Reviews, Vol. I, Issue III
Indu Sundaresan’s second novel ‘The Feast of Roses’ is the sequel to her first ‘The Twentieth Wife’, wherein the latter deals with the life of Mehrunnisa, the former accounts her tenure as the Mughal Empress NurJahan.‘The Twentieth Wife’ ended with MehrUnNisa becoming empress through her second marriage with Emperor Jahangir who entitled her as Nurjahan in 1611. ‘The Feast of Roses’ picks up the narrative from here to continue her later life as the Queen Consort of first half of the 17th century Mugal India.
The blind love of Jahangir for Nurjahan widens latter’s way to exercise a strong influence over him. The eventful journey of becoming an Empress from a common woman made her more diplomatic, deceitful, manipulative, political, scheming, shrewd, and selfish who played underhandedly to raise and hold her position intact inside the royal zenana and surprisingly outside the world of men as well. She played the game of power and politics in their true terms. She formed a junta with Ghias, Abul, and Khurram to help herself in reigning the empire and she was successful as it was evident that from behind the veil it was her voice that controlled the actions of Jahangir. She venally snatched the title of Padshah Begum from her arch rival, consort Jagat Gosini (mother of Prince Khurram, alias emperor Shahjahan). She rounded her stick all over the state affairs be it granting trading permission to the foreigners or sending cogent Mahabat Khan to the furthest Qabul. She was a self-centred woman. She did love Jahangir but it never superseded her self-obsession which even took her to an audacious public brawl with the Emperor ending with a scuffle. Whenever Jahangir had fallen ill she genuinely got anxious but the apprehension was more for the powers she exercised. She became one of the very few Mughal ladies who possessed the power to issue royal farmans using the imperial seal and the only Empress to have her name minted with on silver coins. She even tried to arrange a marriage between would-be emperor Khurram and her own daughter Ladli despite knowing that Ladli was the cousin of Khurram’s most beloved wife and her own niece, Arjumand Banu (later empress Mumtaj Mahal). But this time she failed and gradually the course of events took unexpected turn for Nurjahan. Arjumand was envious of her aunt’s position and power everywhere in the empire. She started giving counsel to Khurram which led him to dislike NurJahan day by day and finally the junta broke. Khurram’s refusal to marry Ladli made the empress more furious and she started planning her game deviously. She approached to prince Khusrau and later convinced prince Shaharyar to marry Ladli and started putting him as the next heir before Jahangir. At first things were running in favour of her. Nurjahan made Jahangir angry with Khurrram and put the latter in flight with his pregnant wife and children to escape the wrath of the Emperor. But her game was not successful. Defending all kind of her attacks Khurram finally, after Jahangir’s death, ascended to the throne as Emperor ShahJahan (1628). He sent Nurjahan for a royal exile to Lahore with Ladli where she took her last breath (1645). Indu finishes Mehrunnisa’s story with her death and ends the novel as well.
Indu once again has enwrapped her novel with rich descriptions. Marriages, hunting tours, royal attires, jewelleries, battle fronts, foods & beverages, or even conspiracies; all are vividly there to show the magnanimousness of the dynasty. She already is a proven story teller who possesses the captivating power of retaining the readers to her writing. She has offered Nurjahan under the shades of real history and imagination. Her Jahangir sometimes appears as the just Emperor and sometimes as a mere uxorious husband. Indu has named her novel after a line from Thomas Moore’s oriental romance ‘Lalla Rookh’ and concerningly introduces a splendiferous garden episode where Jahangir publicly featherbeds Nurjahan on a pathway of rose petals. As far the historical liberties are concerned, she had to give the ‘Rahimi’ to Ruqqya Sultan, actually belonging to MariamUzZamani as she deliberately wanted to elude the latter in both her narratives. Every part of the sequel like its prequel witnesses Indu’s meticulous researching to proffer Nurjahan before us, yet it fails to mirror the disputed Empress’s entire personality. Indu has focussed mostly on her political side where she is sly as a vixen always running after position and power; but history says also about her extraordinariness to write poetry (it is assumed that the epitaph inscribed on her tombstone was composed by herself), read books, or design clothes & jewelleries. One may also argue over whether both the novels bear the feminist perspectives as it is clearly apprehended that Indu had the power of feminism turned on in her mind while writing the two novels.
Indu has sincerely matured her writing style in the sequel since her first novel ‘The Twentieth Wife’ was allegedly over described and detailed. The sequel has also florid descriptions but in a more condensed and compact manner. The portrayal of Empress Nurjahan is drenched in various shades. It is surprising to see how a woman of a common birth gathers such audacity that she practically ruled the whole empire exclusively on her own terms. Her tricky games sometimes make the readers more irritated than angry. But as the novel proceeds toward its very end we do feel sorry for the proud woman and shed a drop of tears for her inglorious death in a forlorn state. It is indeed ironical that the Taj Mahal (the great monument of love, built by Emperor ShahJahan in the memory of his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal) surpasses in notability the memory of Empress Nur Jahan, a woman of great achievement, centuries before her time. Though it is a matter of great regret that she could not left behind any such token of love which would eternise her, like her niece Mumtaz Mahal, among the masses; history will always celebrate Nurjahan who withstands all the existing norms of an Empress and dares to redefine her role as a decision maker.
‘The Feast of Roses’ is the second novel of Sundaresan’s ‘Taj Trilogy’. The other two novels are ‘The Twentieth Wife’and ‘Shadow Princess’.
Reviewed by Prosenjit Ghosh
A teaching associate at a Govt. aided school in West Bengal.