The Twentieth Wife is a fictional account of the life of the Empress Nur Jahan, born Mehrunnissa, before she married the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and became his favorite wife and advisor. It was December’s Vaginal Fantasy pick and I was rather unimpressed by it. I started this one about a month ago and have been slowly working my way through it, forcing myself to read at least a paragraph occasionally, before finally deciding to give up the ghost today. I read the last couple of pages and counted this one done and off of my plate.
I’m a little annoyed because this should be a super fascinating story. Mehrunnissa was born as her family fled Persia due to her father’s debts, and by luck her father managed to work his way into the court of Emperor Akbar, her eventual husband’s father. She impressed of one of his wives and spent a good amount of her time in the harem of said Emperor where she caught the eye of his son and heir. However due to various reasons she was married off to another man. But when he died, she eventually married her one true love Jahangir.
According to the historical accounts I’ve read (Wikipedia) Mehrunnissa was a very learned woman, and she eventually ruled her husband’s kingdom through him. To be honest, I’d have been much more interested in the novel if the love story hadn’t been all that present. I didn’t really buy that Mehrunnissa and Jahangir had a love that lasted years, requited but never consummated and I thought there was quite a missed opportunity here to present a powerful, ambitious female protagonist who used her soft power (looks) to buy her way into the harem of an emperor and then used her intelligence to beguile and rule through him. As I said, the love story felt forced.
The writing was fairly mediocre. The characters felt flat and never really came alive. I didn’t like the way that Sundaresan presented the politics in the various harems either; it relied a bit too much on the scheming evil women archetype, which isn’t my favorite archetype out there. Also, though it’s accurate to portray Jahangir as a weak man, it does kind of make him an interesting choice for a romantic hero and not in a good way. If Sundaresan wanted me to believe that there was love between these two people, and not just ambition on the part of Mehrunnissa, there needed to be something about Jahangir the man that attracted her and that was never really presented.
It wasn’t terrible, but neither was it all that great. Pretty solid two stars.