In Indu Sundaresan’s lush historical romance, The Twentieth Wife, we read of Mumtaz Mahal’s aunt, Mehrunnisa, a woman known to Indian history as Nur. Indu Sundaresan is an Indian-American author of historical fiction. Contents. 1 Career; 2 Personal; 3 Awards; 4 Works; 5 References; 6 External links. Career[ edit]. Her first novel The Twentieth Wife is about how a young widow named. Written by Indu Sundaresan Unfortunately, The Twentieth Wife is less than enthralling, for although its subjects are fascinating people, its setting is exotic, and.

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The kings and queens of India, like the great potentates of many eastern countries, are unknown to most North Americans. Those rulers known to Westerners are known primarily because of passionate romances or some connection to Western history or Western religion. The history of Nur Jahan is cluttered with legend, gossip and propaganda. As such, the writer who wishes to create a novel about this formidable woman has a daunting task: The author must choose those elements that best suit the purpose, mold, and fit of a particular genre.

Indu Sundaresan chooses to use the genre of romantic historical fiction. The genre has its limitations and its requirements. Those readers who like the genre will like The Twentieth Wife. Those who are uncomfortable with the genre will find the book problematical. When the story begins, it is Mehrunnisa is a newborn and, along with her disgraced and impoverished family, she becomes attached to the court of Emperor Akbar of the Mughal empire.

This comes about through serendipitous, almost divinely destined, circumstances: Like all fairy-tale heroines, Mehrunnissa is a woman of great beauty, charm, and seemingly magical destiny. Sundraresan’s decision to use many other aspects of the real-life legends makes the story almost a fairytale. The author is a wonderfully descriptive writer. The setting comes alive so vividly that one can smell the chai and feel the winds blowing across the empire.

The politics and social hierarchy are also well-depicted. Through the descriptions of sights, sounds, smells twentietn tastes, the reader is plunged into a world that is miles and aeons away, ijdu yet which seems familiar and real.

The narration has the feel of a fairytale. And yet the story does not rest firmly in this category because Mehrunnissa is not a typical fairytale heroine. For one thing, she is not particularly likeable.

Sunearesan has a sense of entitlement that is off-putting and which makes it hard for readers to identify with her. Her youthful desire to become a prince’s wife seems arrogant and obsessive, just the kind of thing a spoiled rich kid would want. The fact that she falls in love with the prince without really knowing him makes the obsession seem childish and shallow. When Sundaresan throws us the literary feminist bone — Mehrunnissa didn’t want to be like all the other powerless women of her time and that is why she wanted to be the relatively free favored wife — the reader doesn’t quite believe it.


But Mehrunnissa is beautiful and destined for great things.

Soon — of course! Finally she meets Salim face to face and it’s love at first sight.

The Twentieth Wife

But, as plot devices require, Salim meets and falls in love with twengieth too late. Mehrunnissa is to be given in marriage to Ali Quli, a loutish Persian soldier. Later, she meets Salim again. While she is praying, of course. They share holy pure love-filled passionate kisses, but alas, destiny and plot machinations have other plans.

After enduring miscarriages, infidelities by her husband — who also betrays Salim — Mehrunnisa finally gets her wish: The trouble with this fairytale is the main character. Mehrunnissa has it too good even from the start. She is a schemer, scheming for someone she doesn’t know sundarresan something she considers her divine right. This kind of character subdaresan to have the reader on her side.

History does not know for sure when Mehrunnisa conceived her love for the prince. The legends and histories hhe. But the author has chosen to use those aspects of the legend that show Mehrunnissa as a eife destined one waiting for her love.

And this choice is a mistake. Beauty, charm, blessedness, a feeling of entitlement and waiting around simply don’t cut it for a heroine. In fairytales, the average reader wants to root for an underdog, not a pampered rich girl who believes sunxaresan should have a prince. And the little suffering tossed Mehrunnissa’s way never succeeded in winning this reader over.

In the zenana the royal court’s women’s quartersscheming to be top dog is par for the course. The author obviously wants the reader to be on Mehrunnissa’s side. For the most part, at least. This means that readers have to make a mental shift to accept polygamy and Mehrunnissa’s scheming to usurp the top wife’s place as merely the trials of ths love.

A stunning beauty who wants to usurp the top dog position from another wife and to be the wife of a substance-abusing prince — the typical bad guy who changes sundaresab of the love of a good woman — whom she has only met three twentietj And who is Mehrunnissa: This is a hard task for a writer. Sundaresan is aware of her task.

She obviously knows that her principal audience — romance readers — need a comfortable love story. This is obvious because she anticipates every possible discomfort her reader might feel and has written the story to prevent offense. For instance, she makes Salim’s second wife, Jagat Gosini, an imperious snob and the daughter of a fat ruler, no less.


With wife 2 thus judged, wife 1 sundaresann milquetoast material, and the other wives safely glossed over, the reader can safely, in the appropriate literary way, indulge a malicious glee in seeing wife 2 get her comeuppance we are even supposed to be happy that wife 2’s aundaresan was taken away. The intrigue between the two scheming women is a literary device romance writers often use.

Lovers of the genre will appreciate it. But for others, it seems like nothing more than two high school queen bees battling it out over the star quarterback. Prince Salim may be Indian, but his romantic type is all-American: All this leads to the major problem with the book: For instance, Mehrunnissa’s Persian husband would have to be a lout — the better to ease the discomfort of romance readers.

Literary genres are static, as are society’s ideas of “great women. Instead, they praise those women whose ambitions are subtly clothed in finesse and feminine wiles Hwentieth is unwilling to challenge these long-standing ideas.


Mehrunnisa is admired because she is ambitious without being bitchy. She is even kind although this seems more like another literary device designed to gain sympathy. The book will find its true audience. It is my deep regret that I am not the book’s perfect reader. The book is wonderfully written but it’s not for me. And yet for those who love a good yarn, the book is poetic, the historical age is well-depicted, and the characters are vivid.


The author shows no sense of irony in depicting a girl who is daddy’s favorite desiring to be the favorite among an Emperor’s bevy of undu. Freud would have a lot of fun with this book.

But for me, the literary manipulations are too obvious at times. Mehrunnisa is too perfect, lucky and blessed to identify with. Who wants to see someone like this at the top? The Twentieth Wife Indu Sundaresan book reviews: Also by Indu Sundaresan: Shadow Princess The Feast of Roses.

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