This is not a nugget of information that Indu Sundaresan encountered at school in India. She readily admits she spent most of her history classes daydreaming, though she did read some historical fiction. But even that was world history. There was little by way of Indian historical fiction. In a way, her debut novel The Twentieth Wife about Noor Jehan tries to fill in that gap imagining as it does a world of turbulent (and bloody) romance.
“Noor Jehan is a really interesting figure,” says Sundaresan. Though their courtship is the stuff of legends, her husband mentions her but four times in his memoirs. In fact, the first time he mentions her is two years after they were finally married. “I am surprised she is even mentioned in Jehangir’s memoirs,” says Sundaresan. “She was his twentieth wife and did not produce the all important heir.”
In fact, when she finally married Jehangir, she was 34 at a time when women were considered undesirable when they hit 30. Despite that, she wielded extraordinary influence over Jehangir and through him, the Mughal Empire. She had coins issued in her name and travelers to the court complained about her power. Of course, it depended on who was telling the story and who was paying the bills. A court poet trying to curry favor with the Emperor might praise his Empress. On the other hand, an English trader denied trading rights could end up being harsh on her for being meddlesome. It was during the reign of Jehangir that England’s King James I sent his first ambassador to India, who wrote that nothing could be done until she okayed it. Even though he had extensive business dealings with her, he never saw the queen—for Noor Jehan remained behind purdah.
Sundaresan looked long and hard to find if, as the most powerful woman in the empire, Noor Jehan ever took off the veil but concludes “she pushed the boundaries but never stepped beyond them.” At the same time, in modern times, especially as the stories about the Taliban and their treatment of women in Afghanistan spread, the veil has acquired a much more sinister significance as a symbol of oppression. Sundaresan explains that even high-class Hindu Rajput women wore the veil. “In fact, in Noor Jehan’s time it really was a symbol of class and privilege,” she contends. “It meant you did not have to go to the market yourself or draw water from the well.”
The whole idea of zenana life was a revelation for Sundaresan, and she takes great care to delve into it. Whether it’s Akbar’s Padshah Begum who rules over the zenana with an iron fist or the younger concubines dolling themselves up to catch the Emperor’s attention—she was fascinated by the politics behind the walls of the zenana and the high stakes involved. She realized from her research that while the younger queens used their physical attraction to lure the Emperor, the older ones learned that for real lasting power they needed to capture his mind. In her novel, Sundaresan describes Akbar’s chief wife as a plain woman, yet it is to her the Emperor turns when he needs counsel and comfort. The women in the harem were not just the wives and concubines. “It also had mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts—any woman related to the Emperor who needed support was taken care of,” she explains. “They lived there, built tombs and gardens and parts of the harem traveled with the Emperor.”
In some ways, the whole story of The Twentieth Wife started in the harem. Sundaresan was studying to be an economist in the U.S. when a wave of homesickness sent her to the library. There, among the books she picked up, was one on life in the Mughal harem and she was hooked. It was not easy to recreate Mughal India in gray and rainy Seattle. Sundaresan remembers papering the walls of her office with maps, cranking the thermostat up to 80 degrees and turning off the phone as she tried to imagine the gardens and fountains of Lahore and Agra and the color and sparkle of the Meena Bazaar. Even harder, of course, was trying to market the story—she sent it around for five years and got countless rejection letters though she says with a smile, “They started getting friendlier and more personal. I took that as progress.”
But now that the book is out, the interest has only increased. After Sept. 11, the dusty plains and mountains of Central Asia have suddenly become hot topics of conversation. And Sundaresan’s story of a Persian noblewoman’s journey over the mountains, into what are now Pakistan and India, have a new resonance.
But Indu Sundaresan does not need the events of Sept. 11 to be interested in the story of Noor Jehan. She had already finished a sequel that deals with what happens to Noor Jehan after she becomes the twentieth wife. “For me it’s a timeless story,” she says. “This is a woman who fights conventions of her time, overcomes obstacles, comes in low in the hierarchy as a twentieth wife and ends up practically ruling an Empire. I think she overcame some obstacles that women today are still breaking.”
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury’s works have appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Newsday, Alternet.org and other newspapers. He is host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW91.7 produced by New California Media.