On the 11th of May, 1611, Emperor Jahangir marries a Persian refugee's daughter
and brings her into his harem. Thus ends The Twentieth
Wife (Pocket Books, February 2002). Jahangir's nineteen other marriages
have all been contracted for political reasons—Mehrunnisa is the first and only
woman he marries for love, at the 'old' age of thirty-four. And almost from the
beginning, this daughter of an immigrant Persian fits none of the established norms
of womanhood in 17th century India.
Mehrunnisa is known to us by the title Jahangir bestows upon her—Empress Nur Jahan.
Over the next seventeen years of Jahangir's life, in The
Feast of Roses (Atria Books, May 2003) she becomes Emperor in all but
name of the vast Mughal lands that encompass modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh
and a massive chunk of northern and central India.
Although living in an imperial harem, behind a veil, her movements fettered, Mehrunnisa
assumes the powers of sovereignty that Jahangir willing bestows upon this beloved
wife, whom he loves obsessively and deeply, and trusts beyond everyone else around
him. By the end of Jahangir's reign, Mehrunnisa mints coins in her name, signs on
imperial orders and edicts, and builds some of the most wondrous Mughal monuments,
tombs and gardens that still stand today in India.
Yet, this abundance of riches does not come easily to Mehrunnisa—she has to fight
fiercely for them. She has little status in the harem to begin with, being low in
the hierarchy of wives and concubines. She has a formidable rival in the imperial
harem, Empress Jagat Gosini, who has schemed and plotted against Mehrunnisa from
early on. And Mehrunnisa's problems do not end at the harem walls; at court she
battles powerful ministers for supremacy. These are men who have long had Emperor
Jahangir's confidence and trust, and they consider that Mehrunnisa, a mere woman—one
who lives under a veil—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 upon—her father, her brother and Jahangir's son Prince Khurram. But halfway
through her rule, even the junta disintegrates, leaving her without supporters at
the time when she is most in need of help. Through it all, Mehrunnisa demonstrates
strength of character and cunning to get what she wants. The woman who fretted about
life's absurdities, with few resources to change them in
The Twentieth Wife, finds full expression to her character and personality
in The Feast of Roses.
Immersed in her new life as Empress, Mehrunnisa even uses her daughter Ladli as
a pawn in her schemes, overlooking her child's wants and loves, and almost losing
Ladli's trust. But she never loses the love of the man who bestows this enormous
power upon her—Emperor Jahangir.
Based on historical record and early travelers' tales to India,
The Feast of Roses is the story of the most powerful woman in the Mughal
dynasty that built the Taj Mahal in India.