, whereas this book begins with Jahangir marrying Mehrunnisa as his twentieth wife. Her ascent to power, at a time when women were regarded only as a commodity is extremely entertaining and interesting. She, of course, used Jahangir’s blind love to manipulate him and reach her ends, but we need to look at this through a glass tinted with time. This probably was the only way she could have done it and even that was unheard of, during those times. Women, back then, did not even have a say in whether her husband could marry some X or Y princess, or bring a lady to the harem. And in times like these, Nur Jahan was the last lady to be married by Jahangir, and I think this is a testimony enough for the lady that she was! And in the same breath, I need to take the name of Jahangir, who stood up to show his support for Nur Jahan and even granted her the privilege to mint coins under her name and come to the jharoka to listen to the citizens’ problems and offer advice. No Indian king seems to have accorded such importance to his queens (in the books that I have read, only Kundavai from Ponniyin Selvan comes close to the kind of power wielded by Nur Jahan, but being a Mughal queen must have made the feat much more difficult for her than Kundavai, who was a Hindu princess). And that very act is evidence of Jahangir’s monumental love, much bigger than the Taj Mahal built for her niece (Mumtaz Mahal was Nur Jahan’s niece) by Shah Jahan. As Dumbledore rightly says, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends”, Jahangir had to face stiff opposition even from the closest of his friends for the freedom and power he had bestowed upon Mehrunnisa. There is not a lot of evidence to show that Mehrunnisa misused this favour and I would like to believe that she put it to use the same way a king would have!

The book takes us through a lot of incidents of historic significance, without giving us the feel of a documentary. The abduction of Jahangir by Mahabat Khan, Shah Jahan’s cold blooded murders of his brothers, Khusrau and Shahryar (the third died on his own before Shah Jahan had a chance to kill him too), the Portuguese burning of the Indian trade ships due to the imperial court’s favour for the English etc. Interestingly, Mughal kings and queens used to own trade ships which used to be a source of their income in addition to the mansabs they enjoyed. And mercifully, ladies too were allowed to own ships and earn money!

Mehrunnisa’s characterization is rock solid with her arrogance and headstrongness never leaving her till her death. Why she wants power is never sufficiently explained, but that is a common human weakness and one does not need a reason to desire power. She doggedly looks after her self interests and the Emperor’s (I suspect that’s because his well being was the only chance of her well being) and Sundaresan has never shown her to be emotional or confused, just because a woman protagonist has to have some moments of weakness. I have come to like Nur Jahan, despite all her shortcomings, mainly because she broke free her shackles, did not allow the society to dictate how she must live, lived with only one purpose: to be the most powerful voice in the Empire and never ever felt guilty about her ambition. I would love to read more about her and I think she was truly a woman who broke the glass ceiling the way we know it today. It is a good thing that the post coincides with Women’s day! I could not have come up with a worthier subject!

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