THE TWENTIETH WIFE by Indu Sundaresan. 363 pp. Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster. $24.
Thomas Moore, an Irish poet in 1817, wrote Lalla Rookh an oriental romance about the love between Lalla Rookh, a princess who journeys from Delhi to Kashmir and the king of Bucharia she is to marry. During her journey she is entertained with poetry from a young Feramourz who narrates four stories to her. The third narration is “The Light of the Harem” where Nourmahal wins back the love of her husband Selim. Lalla Rookh’s journey ends happily: she falls in love with the poet who turns out to be the King of Bucharia, her prospective husband. “Paradise itself were dim/ And joyless, if not shared with him!”

Since then many ballads and poems have been composed to immortalize the romance of Noor Jahan and Jahangir and debut novelist Indu Sundaresan draws inspiration from these stories in her book The Twentieth Wife, the story of Mehrunissa (Sun of Women). Set in 16th century India, the book craftily blends captivating fiction with researched history in a dazzling period of cultural, political, and artistic activity. The tale revisits the period around the time of Akbar and Prince Salim (later known as Jahangir), their extraordinary legacy, and the political battles that consumed the entire period. The Twentieth Wife weaves a tale of the daughter of a Persian nobleman who went on to become the powerful wife of Emperor Jahangir.

The story opens at the remote outpost of Kandahar, in today’s Afghanistan. The wind howled and swept down, almost ripping the tent flap from its seams. Frigid air elbowed in, sending arctic fingers down warm napes, devouring the thin blue flames of the fire. The woman lying on the thin cotton mattress in one corner shivered. She clasped her arms around her protruding stomach and moaned. In circumstances such as this, a baby girl named Mehrunissa is born in a nomad’s tent to desperate parents who are on their way to Akbar’s court in India.

Brought up around the Mughal court, eight-year-old Mehrunissa sees Jahangir for the first time at his first wedding. She dreams then that she will one day be his wife. Mehrunissa gave her mother a quick look. Empress of Hindustan! Bapa came home with stories about his day, little tidbits about Emperor Akbar’s rulings, about the zenana women hidden behind a screen as they watched the court proceedings, sometimes in silence and sometimes calling out a joke or a comment in a musical voice. The Emperor always listened to them, always turned his head to the screen to hear what they had to say. What bliss to be in the Emperor’s harem, to be at court. How she wished she could have been born a princess. Then she would marry a prince—perhaps even Salim.

However fate has ruled otherwise. Mehrunissa is already betrothed to Sher Afghan. It is a loveless union and after several miscarriages, a baby girl is born to her. But Mehrunissa never gives up hope. The love story Sundaresan weaves is almost like a film script as time and again the reader gets glimpses of the thoughts of the two lovers. Prince Salim is totally smitten by Mehrunissa when he sets eyes on her the first time. Sundaresan draws heavily on the power that she had on him. “Ya Allah, was he in Paradise?” Words from the holy book came unbidden to his mind. “The believers shall find themselves reclining upon couches lined with brocade, the fruits of the garden nigh to gather; and will find therein maidens restraining their glances, untouched before them by any man or Jinn, lovely as rubies, beautiful as coral.”

Sundaresan’s writing reveals much about imperial life at the Mughal court, from life in the zenana to the intrigues and conspiracies that existed in political life during that period. Sundaresan draws an authentic timeline of historical facts as Salim’s rebellion against Akbar, his own son Khusrau’s against him, and the torturous punishment inflicted on his men after his flight from Lahore. Stakes were bored into the ground, on each stake a man was impaled. Some were alive writhing in agony and bodies also dangled on ropes from a few trees that lined the roads. The prince shut his eyes tight and this time Jahangir let him. Khusrau would not easily rebel again.

At the time of Akbar’s accession to the throne, the Mughal rule was confined to Kabul, Kandahar, parts of Punjab, and Delhi. Enemies surrounded Akbar. On one side, Sikander Suri was threatening to recover Punjab and in the northwest Mirza Muhammad Hakim governed Kabul almost independently. Adil Shah Suri was trying to re-establish his authority over northern India. The Rajput princes had asserted their independence in Rajputana, Orissa, Malwa, Gujarat, and Gondwana. In the Deccan the Bahamani kingdom had broken up into five independent Sultanates and the Vijayanagar kingdom in the extreme south was still independent. The Portuguese had established their influence on the western coast. With the help of Bairam Khan, Akbar succeeded in establishing a vast and consolidated Mughal empire.

After her husband died under suspicious circumstances, Mehrunissa becomes lady-in-waiting to Ruqayya Begum, Jahangir’s stepmother. Twenty-six years after she first laid eyes on him, this once abandoned child reigned alongside Jahangir as his 20th wife and most prized possession, Empress Noor Jahan.

Sundaresan’s fictionalized tale of the Mughal women leaves us wonderstruck at the space they won themselves within the confines of the zenana and the power they yielded. Noor Jahan looked far beyond the limits laid by femininity and the individuality of the sex. She issued royal orders, patronized the arts, influenced trade with foreign countries, and owned ships that plied in the Arabian seas. She was the only Empress whose name appeared on the coins of the Mughal Empire.

A sequel to The Twentieth Wife is due in April 2003 titled Power Behind the Veil. What is fascinating is that the book, which involved seven years of research, leaves readers eagerly anticipating what would come next. For an entry into the historical fiction genre it certainly fits the role.