Synopses & Reviews
Mehrunnisa, better known as Empress Nur Jahan, came into Emperor Jahangir's harem as his twentieth and last wife. An "old" wife at thirty-four, Mehrunnisa differs in other ways too--she is the first woman Jahangir marries for love, and from the very beginning of her royal life she fits none of the established norms of womanhood. As clever as she is ambitious, she wins Jahangir over so completely that he eventually transfers his powers of sovereignty to her. But these successes do not come easily to Mehrunnisa--she has to fight for them. She has a formidable rival in the imperial harem, Empress Jagat Gosini, and at court too, as she battles ministers for supremacy. They consider Mehrunnisa a mere woman who cannot have a voice in the outside world, and she retaliates by forming a junta of sorts with three men she can rely on--her father, her brother, and Jahangir's son Prince Khurram: Through it all, Mehrunnisa maintains the love of Jahangir--but must rely on all her strength and cunning to survive in this fascinating tale of greed, love, and power behind a veil.
The love story of Emperor Jahangir and Mehrunnisa, begun in the critically praised debut novel The Twentieth Wife,
continues in Indu Sundaresan's lush second novel, The Feast of Roses.
Here, Mehrunnisa comes into Jahangir's harem as his twentieth and last wife. This time Jahangir has married for love, and members of his court are worried that Mehrunnisa could exert control over their futures. Their concerns are well founded.
Mehrunnisa soon becomes the most powerful woman in the Mughal Empire in spite of a formidable rival in the imperial harem who has schemed and plotted against her from the start. She rules from behind the veil, securing her status by forming a junta of sorts with her father, brother, and stepson -- and risking it all, even her daughter, to get what she wants. But she never loses the love of the man who bestows this power upon her....
About the Author
was born in India and grew up on Air Force bases all over the country. Her father, a fighter pilot, was also a storyteller—managing to keep his audiences captive and rapt with his flair for drama and timing. He got this from his
father, Indu's grandfather, whose visits were always eagerly awaited. Sundaresan’s love of stories comes from both of them, from hearing their stories based on imagination and rich Hindu mythology, and from her father's writings.
After an undergraduate degree in economics from India, Sundaresan came to the U.S. for graduate school at the University of Delaware and has an MS in operations research and an MA in economics. But all too soon, the storytelling gene beckoned.
The Twentieth Wife, Sundaresan’s first novel, won the 2003 Washington State Book Award. Her second novel, The Feast of Roses, is a sequel to the first and continues the story of Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan’s life as the most powerful woman of the Mughal dynasty that ruled India.
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Mehrunnisa, Jahangir's twentieth wife, has ambitions beyond the veiled silence behind the zenana (harem) walls. In Chapter One, the narrator explains: "All her life she had wanted the life of a man, with the freedom to go where he wished, to do what he wanted, to say what came to his mind without worry for consequences" (p. 5). How does Mehrunnisa eventually become the power behind the throne? Does she ever really acquire the "freedom" for which she wishes?
2. In order to secure her rising power in the Empire, Mehrunnisa forms a junta, or an alliance, with her father, brother, and Khurram, the heir apparent to the throne. She is certain that "her father and brother, could always be trusted. Their blood was hers" (p. 89). Discuss greed as a motivation and how it serves to break familial ties and form unlikely alliances.
3. In her later years, when all her influence is lost, Mehrunnisa realizes that she faltered by "not consolidating her power among the women, in the women's world in which she lived" (p. 378). Do you think she would have earned the support of the zenana women in her quest for power? Would you consider Mehrunnisa a pioneer for women's rights?
4. Marriages of Mughal India during the 1600's seem to be more about lucrative unions and less about love. But a few are fortunate enough to marry for love, as is the case of Jahangir and Mehrunnisa. Do you think Mehrunnisa exploits Jahangir's love for her own advancement? Why is marriage so important to Indian women of this time?
5. When a man, such as Emperor Jahangir, has twenty wives, there are bound to be rivalries, jealousies and hierarchies amongst the women. Discuss the politics that occur in the zenana. How do you feel about polygamy? Considering the context, does it empower or demean women?
6. Discuss the significance of "the feast of roses" as it occurs in Chapter Ten. What are the implications of Jahangir's gesture? Why do you think the author chose to title the novel thus?
7. Describe the nature of the relationships between the Indians and the English and Portuguese firangis, or foreigners. How did the foreigners view the Indians?
8. Abul betrays his sister, Mehrunnisa, and aligns himself with Khurram who, he hopes, will be the next emperor. Abul understands that "In being born a man, and being born with no imperial pretensions, he could never change his status"(p.322). Does this mean that women are at a social advantage since they can marry-up?
9. Discuss the male-female power dynamic. Why do you think both women and men are disturbed and threatened by Mehrunnisa's power? Inevitably she seems to be disliked by almost everyone. Do you find Mehrunnisa a likeable character? How would you rate her performance as "queen"?
10. "Emperor Jahangir had once said that kingship knew no kinship"(p. 291). Discuss the many rivalries for the throne. Out of all of Jahangir's sons, Parviz, Khusrau, Sharyar, and Khurram, who do you think truly deserves to be prince?