Indu Sundaresan e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (February 2002)
The Twentieth Wife is the seventeenth-century tale of Mehrunnisa, later known as Nur Jahan, Empress and beloved wife of Jahangir, one of the great Moghul Emperors of India. Mehrunnisa was an extraordinary woman who, at the mature age of thirty-four, married Jahangir (as wife number twenty) and subsequently ruled the empire in his name. This debut novel tells her tale from birth to her (second) marriage, to Jahangir. Here is what its author, Indu Sundaresan has to say about the book and about its remarkable heroine.
Q: I found Mehrunnisa's story fascinating. She must have had a lot more than looks going for her, to marry the Emperor of India (who had an extensive harem to choose from) at the age of 34. Did you have much to draw from in historical accounts of Nur Jahan?
A: Contemporary historians insist that Mehrunnisa and Jahangir knew each other for only 2-3 months before their marriage in 1611, and that any influence she had over him started at that point and developed until Jahangir's death in 1627.
After reading accounts of seventeenth-century travelers to India and various memoirs, I came to the conclusion that the crux of the relationship between Mehrunnisa and Jahangir was this story of a love that began well before their marriage, when Mehrunnisa was seventeen. Otherwise, as you say, she was thirty-four when he married her, aged by Mughal standards, not considered sexually desirable - more importantly, Jahangir had a vast harem of attractive women to choose from.
If Jahangir married Mehrunnisa for her intelligence, her wit, her abilities as a statesman and a politician, he could not possibly have discovered these qualities in a few short months. She was lovely, yes, but a beautiful face was not an especially valuable asset in a harem filled with beautiful women. Perhaps the biggest opposition to their courtship came from the fact that Mehrunnisa's family was in deep disgrace at court - one of her older brothers had actually attempted to assassinate Emperor Jahangir. For him to overlook such a grievous fault in her family, to attempt to speak to her in 1611, to court her with the view of marriage, tells of an affection and connection much beyond the immediate.
This then, was the reason for the well documented facts about Mehrunnisa's hold over Emperor Jahangir, the ease with which she took over the reins of the Empire, her huge wealth and acquisitions of land, and her interference in court and harem politics.
Q: The rise to power of Mehrunnisa's family was also extraordinary. Did Akbar actively seek foreign talent, or were they brilliant schemers? Is much really known about these events?
A: Mehrunnisa's family was both lucky and smart enough to maintain its position at court. Emperor Akbar (Jahangir's father) sought out men of exceptional talent and circumstances to fortify his empire - this probably came from the fact that Akbar's father had been driven out of India when the empire was in its infancy and Akbar was the one who painstakingly rebuilt it. So when Mehrunnisa's father was presented to Emperor Akbar at court, he was immediately granted a government rank. If he fulfilled the promise of that first meeting, Emperor Akbar would have, and did, increase his rank until he became treasurer of the empire under Akbar's son Jahangir.
Q: Was this period of history of long-standing interest to you? Did you study the history of Moghul Emperors at school?
A: Every student of history in India would invariably have studied the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire. But the emphasis when I was in school was more on the Emperors themselves and not so much the women they married. The women of the imperial harems (zenanas) were dismissed quite lightly in history texts, given importance only if they bore the next heir to the empire. Mehrunnisa (known to us as Empress Nur Jahan) was probably the only empress mentioned who did not produce the all-important heir to the empire. But she too was given a fleeting "wife of Emperor Jahangir" reference.
Having said all of which, I have to confess to not having paid too much attention in history class when I was young, so perhaps my recollection is not quite correct!
Q: Though you portrayed Salim sympathetically, he does not appear to have been a strong character, at least in his early years. Do you think he was really a good ruler in his later years as Jahangir, or did those around him compensate for his weaknesses?
A: It is very difficult to judge characters or events from the past by today's standards. Jahangir ate opium, drank vast quantities of wine every day, but everyone in the time in which he lived did so too. Some of the punishments he meted out to rebels seem rather harsh and unfeeling seen from our 21st century perspective, but it was not a democratic world, everyone did not have a say in the government, in fact, no one had a say except for the monarch, and his word was absolute.
In his youth as Prince Salim, Jahangir was often rebellious against his father Emperor Akbar's authority, and filled with a sense of self-importance which was given to him by the people around him. His early upbringing was certainly at fault, and he did not have the strength to be a good ruler until he was well into adulthood. As for actually being a good ruler, he had the advantage of being handed a stable empire by his father. But during Jahangir's reign, art and architecture flourished, because his rule was a relatively peaceful one. A lot of the monuments, tombs, rest houses, even gardens that still exist in India today come from this time period. Emperor Jahangir was fortunate, for his strength lay in preserving the empire, not so much in acquiring lands to expand the empire, as his father Emperor Akbar did.
Q: While reading the book, I wondered often the extent to which your descriptions of Mehrunnisa's relationships with her family were influenced by your own childhood. Can you comment on that?
A: I cannot say that I consciously used events and situations from my childhood in the book. But thinking about it now, Mehrunnisa's mother Asmat is a lot like mine - Asmat has my mother's courage, her gentleness, her dignity.
Q: It seemed to me that The Twentieth Wife was, in many ways, setting the scene for the true struggle, that of internal zenana politics. When will its sequel, Power Behind the Veil, be issued and can you say anything about it now?
A: In Power Behind the Veil, Mehrunnisa fights to establish ascendancy both in the zenana and at court. She does this with the help of three men - her father, her brother and one of Emperor Jahangir's sons. She rises very quickly in the hierarchy of the harem and courtiers learn that she is the one to whom they must address their petitions. This immense power does not come without its share of enormous heartache, an almost violent split in the imperial family, and much pain to Mehrunnisa in her personal life. Indu Sundaresan was born and raised in India. She came to the United States for graduate school, and now lives in the Seattle, Washington, area.
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