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.
Sundaresan picks up the story of Mehrunnisa, the remarkable heroine from her debut novel, Twenty Wives, as the so-called "Light of the World" consolidates her power as wife of Emperor Jahangir of the Mughal Empire in 17th-century India, only to see her dominion destroyed by her own aggressive tendencies. The early chapters find Mehrunnisa confronting two rivals, who happen to be old friends of her husband, and eliminating them in a brief series of power struggles. She also talks Jahangir into letting her appear at the jharokaceremony, in which the emperor presents himself to his subjects, an unprecedented achievement for a woman. Her problems start when Jahangir falls seriously ill and the battle for succession to the throne begins, a struggle that comes to a head when Mehrunnisa fails to marry off her daughter, Ladli, to one of the primary contenders, Prince Khurram. The battle for succession escalates, but even as Mehrunnisa maneuvers to keep power, her downfall is sealed by a pivotal incident in which she accidentally kills a palace intruder. The novel's scope and ambition are impressive, as are the numerous period details and descriptions of the various cultural ceremonies that distinguish court life in royal India. But Sundaresan delves into too many palace intrigues in this overplotted affair, which seems especially cluttered in the first half, and her florid, busy writing style produces some uneven, tedious stretches. The book's setting brings to life an underexplored period in fiction, however, and readers who enjoyed the first volume will find similar pleasures tracking the fate of one of history's most intriguing women.