The Twentieth Wife
Indu Sundaresan
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Buy *The Twentieth Wife: A Novel* online

The Twentieth Wife
Indu Sundaresan
Washington Square Press
416 pages
February 2003
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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The kings and queens of India, like the great potentates of many eastern countries, are unknown to most North Americans. Those rulers known to Westerners are known primarily because of passionate romances or some connection to Western history or Western religion. Thus Cleopatra and Mumtaz Mahal are well-known to western minds, but not Boedica, the Candace of Ethiopia, Madame Wu or Jiang Qing. In Indu Sundaresan's lush historical romance, The Twentieth Wife, we read of Mumtaz Mahal's aunt, Mehrunnisa, a woman known to Indian history as Nur Jahan.

The history of Nur Jahan is cluttered with legend, gossip and propaganda. As such, the writer who wishes to create a novel about this formidable woman has a daunting task: sifting has to be done and choices have to be made. The author must choose those elements that best suit the purpose, mold, and fit of a particular genre. Indu Sundaresan chooses to use the genre of romantic historical fiction. The genre has its limitations and its requirements. Those readers who like the genre will like The Twentieth Wife. Those who are uncomfortable with the genre will find the book problematical.

When the story begins, it is 1577. Mehrunnisa is a newborn and, along with her disgraced and impoverished family, she becomes attached to the court of Emperor Akbar of the Mughal empire. This comes about through serendipitous, almost divinely destined, circumstances: the family can not afford to keep her and has abandoned her by the wayside, but destiny steps in (Sundaresan chooses not to use the legend that describes a cobra so overtaken by the beauty of baby Mehrunnisa that it guards her in her abandonment). Like all fairy-tale heroines, Mehrunnissa is a woman of great beauty, charm, and seemingly magical destiny. Sundraresan's decision to use many other aspects of the real-life legends makes the story almost a fairytale.

The author is a wonderfully descriptive writer. The setting comes alive so vividly that one can smell the chai and feel the winds blowing across the empire. The politics and social hierarchy are also well-depicted. Through the descriptions of sights, sounds, smells and tastes, the reader is plunged into a world that is miles and aeons away, and yet which seems familiar and real. The narration has the feel of a fairytale. And yet the story does not rest firmly in this category because Mehrunnissa is not a typical fairytale heroine.

For one thing, she is not particularly likeable. She has a sense of entitlement that is off-putting and which makes it hard for readers to identify with her. Her youthful desire to become a prince's wife seems arrogant and obsessive, just the kind of thing a spoiled rich kid would want. The fact that she falls in love with the prince without really knowing him makes the obsession seem childish and shallow. When Sundaresan throws us the literary feminist bone -- Mehrunnissa didn't want to be like all the other powerless women of her time and that is why she wanted to be the relatively free favored wife -- the reader doesn't quite believe it.

But Mehrunnissa is beautiful and destined for great things. Soon -- of course! -- she is the favorite of the Emperor's Favorite wife, Ruqayya. Finally she meets Salim face to face and it's love at first sight. But, as plot devices require, Salim meets and falls in love with her too late. Mehrunnissa is to be given in marriage to Ali Quli, a loutish Persian soldier. Later, she meets Salim again. While she is praying, of course. They share holy pure love-filled passionate kisses, but alas, destiny and plot machinations have other plans. After enduring miscarriages, infidelities by her husband -- who also betrays Salim -- Mehrunnisa finally gets her wish: she and Salim/Jahangir finally marry.

The trouble with this fairytale is the main character. Mehrunnissa has it too good even from the start. She is a schemer, scheming for someone she doesn't know and something she considers her divine right. This kind of character needs to have the reader on her side. History does not know for sure when Mehrunnisa conceived her love for the prince.. The legends and histories vary. But the author has chosen to use those aspects of the legend that show Mehrunnissa as a beautiful destined one waiting for her love. And this choice is a mistake. Beauty, charm, blessedness, a feeling of entitlement and waiting around simply don't cut it for a heroine. In fairytales, the average reader wants to root for an underdog, not a pampered rich girl who believes she should have a prince. And the little suffering tossed Mehrunnissa's way never succeeded in winning this reader over.

In the zenana (the royal court's women's quarters), scheming to be top dog is par for the course. The author obviously wants the reader to be on Mehrunnissa's side. For the most part, at least. This means that readers have to make a mental shift to accept polygamy and Mehrunnissa's scheming to usurp the top wife's place as merely the trials of true love. A stunning beauty who wants to usurp the top dog position from another wife and to be the wife of a substance-abusing prince -- the typical bad guy who changes because of the love of a good woman -- whom she has only met three times? And who is Mehrunnissa: (a) a princess coming into her true destiny and true love, (b) a grown woman who allowed childhood fantasies to direct her life, or (c) an ambitious person one doesn't like. This is a hard task for a writer.

Sundaresan is aware of her task. She obviously knows that her principal audience -- romance readers -- need a comfortable love story. This is obvious because she anticipates every possible discomfort her reader might feel and has written the story to prevent offense. For instance, she makes Salim's second wife, Jagat Gosini, an imperious snob (and the daughter of a fat ruler, no less.) This may or may not be historically true but the literary choice helps dissolve any modern and/or puritanical discomfort the reader may feel about Mehrunnisa's pursuit of Salim. With wife #2 thus judged, wife #1 being milquetoast material, and the other wives safely glossed over, the reader can safely, in the appropriate literary way, indulge a malicious glee in seeing wife #2 get her comeuppance (we are even supposed to be happy that wife #2's son was taken away).

The intrigue between the two scheming women is a literary device romance writers often use. Lovers of the genre will appreciate it. But for others, it seems like nothing more than two high school queen bees battling it out over the star quarterback. Prince Salim may be Indian, but his romantic type is all-American: rich, bad-boy profligate who will find salvation in the arms of a good woman, preferably of lower (but not-too-low) birth. All this leads to the major problem with the book: kneejerk characterization that make plot development both predictable and offensive. For instance, Mehrunnissa's Persian husband would have to be a lout -- the better to ease the discomfort of romance readers.

Literary genres are static, as are society's ideas of "great women." History books are not concerned with ambitious, unpolite ugly women. Instead, they praise those women whose ambitions are subtly clothed in finesse and feminine wiles... and a great face and body don't hurt either. Sundaresan is unwilling to challenge these long-standing ideas. Mehrunnisa is admired because she is ambitious without being bitchy. She is even kind (although this seems more like another literary device designed to gain sympathy). The book will find its true audience. It is my deep regret that I am not the book's perfect reader. The book is wonderfully written but it's not for me. And yet for those who love a good yarn, the book is poetic, the historical age is well-depicted, and the characters are vivid.

By choosing to make Merhunnissa's story a romance, Sundaresan allows what were probably genuine historical interactions to be too influenced by literary good guy/bad guy conventions. The author shows no sense of irony in depicting a girl who is daddy's favorite desiring to be the favorite among an Emperor's bevy of women. Freud would have a lot of fun with this book. But for me, the literary manipulations are too obvious at times. Mehrunnisa is too perfect, lucky and blessed to identify with. Who wants to see someone like this at the top?

© 2002 by Carole McDonnell for Curled Up With a Good Book

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