The Feast of Roses is the second of two novels by Indu Sundaresan about the life of Mehrunnisa, the twentieth wife of Emperor Jahangir of India in the seventeenth century. Best known as Empress Nur Jahan, “The Light of the World”, Mehrunnisa comes from humble if worthy beginnings, but captures the Emperor’s eye as a beautiful young girl long before he is able to claim her as his wife.
Mehrunnisa has been raised around the women of the zenana, or harem, with a powerful patron who senses her potential and trains her in the ways of court life. Mehrunnisa is married and sent to a distant post with her husband, who is in current disfavor with the imperial court. After the birth of her daughter, Merhrunnisa is widowed, and Emperor Jahangir uses this opportunity to return her to his court and marry her -- hence the title of Sunduresan’s first novel, The Twentieth Wife. The first novel portrays Mehrunnisa’s earliest years and her youthful attraction to the emperor, ending when they are finally joined in marriage.
The outcome of this fascinating historical romance is the topic of The Feast of Roses, which addresses Mehrunnisa’s life as the most influential wife and trusted empress of Jahangir’s reign. Older than most when she comes to the zenana, Mehrunnisa is still strikingly beautiful and the emperor is content with her, his beloved companion and lover, the other wives ignored for the sake of his obsession.
Certainly there are ill feelings toward the powerful Empress Nur Jahan as she insinuates herself into court life, standing beside the emperor as none of his other wives, her requests granted without question. Her enemies include boyhood friends of the emperor and forgotten wives, all who find themselves outside the charmed circle of power.
Sequels are frequently disappointing, but A Feast of Roses never loses its fascination and awareness of history. The research is meticulous, but more than that, the author humanizes her characters, bringing them vividly to life against the turmoil of a divided court. Most extraordinary is the character of Mehrunnisa: her bravery, loyalty and independence, virtually unheard of in seventeenth-century court life and ritual. One of those women who refuse to be a mere footnote of history, she is an early role model, a shing example of women who rise above time and place.
This novel portrays a common woman who captures the heart and mind of an emperor, selected as his most beloved and favored wife and thereby changing the face of history. That a woman of such ignoble birth can achieve a position of power is a testament to Mehrunnisa’s intellect and courage as she advises the emperor in matters of state, particularly when his health begins to fail. The author has given her protagonist a real presence, even though Mehrunnisa is banished by her enemies after the emperor dies.
It is ironic that the Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Jahangir’s son Khurram in memory his deceased wife, surpasses in notability the memory of the Empress Nur Jahan, truly a “Light of the World”, a woman of great achievement, centuries before her time.