Reading Group Guide - Shadow Princess
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Reading Group Guide
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Q&A with Indu Sundaresan

This reading group guide for Shadow Princess includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Indu Sundaresan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

In Shadow Princess, Indu Sundaresan returns to the vibrant land she depicted in her novels The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses—seventeenth century India, where the court of the Mughal Empire is thrown into turmoil after the untimely death of the Empress Mumtaz Mahal.

The Emperor, overwhelmed by grief, considers giving up his throne before changing his mind and focusing his energies on creating a spectacular memorial for his beloved wife. Jahanara, their eldest daughter, becomes her father’s closest ally and confidant. As she assumes the coveted role of head of the zenana, the imperial harem, a rivalry with her sister Roshanara escalates into a dangerous competition: for authority within the harem, for their father’s affection, and for the future of their country, each supporting a different brother to be the next Emperor.

With a flair and enthusiasm for history and culture, Sundaresan creates a richly detailed and vivid novel about the lives of two royal women and their struggles for power and consequence—a story that unfolds in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, their mother’s final resting place and the greatest monument in Indian history.

1. In what ways does Mumtaz Mahal’s death change the dynamics of the royal household and, ultimately, the future of the Empire? How does her passing affect Jahanara in particular?

2. Before her death Mumtaz Mahal noted that “there was already a slender rivalry” between her two eldest daughters, “so inconsequential now as almost not to exist” (page 3). How does this “slender rivalry” develop into a full-blown contentious relationship between the sisters? How much of their dislike for one another has to do with personality and how much with the environment in which they live?

3. Why does the Emperor forbid Jahanara, and also Roshanara, for whom he has little affection, from marrying? Why does Jahanara never ask her father for permission to marry Najabat Khan?

4. Roshanara is often spiteful towards Jahanara, starting rumors of incest between her sister and the Emperor and setting her sights on Najabat Khan. What does she hope to gain by doing these things? Is her behavior at all understandable? Why or why not?

5. How is Jahanara both powerful and powerless? In what ways is she a “shadow princess,” as the novel’s title suggests?

6. Why does Jahanara risk visiting the exiled Mehrunnisa in Lahore? What does she hope to gain from the encounter, and does she get what she wants? What is Mehrunnisa’s perception of Jahanara?

7. Discuss Jahanara’s unconventional relationship with Najabat Khan, which endures for decades. After their brief first meeting, she is convinced that she wants to marry him. Why is she so certain about this? How much of her desire to be with him has to do with the fact that he was her mother’s choice of husband for her?

8. How is Jahanara influential in matters of state? In what instances are her opinions and insight most critical? Why does she staunchly support Dara as Shah Jahan’s successor and vehemently oppose Aurangzeb’s claim to the throne?

9. What merit is there to Aurangzeb’s belief that he is often slighted and belittled by the members of his family? Explain whether or not you think this treatment contributes to his later ruthless actions. How does the prophecy given to the Emperor, stating that a son with a birthmark would be “the death of him” (231), affect his relationship with Aurangzeb?

10. Trace Aurangzeb’s path to the throne. What strategies does he use to overthrow his father and obtain the Emperor’s crown? Are his actions, including having his three brothers murdered, justifiable in any way? How about considering the fact that his father used similar methods to become Emperor?

11. Why does Jahanara give up her son, Antarah? Does she have any other choice? “In the end it was Aurangzeb, with his rigid views on propriety and decency, who reached out a hand to his sister’s son, a boy she would never acknowledge in public” (254). Why does Aurangzeb, and not Dara or one of Jahanara’s other brothers, reach out to Antarah?

12. Jahanara could have abandoned her father after he became ill, but instead she remains with him in exile for nine years. Why does she refuse to leave him?

13. Indu Sundaresan reveals in the Afterword that after Shah Jahan’s death Jahanara returns to court to be the head of Aurangzeb’s harem. Do you find it surprising that she would accept a position in her brother’s household given her feelings for him? Why or why not?

14. Have you read Indu Sundaresan’s novels The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses? If so, how do they compare to Shadow Princess? If not, are you now interested in reading them?

1. Feast on an Indian meal, either meeting at a restaurant or having each member bring a different dish. Enhance the atmosphere by eating apples, sipping chai tea (“fragrant with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg”), and savoring chicken biryani like the characters do in the book. Check out www.recipesindian.com.

2. Who wouldn’t want to be a royal princess for an evening? Come dressed in either red, Jahanara’s signature color, or green, Roshanara’s preferred hue.

3. View pictures of the Taj Mahal at www.indohistory.com/taj_mahal_history.html and www.taj-mahal.net/augEng/main_screen.htm.

4. Visit www.InduSundaresan.com to find out more about the author and her other books in the “Taj Mahal Trilogy,” read the back story behind Shadow Princess, and view a family tree outlining the major players in the novels.

Q: The Luminous Tomb in the Taj Mahal is constructed from white marble. What is the significance of the color white in Indian culture? What about red and green, the signature colors of Jahanara and Roshanara?

A: White is actually the color of mourning in most of India for both Hindus and Muslims. Red is the color of weddings, clothing, decorations, and jewelry, so also now a lot of green. As for the Taj Mahal (the mausoleum itself, I mean), almost entirely constructed from striated white marble, I think Emperor Shah Jahan was inspired by the tomb (Itimadaddaula’s tomb) that still stands today across the River Yamuna from the Taj. This was the mausoleum Mehrunnisa constructed for her father circa 1628 when she was still Empress, and it’s the first important example of an all-white marble tomb in the reign of the Mughals. All other tombs until then—Emperor Akbar’s tomb in Sikandara; Emperor Humayun’s tomb in Delhi—were made largely of the red sandstone found plentifully in quarries near Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. White marble was mostly used for inlay. But Itimadaddaula’s tomb is a thing of wonder, really, all-white marble, inlaid in every possible surface with semi-precious stones in muted colors of light yellows, greens and blacks, and it was completed three years before Mumtaz Mahal died. Gazing across the river, Emperor Shah Jahan eventually adopted this same marble architecture for his wife’s tomb—Itimadaddaula was Mumtaz’s grandfather, after all—even though, by then, 1631 he had come to detest the woman who had made it and had exiled her to Lahore.

Q: The novel includes fascinating passages about the creation of the Taj Mahal. What can you tell us about your visits to the Taj Mahal? What was about it the majestic monument that made the greatest impression on you?

A: There’s that moment when I step into the cavernous hallway of the Great Gate, the main entrance to the tomb, and step out onto the platform that leads into the gardens of the Taj, that is always magical. Here, in moving from the darkness to the light, I’m confronted with this “traditional” view of the Taj—the long reflecting pool along the pathway, the square pool that halves this long pool, the red sandstone platform that houses the white marble mausoleum in the center. When I visit the Taj Mahal’s complex, it’s this entire complex that I roam today—the two red sandstone buildings, the mosque to the left (west) and the assembly hall to the right (east) that flank the marble mausoleum. The Great Gate itself which people often pass through quickly, eager for their first sight of the Taj. The pavilions that mark the four corners of the complex, even the space in front of the riverfront terrace where Mumtaz Mahal is said to have been buried briefly until the terrace and the subterranean rooms under the mausoleum were completed. I’ve been to the river’s bank and seen the back of the Taj (the same view you see on the Shadow Princess cover); I’ve roamed through the Jilaukhana, the forecourt to the tomb, which is where a visitor will buy tickets and enter through before getting to the Great Gate. In researching every structure in the Taj’s mammoth complex, I’ve become familiar with each of these buildings; I know their history, their purpose, their original intent. I’m an often too garrulous guide for my family, too excited, but there’s a sense of calm and comfort here also.

Q: What research did you do for Shadow Princess when you traveled to India in late 2009?

A: This last trip to visit Delhi and Agra didn’t involve any research at all—Shadow Princess was finished, researched, written, edited, and copyedited by then. But I did shoot two videos in Agra, describing the places where the stories take place in the Taj Trilogy and also Shadow Princess specifically. We got some lovely footage at Agra Fort, Itimadaddaula’s tomb and of course, on the banks of the river with the Taj behind me.

Q: You once said in an interview that Indian people have been hearing stories about the great noblewomen of the Mughal Empire all their lives. How have Western readers reacted to your novels The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses? For those who have yet to read Shadow Princess, what would you like to tell them about Jahanara?

A: From people who are unfamiliar with India’s history, especially the Mughal period, I hear stories of how they welcome this glimpse into a world that’s unfamiliar to them, and more importantly, how they can relate to a woman who lived in 17th Century India. Readers admire Mehrunnisa’s ambition, even her cunning, and her capacity for loving and being caring—feelings and thoughts that are contemporary, I think, to any generation. She was a woman hidden behind a veil, who had enormous power and exercised that power to the best of her abilities. Jahanara, in Shadow Princess, inherits a similar power, unlike Mehrunnisa she doesn’t have to fight for it. And yet, there are plenty of obstacles in her way. Beloved as she is of her father, immensely rich from inheriting her mother’s income, she still has to fight to put her brother Dara on the throne, and engage in a rivalry with her sister. The interesting thing about Mehrunnisa and Jahanara is that they were both powerful women—one (in a more traditional role) in her husband Emperor Jahangir’s harem; the other (more unconventionally) in her father’s harem. They both had the devotion of the male principal, but even after writing these three novels of the trilogy I still wonder—was the wife more beloved than the daughter? Or the other way around?

Q: You mention in the Afterword that you came across references to Jahanara while doing research for a previous novel. What was it about the princess that captured your interest? Did you know immediately that she would be the focus of one of your novels?

A: The initial mentions of Jahanara and Roshanara came when I was reading (for The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses) Niccolao Manucci’s travelogue. (For those of you interested, the full reference is in the bibliography in Shadow Princess). This is what I remember reading: that Jahanara was a mere seventeen when her mother died and became powerful almost immediately after Mumtaz’s death; that she was never allowed to marry; that both Roshanara and she smuggled men into the harem for their pleasure; that they both dabbled in politics and supported different brothers as their father’s successors. There was enough, in these little bits of information to intrigue me and I knew then that they would be part of a future novel; it hadn’t taken shape in my mind fully, that would only come later, after I had finished The Splendor of Silence and In the Convent of Little Flowers. At the time, I read, stored away the information and went on to write something else.

Q: Kashmiri women guard the entrance to the Emperor’s private chamber. Was this an unusual responsibility for women at the time, to physically defend a royal inner sanctum?

A: Given the very nature of the harem, or the zenana, as a place where the women of the royal family were protected from the eyes of strange men and also the outside world in general, the guards were either eunuchs or women. The Mughal emperor’s sleeping quarters within the walls of the harem; this was where he found peace and comfort from his daily duties. So he was guarded right outside by either “tough” women hired especially for the job, or eunuchs. Outside the harem was usually a cordon of Ahadis, men who formed the emperor’s personal bodyguards, and beyond them, every week, a privileged noble from court would bring his personal army, set up camp and defend his sovereign.

Q: You write in the novel that Jahanara believes she and her sisters “would remain Mumtaz Mahal’s daughters—always in the dark when held up to her light. They would be the princesses in the perpetual shadow of the queen who had died” (page 63). How has history remembered Jahanara?

A: It’s interesting to note that the most persistent and evocative image of Mughal India is the Taj Mahal; in fact the Taj Mahal symbolizes India for most of the world. So Mumtaz Mahal is the woman who is best known among all the women of the empire. In my Taj Mahal trilogy, the first two novels, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, are about Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan, who was aunt to Mumtaz Mahal. Shadow Princess is about Jahanara, Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter. The reason I wrote the trilogy thus, surrounding Mumtaz Mahal, but not giving her a book of her own, was because in their time (though not in ours) Mehrunnisa and Jahanara were supremely powerful, influenced the course of Indian history, assumed powers of a sovereign while being mere women who lived behind a veil, within the walls of a harem. History doesn’t remember these two women much, but now, I hope readers will.

Q: Shadow Princess contains intriguing details about the time period, from the workings of the court and women’s fashion to elephant fights and using runners as a means of communication. How did you go about researching all of these facts? Have you always been interested in history?

A: I was actually a very poor student of history—for various reasons, bad textbooks, indifferent teaching, and just a prevailing notion that history was supposed to be boring. But as a child and a teenager, I read a vast amount of (European) historical fiction, which then triggered the want to read non-fiction to search for the truth behind the novels, which eventually led to my love of history. When I first began to write, I knew that India has this incredibly rich history, almost untapped in a fictional form and so this was what I wanted to do in my writing. It also helps, that now, I will gladly read long tomes on empires, battles and wars searching for a small spark that will inspire my work!

Q: Is writing stories set in India a way to stay connected to your native country? What brought you to live in the U.S.?

A: I came to the U.S. for graduate school at the University of Delaware, and have degrees in economics and operations research. I was going to be an economist, and somehow along the way, turned myself toward fiction—though I must admit I hadn’t dreamt to writing as a child or any such; the thought came one day to write a novel. Well, so I did. And then I wrote another one. And then I wrote my first published work, The Twentieth Wife! And yes, to the first question; I write about India because it keeps me connected to the country of my birth.

Q: If you had the chance to go back in time and live in the Mughal Empire, would you do so? What would you be most interested in seeing or experiencing firsthand?

A: Believe it or not, as much as I have inhabited the world of the Mughals over the last decade or so in the writing of this trilogy, I have never thought of actually going back to live there! So this is an interesting question indeed. If I could go back, I’d like to be the proverbial fly on the wall, with the ability to move invisibly as the Mughal royals (especially the ones I write about) live their lives, listen in to their conversations, watch the actual feast of roses (as described in the book), and move from one generation to the other. All this, just to see how correctly I’ve portrayed them! That is what I really want to do.

© Indu Sundaresan
Contact Indu: indu (at) indusundaresan (dot) com