I just finished reading Shadow Princess, the third book in Sundaresan’s series about the women of Mughal India. Unlike the Feast of Roses (which should be preceded in reading by the Twentieth Wife), this one stands on its own.
It begins with the death of Mumtaz Mahal, the woman for whom the Taj Mahal was built, and ends with her husband’s death. In between, the life of their eldest daughter, Jahanara, is told with love and historical accuracy. Part history, part travelogue, and part fiction, Sundaresan weaves the smells, sights, and sounds of India into the human stories of larger-than-life historical characters.
When I read Sundaresan’s novels, I feel the heat on my skin, the cool breeze wafting through marble halls, and smell the cool smell of apples or the warm scent of naan. She writes a fairytale world of jewels and elephants, wars and stone monuments—but it’s not a fairytale. The best part about getting lost in this world is that it’s real.
Inlaid into this world, like precious jewels into a marble slab, are the women of the imperial zenana (the Persian word for a harem). Clad in wisps of silk and heavy jewels of all kinds, they move history with a soft word and a strong will. Women in Mughal India (according to the history I’ve learned from Sundaresan’s books) were not allowed in public; but women in the imperial zenana, who had the ear of the most powerful men in the empire—the emperor himself and his sons—had the power to have their presence felt beyond the walls of the zenana. Sundaresan’s series is about these amazing historical women and the changes they made to their country.
Jahanara, after her mother’s death, finds herself at the head of her father’s zenana. He had other wives, true, and one ought to have taken Mumtaz Mahal’s place. But because of his love for both Mumtaz and Jahanara, it is his daughter who becomes the most powerful woman in the greatest empire in the world. And she is equal to the task. Though she is seen by few men in her life (besides the eunuchs who are her servants and guards), her presence is felt by nobleman and commoner alike. To find out in just what kinds of ways, you’ll have to read for yourself.
Throughout the book, which is chiefly her story, are little chapters on the building of the Taj Mahal. From its birth in the imagination of Jahanara’s father (and in the shape of the tomb built by the star of the other two novels, Mehrunnisa, Jahanara’s great aunt), as the site is leveled in preparation, as it slowly begins to rise, gleaming white, from the ground, to its completion.
The relationships the women have are why I read these books. At a time when women had little to no power, Jahanara (in Shadow Princess) and Mehrunnisa (in the Twentieth Wife and the Feast of Roses) stand out as intelligent women who use their power to get things done. The men in their lives—fathers, husbands, lovers, and sons—have great love and respect for them because they defy convention, rather than in spite of that fact. Here are women (women!) who are their intellectual equals (sometimes betters), a welcome rarity. These are not coddled women who live only for the feel of silk on their skin and the weight of jewels in their hands, but real people who participate actively in the politics of their country.
It’s a great read and a great ride. It makes me want to travel to India, to buy a copy for every woman I know, and to act to change my world for the better. These are not books filled with happily-ever-afters; they are books filled with the real humanity of their characters—the joys and sadnesses alike. Perhaps that is what attracts me the most: these books tell the Truth without having to sugarcoat it.
Obligatory fine print: cmp.ly/1 and cmp.ly/2 (because legally, I can’t distinguish between them): Indu sent me a copy of the book through her publisher with the express request that I review it but without any request about what the contents of that review might be. Also, cmp.ly/5: John and I have Amazon affiliate links up. If you choose to buy the book through Amazon, we’ll get a small amount of cash.