Synopses & Reviews
For three and a half centuries, the Taj Mahal has haunted our imaginations. It is a tomb built by a grieving king of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858) in India in memory of his beloved wife.
But it was this woman's aunt, an empress in her own right, who was the most powerful queen of that dynasty. The Twentieth Wife is the story of this Empress Nur Jahan.
The year is 1577. As a winter storm rages in the remote outpost of Kandahar, a baby girl named Mehrunnisa is born in a nomad tent. Her parents, penniless and in exile from their home in Persia, decide to give up the child. They already have three children, and are on their way to the Mughal court in India. Thirty-four years later, this child of the storm comes to Emperor Jahangir's harem as his twentieth wife, and becomes Empress Nur Jahan.
Brought up around the Mughal court, Mehrunnisa sees Jahangir at his first wedding. She decides with the precocity of an eight-year-old, that one day, she will be his wife.
In the years before this becomes an actuality, Mehrunnisa will be married to another man despite her inclinations. She sees her husband slaughtered by the imperial army court gossips will have it on Jahangir's orders. There are powerful courtiers determined not to let the marriage take place. One of Jahangir's wives, Mehrunnisa's biggest rival in the imperial harem, tries to turn the Emperor against her.
Through all these years, Mehrunnisa and Jahangir's love for each other endures until 1611, when she comes into his harem as his twentieth and last wife. At this time he gives her the title of Nur Jahan, by which she is known to posterity.
Although a work of fiction, The Twentieth Wife is rooted in historical fact and detail culled from accounts of seventeenth-century travelers to Emperor Jahangir's court and the memoirs of the Mughal kings.
"First-time novelist Sundaresan writes in the great tradition of the Indian epic, an art she carries forward with grace and brilliance....This is a remarkably readable book despite the historical basis, with which many readers will not be familiar." Michelle Reale, Library Journal
"More than just a love story, this novel offers a kaleidoscope of India's history and culture....Through the intelligent and perceptive Mehrunnisa, Sundaresan conducts a symphony of textures." Elsa Gaztambide, Booklist
"Despite its descriptive strengths, however, the work doesn't quite convince as creative fiction. So much plot is squeezed into the novel that there's little time for character development Mehrunnisa and Jahangir are wooden and one-dimensional creations, and matters aren't helped by the often stilted prose. Regardless of the wealth of edifying historical detail, this tale of palace intrigue is less than intriguing." Publishers Weekly
"[A] fascinating novel about a fascinating time...characters that...move with grace and panache across the brilliant stage she has reconstructed." Chitra Divakaruni, author of The Mistress of Spices and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives
An enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India's most controversial empresses — a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal Empire.
Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, The Twentieth Wife sweeps readers up in Mehrunnisa's embattled love with Prince Salim, and in the bedazzling destiny of a woman — a legend in her own time — who was all but lost to history until now.
Based on the life of an actual empress of the Mughal empire, the woman for whom the Taj Mahal was built, The Twentieth Wife blends historical reality with the rich imaginings of a fairy tale, providing a fascinating portrait of one woman's defiant life behind the veil.
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.