The Feast Of Roses by Indu Sundaresan is from the Taj Mahal Trilogy which brings to light the magnificent stories of a few (however veiled) Mughal women. Mughal stories aren’t new to me; after all, Mughal history is inked in most parts of India. And every now and then a big banner Bollywood film is based on it. Bollywood tends to take ‘creative freedom’ and tailors history to provide masses with an enthralling story, much like Mughal-e-Azam. What Bollywood hasn’t touched yet are the stories of some extraordinary Mughal women. Women like Empress Nur Jahan.
This is the story of the most hated yet the most powerful Mughal woman — Nur Jahan. The woman who was Emperor in all but name … and gender.
I bet the name Nur Jahan sounds familiar. You might’ve heard of it in a fictional version of Salim-Anarkali, or maybe in the depths of Taj Mahal’s history. But Nur Jahan wasn’t just a mere blip in Mughal history. She held immense power and was undeterred by the veil.
…they felt that though she might be physically here, Empress Nur Jahan had a reach that went beyond a mere mortal’s ability.
— A quote from the book capturing what her subjects thought of her
In The Feast Of Roses, Indu Sundaresan traces the life of Mehrunnisa after she became Nur Jahan. For a woman born to a refugee, that too in a time when women had little significance, Mehrunnisa had ambitions beyond anyone’s imagination. How does a veiled woman who is restricted to the the zenana achieve such ambitions? – By making the Emperor fall in love with her.
After 19 marriages for the purpose of diplomacy and producing heirs, Emperor Jahangir, for his twentieth and last wife, married the woman he had loved from afar for a long long time. Over the course of the marriage, Mehrunnisa managed to alienate the Emperor from his closest friends, his sons, and his other wives. Jahangir was wholly and solely Mehrunissa’s. So strong (or blind?) was his love for Mehrunnisa that he let her sign farmans in his name, stand in the jharoka (assembly), and also have her name on national coinage (currency). It didn’t matter to him that the empire snickered at his manhood, or that they whispered that it was Mehrunnisa ruling from within the bedroom.
Mehrunnisa for her part was first and foremost a doting wife. In the book, Indu Sundaresan has romanticized the nights that the two spent together making it seem almost like a simple relationship. The actual details however will never be known. But beyond being one of his 20 wives, she was his strength. She was his closest confidante. She was his partner. For Emperor Jahangir, she was his equal. With that much power it’s no wonder that a simple decision can change the course of history forever. Many historians blame the bloodshed of Emperor Jahangir’s sons on Mehrunnisa. It wasn’t Mehrunnisa’s hand that held the sword which beheaded Jahangir’s heir apparent. It wasn’t even her tongue that gave the order to execute every male heir of Jahangir. It was Emperor Jahangir’s own son who murdered every brother to wear the imperial turban. But Mehrunnisa is blamed because she made one mistake – she never forgave Shah Jahan for refusing to marry her daughter. One marriage proposal was all it took to change the way Emperors were made.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
That too a woman with an Empire at her feet.
With the advantage of hindsight all of us like to think about what ifs. And historical writers thrive on that. Whether Mughal history would’ve taken a different course will always remain a question and we have to satisfy that curiosity through novels like The Feast Of Roses.
I like that Indu Sundaresan made Mehrunnisa’s character so easy to hate yet so difficult to disrespect. By accident I had read the sequel to this book before reading this one, and in the sequel she’s a villain. So naturally I thought of Nur Jahan negatively. In my mind, a character can be either negative or positive; not both. So when I started reading The Feast Of Roses after its sequel, and realized that Nur Jahan was the protagonist, I almost had existential crisis! I mean, I had to now look at a villain as a hero. Then again, that’s what makes it real.
A friend recently asked if I thought people are born good/bad. I think Mehrunnisa’s life, as narrated in The Feast Of Roses, is an answer itself. I think people are born with tendencies, thanks to their genes. The environment that they grow up in, including the ideas, concepts, and behaviors forced on them by parents/guardians/family, helps them form definitions of good/bad, moral/immoral, normal/abnormal, etc… What we ignore is that these concepts are subjective. When we look at another person and judge their action as good or bad, we’re judging them not based on a universal definition of good/bad; we judge them on our definition of good/bad. Which is what happened in Mehrunnisa’s life. A woman holding so much power was considered ‘wrong’ by people of that era because by their definition, a woman’s place was in the harem and her sole purpose was to produce heirs. In history you will see time and again that women who dared to wield power have been called all sorts of names – Witch, She-wolf, Bloody Mary. Rarely do these women get their due recognition because the succeeding Kings have erased their names from official court documents.
Want to know how Nur Jahan’s contribution was forgotten?
The Taj Mahal was built.