THE TWENTIETH WIFE, Indu Sundaresan's story of Mehrunnisa, the
Persian refugee who became Empress of India during the Mughal
Empire, is above all a tale of ambition. Mehrunnisa spies Prince
Salim, the prince who will one day be Emperor, when she is eight
years old. Despite her age, she determines to marry him one day;
she's ambitious even before she understands what she wants.
Unfortunately for Mehrunnisa, she is hardly the only schemer around
the Indian court. Prince Salim has rivals for the throne and for
his father's affection. He also has a harem of wives and
concubines, all of whom have their own positions to advance and no
reason to help a beautiful young woman possessed of rare charm and
intelligence. Mehrunnisa's own father, determined not to squander
the good fortune he's found in his new country, has his own plans
for his daughter. She finds herself married to Ali Quli, a blunt,
churlish soldier who has found favor in the Emperor's court.
So much for Mehrunnisa's youthful love and hopes. Her culture is
unimpressed with romance: she must put her dreams of passion aside
and become a wife and mother. Mehrunnisa behaves correctly and
lives up to the expectations of her family and society, only to
face a series of disappointments that remove her even further from
the young Emperor: her father embezzles from the royal treasury,
her husband and brother are embroiled in a plot against the
Emperor's life. Surely, as the years pass, if Prince Salim
remembers Mehrunnisa at all, it is only as a member of a family he
A love like theirs, however, can't be rooted out by silly,
meaningless things like time, politics, and other marriages (one
for Mehrunnisa and, yes, 19 for Salim). When they meet again, it's
clear where their destiny lies.
The setting of THE TWENTIETH WIFE is a repressive one for men and
women alike. Duty to the Emperor's every whim is absolute and the
notion of controlling one's own life would seem bizarre in their
eyes. Mehrunnisa is not our culture's idea of a feminist; she does
not struggle to change the laws of her society, only to fulfill her
ambition within them.
This book takes us to the beginning of Mehrunnisa's power. The
story of her reign as Empress will be told in a sequel, THE POWER
BEHIND THE VEIL. It will be fascinating to learn what sort of ruler
Mehrunnisa's youthful experiences have forged.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 24, 2011