Buddy Read: The best kind of historical fiction, set in India and based on real people and events
The Twentieth Wife #1, Indu Sandaresan
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published 2002, 371 pages
This is a debut novel by a local author (Seattleite) that we chose because of our joint interest in stories set in India. The Twentieth Wife is a well researched historical novel rich in details of 1500s India during the Moghul Empire. The novel focuses on the story of Mehrunnisa, a young Persian girl whose family finds refuge in India and whose father gets a job with the court. The royal court of King Akbar and one of his sons, Prince Salim, are the corollary story line because, of course, she falls in love with the Prince and dreams of being Empress.
Her dreams are thwarted when the King commands her to marry another man. The Prince goes on to marry many other wives and has a huge harem. There is a lot of court intrigue, back stabbing, and battles as petulant, impatient Princes try to take the throne.
When I opened the book and saw the list of character names, I said out loud "oh oh". Man oh man - those names! When any book has a name I don't know how to pronounce (whether a person or place), my brain sticks at it every time as I try to figure out the pronunciation. I make myself crazy. Between the people and places and cultural words, this book had my head spinning. About half way through I was able to let all those names drop away except for the handful of main characters. I read them, but made no effort to retain or pronounce them.
All the names aside, the book did give me insights into a history and culture I know nothing about. I particularly enjoyed the cultural references and the rules around the court and harem. The extreme wealth of the royal family is certainly evident in all the descriptions of clothing and jewels and lavish entertainments. Not much different from current royal families, I guess.
While I found the love story between the prince and Mehrunnisa mildly interesting, I have a hard time wrapping my head around a love that begins with an 8 year old girl and lasts through years without any contact with a man she only met briefly once or twice. However, I loved the relationship between Mehrunnisa and her father. The respect and love and support felt genuine.
Reading challenge: #Popsugar20 book with 20 or Twenty in the title
I agree completely with Terrie as far as the names of people and places - I mostly ignored them and just focused on the main characters. Don't get scared away by all the long, unpronounceable names because you'll miss a story that's interesting at its core. There's a lot of history covered in The Twentieth Wife but it didn't overshadow the story of the royal family.
The original Emperor Akbar is a kind ruler and tries to be fair and just and is just about destroyed when his son Salim tries various ways to dethrone him. Ironically, many years later when Salim is Emperor, his own son also tries to dethrone him. They were both so impatient to be rulers and it brought sorrow and death to the royal court.
I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of food and the countryside sprinkled throughout the story.
The city was set in a valley amid the Himalayan mountains, The air was pure and heady, like amrit, drink of the gods. The lower hills, clad in autumnal colors of fiery reds and browns, rolled gently down to golden fields of ripening wheat, broken only by the silver glitter of the Jhelum River snaking through the valley. Behind, snow-clad mountains reared their majestic heads to the vast blue sky.
When Emperor Akbar orders Mehrunnisa to marry a man she does not want to marry, she does her duty but they don't have a happy life. When she says anything negative about him to her mother, or, when she told her mother she was pregnant before telling her husband, her mother says:
"He should have been the first to know. There must be no sense of impropriety in what you do, Nisa. No one should be able to point a finger and say that what you did was wrong. Appearances must be maintained at all costs."
The duties of the royals and of the people who serve them are often heavy to bear. There is real insight here into the lives of these people which I really enjoyed. This story continues in the author's sequel The Feast of Roses and I am looking forward to learning what comes next.