SHADOW PRINCESS by Indu Sundaresan. Atria Books, A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.: New York. March 2010. $25. 352 pages. www.indusundaresan.com
In a successful bid to remove historical fiction from the doldrums of names, dates, and places, Indu Sundaresan presents the lives, culture, and consequences of the Mughal Empire with a you-are-there point of view in her Taj Trilogy. The Twentieth Wife and its sequel, The Feast of Roses, told the story of Mehrunnisa (Nur Jahan), the twentieth and most beloved wife of Jahangir. Jumping a generation forward inShadow Princess, the story centers around Jahanara who, as the favorite child of Shah Jahan, was afforded as much wealth and power as her great-aunt/step-grandmother. When Jahanara’s mother, Arjumand (Mumtaz), dies as a result of giving birth to her fourteenth child, 17-year old Jahanara finds that her life changes forever, not only as a princess but also as a woman. Spanning 35 years from 1631 to 1666, it is her life and its effect on history that the final book of the trilogy examines.
Jahanara is the Shadow Princess, so titled because, for all the power given to her by Shah Jahan, she is forced to exist in the combined shadow of her mother’s memory and her father’s obsession with building the Luminous Tomb—the Taj Mahal. Against the norm of palace protocol, Jahanara assumes her mother’s position as Padshah Begam, the chief lady of the harem. She is, as are all women in the palace, confined in purdah, yet despite a ban on marriage and unfounded rumors of incest, Jahanara rises above the petty insults and innuendos that swirl around the harem. She manages to rule the Empire through imperial edicts, saving it from collapse and loss during her father’s lengthy bereavement period.
“History views this power given to women hidden from public gaze in varying ways,” Sundaresan states in an email interview, “but for Emperor Shah Jahan, from a purely personal point of view, it was an easy choice—here in the harem, in his wife and then his daughter, he found the one person who was completely trustworthy.”
Eventually, younger sister Roshanara competes with Jahanra for the affections of both their father and an impressive noble, while their brothers plot against each other for the crown. This sibling rivalry, thirst for power, and quest for greatness stands in stark contrast to the shining marble tomb reminding them—and the reader—of the purity and glory that vanished from the Empire. For all the trouble brewing in the family, however, Jahanara remains a devoted and dedicated daughter to the father she loves so dearly, hiding a secret love affair and choosing to be his caregiver during the final years of his life.
Heavily researched and expertly written, Shadow Princess can be enjoyed without the benefit of having read its predecessors. Nonetheless, it is recommended that the trilogy be respected for the author’s natural storytelling talent, clarity of purpose, and ability to bring history to life. Every character breathes, feels, and moves across the page, capturing the reader’s heart without reservation. These novels are about the strength, cleverness, and determination of acutely focused women. When asked which of the women she believed was the more successful, Sundaresan responded:
“Mehrunnisa and Jahanara were equally successful in their times, but posterity treats Jahanara with a great deal more sympathy and kindness; her history is shrouded in piety, devotion to her father, a quieter influence—likeable qualities. Mehrunnisa suffers in comparison, especially since most existing accounts (written a generation later by Shah Jahan’s court chroniclers) paint her as overly ambitious, scheming, too domineering, overstepping the bounds of modesty.”
Sequels often fall into the category of being unworthy successors, and maintaining quality through a trilogy can be a difficult task. Yet Sundaresan infuses the same level of appreciation and affection for history into Shadow Princess that she had with The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses.
“I find myself enamored of Indian history; what isn’t said or documented captures my imagination as a writer, indeed, propels me to write,” she relates. “As children, my sisters and I were taught to appreciate our country’s history by our father; he told us stories of the kings and queens of India; we visited the existing forts and palaces in every place his job took him (he was a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force)—it was a different sort of learning, more vibrant, more engaging (than mediocre textbooks). So when I began to think of writing, India’s past is where I most naturally gravitated.”
History runs the risk of losing its spark without relevance to the contemporary world, but Sundaresan has that factor covered, too. “What remains of the magnificence of the Mughals in both India and Pakistan,” Sundaresan explains, “are the forts, palaces, tombs and mosques they built during the dynasty’s rule—the forts at Lahore, Delhi, and Agra; the tombs of the emperors in Delhi and Agra; the mosques in Lahore and Agra.” This collective architecture forms the backdrop of the Taj Trilogy, and the author skillfully describes each place, artifact, and structure as if it, too, were alive.
Sundaresan is at her finest drawing a picture of 17th century Hindustan that sparkles with gems, gleams with marble, and tantalizes with the colors of rich fabrics and precious metals. Even when she places her sights just outside of historical fact, her writing seamlessly bridges the gap. Showcasing the Taj Mahal, Shadow Princess is an exhilarating mixture of character and event, emotion and intrigue, extravagance and architecture.
For videos of Ms. Sundaresan’s travels to the Taj Mahal and its connections to the Taj Trilogy, access her web site: www.indusundaresan.com.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, and freelances as a copywriter.