March 14, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Kalpana Mohan

The Emperor's Wife
The Emperor's Wife

Writing a master's thesis in college is drier than writing a shopping list. Yet one writer claims she used many of the skills she learnt during that exercise to sculpt a lyrical novel.

"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."

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

"I learnt how to do intense research thanks to my thesis," says Indu Sundaresan, author of The Twentieth Wife, a historical novel set in 17th century India.

Indu, who is on a book tour of the West Coast for her debut novel, graduated with a double major in economics and operations research from the University of Delaware in 1992. She chucked the chance to make a predictable salary as a lumbering economist and plunged into the unpredictable world of writing.

Two unpublished novels, an impressive stack of rejection letters and seven exacting years later, she is the published author of a panoramic epic set in India's Mughal period.

The Twentieth Wife weaves the tale of the daughter of a Persian nobleman who went on to become the powerful wife of Emperor Jahangir. Mehrunissa, given the title 'Nur Jahan' by Jahangir, wielded greater power than her niece, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj Mahal was built. Indu's work stakes the claim that had it not been for Nur Jahan, the marriage between her niece and Shah Jahan may not have taken place. Then perhaps, just perhaps, the Taj Mahal may not have stood today.

The story opens at the remote outpost of Kandahar, in today's Afghanisthan. A baby girl named Mehrunissa is born in a nomad tent to penurious 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 decides then that she will one day be his wife. Twenty-six years after she first laid eyes on him, this once abandoned child reigns alongside Emperor Jahangir as his 20th and most prized possession, Empress Nur Jahan.

The writer paints with protean strokes from a rich palette. We witness the barren, unforgiving clutches of wintry Kandahar. In Moti Bazaar at Lahore, a man and his pet monkey perform tricks to the beat of street drummers and the clink of goblets of green sherbet.

"A tall eunuch with a wilting moustache" greets us outside Empress Ruqayya's boudoir. The empress sits on a stool as "sleekly muscled slave girls, their skins coloured with the brown hues of the earth", take off her jewels. Mehrunissa watches as "a slave girl's brown fingers, glistening with oil", move over Ruqayya's large body". In the reception hall of Lahore's fort, we see extreme debauchery. "While Prince Salim lay on the divan, head propped against a velvet bolster, a goblet balanced precariously on his chest, slave girls clad in the finest muslin swayed and undulated to the music, their ankles tinkling as they moved."

Imagining sin and sloth in 17th century India is a daunting task for a 20th century writer. But not for Indu Sundaresan. "I've been cursed with an overactive imagination," she says.

Indu travelled extensively through north India with her fighter-pilot father, when he served in the Indian Air Force. She grew up visiting and reading about forts, palaces and monuments, so setting the scene for her novel wasn't quite so hard to do. And there was one constant thing -- Hindi movies.

"If you watch Hindi movies and see all those fantastic characters, it helps," she grins. Bollywood, it seems, has its merits. In some, it even produces high-calibre writing. But this is a bit of a letdown for those who might have imagined the writer devouring Mughal diaries.

But, take heart romantics, Indu did read intensively. For half a year before she embarked on her writing, she visited the rare collections department of the University of Washington libraries. She read 10 hours a day, took detailed notes, cited everything she wrote (a skill learned from her MS thesis) and verified the authenticity of whatever she was to write.

And when the Akbarnama, Jahangirnama, Ellison Banks' Nur Jahan, Narain's translation of A Dutch Chronicle of Mughal India, Alexander Dow's translation of The History of Hindustan and all the other mighty tomes didn't give her enough details about Mehrunissa, she let her imagination fill them in, using educated guesses and intelligent extrapolation culled from facts she had gleaned in her reading. No mean feat for a girl who was regularly punished in history class at school because history was so terribly boring.

The challenge for Indu wasn't in drawing lush descriptions of imperial courtyards and ruby-encrusted turbans. It wasn't in the volume of research she did. The toughest aspect of writing was getting a sense of place everyday in the numbing cold of a Seattle apartment. In a town ruled by the moguls of Microsoft and Starbucks, it was even tougher getting a sense of time.

"So I needed physical tools," she says. "I'd turn up the thermostat in the house to 85 degrees in order to write."

The Twentieth Wife hits the stands at a time when America winces at the mention of words like Islam, Kandahar and Lahore. Yet Indu remains confident that people are now more interested than ever in reading about Eastern cultures. She believes her book may help bring perspective to a culture that Westerners struggle to understand.

In the novel, the author portrays the women of the zenana (the emperor's harem) as wielding substantial power. The Twentieth Wife raises doubts about the modern perception of the veil. "I don't think the veil was considered a symbol of oppression as it is today," Indu says.

She is a graceful storyteller. Yet in places Indu's work lacks the depth of character development we might see in contemporary fiction. At times, we wish to delve deeper into the mind of the protagonist, but the chronology of events hurries us along.

She defends her approach. "For historical events, it's important to be as accurate and faithful to the timeline as possible," she says. Had the story been told only from Mehrunissa's point of view, we might not have got a fulfilling sweep of the Mughal times.

Indu's sequel, Power Behind the Veil, will come out in April 2003. She credits her father and grandfather with suspenseful bedtime storytelling when she was growing up. For this Scheherazade of Mughal days and nights, that love of artful narration sums up the power behind her tale -- with due apologies to the dissertation committee of a 1992 master's thesis.

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