The love story of Emperor Jahangir and Mehrunnisa, begun in the critically praised debut novel The Twentieth Wife, continues in Indu Sundaresan's The Feast of Roses. This lush new novel tells the story behind one of the great tributes to romantic love and one of the seven wonders of the world -- the Taj Mahal.
Mehrunnisa, better known as Empress Nur Jahan, comes into Jahangir's harem as his twentieth and last wife. Almost from the beginning of her royal life she fits none of the established norms of womanhood in seventeenth-century India.
Mehrunnisa is the first woman Jahangir marries for love, at the "old" age of thirty-four. He loves her so deeply that he eventually transfers his powers of sovereignty to her.
Power and wealth do not come easily to Mehrunnisa -- she has to fight for them. She has a formidable rival in the imperial harem, Empress Jagat Gosini, who has schemed and plotted against Mehrunnisa from early on. Mehrunnisa's problems do not just lie within the harem walls, but at court, too, as she battles powerful ministers for supremacy. These ministers, who have long had Emperor Jahangir's confidence and trust, consider Mehrunnisa a mere woman who cannot have a voice in the outside world.
Mehrunnisa combats all of this by forming a junta of sorts with three men she can rely on -- her father, her brother, and Jahangir's son Prince Khurram. She demonstrates great strength of character and cunning to get what she wants, sometimes at a cost of personal sorrow when she almost loses her daughter's love. But she never loses the love of the man who bestows this power upon her -- Emperor Jahangir. The Feast of Roses is a tale of this power and love, the story of power behind a veil.
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December 31, 2002
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Excerpt from The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundaresan
Nature had endowed her with a quick understanding, a piercing intellect, a versatile temper, sound common sense. Education had developed the gifts of nature in no common degree. She was versed in Persian literature and composed verses, limpid and flowing, which assisted her in capturing the heart of her husband.
-- BENI PRASAD, History of Jahangir
The months of June and July passed. The monsoons were tardy this year -- the nights hinted rain constantly with an aroma in the air, a cooling on the skin, soundless lightning across skies. But when morning came, the sun rose strong again, mocking Agra and its inhabitants. And the days crawled by, brazenly hot, when every breath was an effort, every movement a struggle, every night sweat-stewed. In temples, incantations were offered, the muezzins called the faithful to prayers, their voices melodious and pleading, and the bells of the Jesuit churches chimed. But the Gods seemed indifferent. The rice paddies lay plowed after the pre-monsoon rains, awaiting the seedlings; too long a wait and the ground would grow hard again.
A few people moved torpidly in the streets of Agra; only the direst of emergencies had called them from their cool, stone-flagged homes. Even the normally frantic pariah dogs lay panting on doorsteps, too exhausted to yelp when passing urchins pelted them with stones.
The bazaars were barren too, shopfronts pulled down, shopkeepers too tired to haggle with buyers. Custom could wait for cooler times. The whole city seemed to have slowed to a halt.
The imperial palaces and courtyards were hushed in the night, the corridors empty of footsteps. Slaves and eunuchs plied iridescent peacock feather fans, wiping their perspiring faces with one hand. The ladies of the harem slept under the intermittent breeze of the fans, goblets of cold sherbets flavored with khus and ginger resting by their sides. Every now and then, a slave would refresh the goblet, bringing in another one filled with new shards of ice. When her mistress awoke, and wake she would many times during the night, her drink would be ready. The ice, carved in huge chunks from the Himalayan Mountains, covered with gunnysacks and brought down to the plains in bullock carts, was a blessing for everyone, nobles and commoners alike. But in this heat, ice melted all too soon, disappearing into a puddle of warm water under sawdust and jute.