Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Feast of Roses, by Indu Sundaresan

The Feast of Roses is an engrossing fictionalised account of the lives of Emperor Jehangir and Meherunissa (renamed Nur Jehan) in the sixteen odd years between their marriage and their respective deaths. It is a sequel to Indu Sundaresan's earlier book, The Twentieth Wife, which chronicles the lives of Jehangir and Meherunissa before their marriage.

The Taj Mahal is usually what comes to mind when we think of immortal love stories, built as it was by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife. But reading this book, you quickly realize that the greatest love story ever might in fact not have been his, but that of his father, Emperor Jehangir, and stepmother, Empress Nurjehan. A love so deep that Jehangir willingly flouts legal process to save her neck, allows her privileges unheard of for women in that era, and political power at par with his own.The feast referred to in the book's title is itself another extravagant gesture he makes entirely for her benefit, to symbolically assert her importance to the women of the palace.

Meherunissa, as portrayed in this book, is fascinating - astoundingly beautiful and courageous. Also shrewd, manipulative and obsessed with power.She is devoted to her husband yet never hesitates to use his position, and love for her, to her advantage.She therefore becomes the first woman of the Mughal court to attend court and be seen to have a say in public affairs , the first also to have a royal seal of her own, as well as her likeness on the coinage of that time - all this at a time when women were expected to stay hidden within the walls of the house and procreate. Even marriages at that time were essentially statements of male power, marking affiliations between their families and that of their husbands'. In such times, for a woman to become a public figure, to assert herself in politics and trade, was especially remarkable.

Sadly, Meherunissa is also quite tactless. Even as she forms a little inner circle comprising men she considers her allies - her father, her brother and the prince who will go on to become Shahjehan - she alienates herself from practically everyone else including other women of the palace. Even her daughter isn't spared her manipulative games. It is rather telling that, despite using her own feminine qualities to keep the Emperor close, Meherunissa views other women as either rivals or pawns in her rise to the top. This attitude, and the many slights and insults she delivers to people during her reign, inevitably contribute to her downfall.

This is a book that highlights otherwise forgotten people in history, like the rather luckless Thomas Roe, and his failure as an Ambassador of the Crown to Jehangir's court. I was also intrigued by Mahabat Khan, a childhood friend of Jehangir's, who feels slighted and distanced by Meherunissa's manipulations. His attempts to regain the Emperor's favour make him unwittingly stage a royal abduction that quickly spirals out of his control . It is also a grim reminder that the primary reason the British empire succeeded in colonizing India was the locals themselves - the petty squabbling, the ceaseless warring that Meherunissa and her rivals were co consumed by, practically delivered a rich and diverse country into the hands of a tiny nation intent on plunder.

This is a really long book, and best avoided by people who don't enjoy history or like it well-couched in romance. This book, infact, does start off reading suspiciously like a romance novel, but quickly moves on to get into political intrigue and Meherunissa's unyielding struggle to be seen and heard.It is also meticulously researched, and this clearly shows in the details. I enjoyed it, but did feel at times that a need to include every last bit of research into the plot may well be the real reason for its length. There were times when I would get a little impatient with yet another tender moment between Jehangir and Meherunissa, yet another description of an amorous prince romping among half clad slave girls.Entire dramatic episodes- Meherunissa's coldblooded murder of an intruder in her palace quarters, the princes groping handmaidens with clockwork regularity through the book, the burning of Indian ships by the Portugese - could well have been condensed and the overly-dramatic prose reined in.

On the other hand, the book barely mentions Jehangir's well known addiction to opium and alcohol, which effectively left the reins of the empire in Nurjehan's hands. Nurjehan is also renowned for making perfume, but that's another detail I couldn't find in this book.

Nevertheless, still a book worth reading for its portrayal of an enigmatic and gutsy woman ahead of her time.

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