Second Bookses

It's like second breakfast. Only with books.
The Twentieth Wife - Indu Sundaresan Every so often, you'll find a gem in the bargain books section of a bookstore. So it was with The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan, a novel based on actual events in the history of the Mughal Empire of India.::: The Plot :::Ghias Beg flees from Persia after his father's estates revert to the government, and he cannot pay his debts. During his journey from Persia, his wife gives birth to a daughter, Mehrunissa (meaning Sun of Women), but there is no way they can afford to care for her as well as the children they already have. Joining caravans, they find luck in a nobleman who is heading to the court of Emperor Akbar. He asks Ghias Beg to go with him, promises to present him at court, and finally, saves Mehrunissa's life with his generosity.So begins the apparently charmed life of Mehrunissa in The Twentieth Wife. Her father lands a position as treasurer to the Emperor, her mother and she are invited to visit the Imperial zenana where the wifes and concubines of the Emperor live, and she not only gains the favor of the Emperor's favorite wife, head of the harem, but she also catches the eye of his son, Prince Salim. So begins a love story that will take the two through political intrigue, assassination plots, wars, power struggles within the harem, and Salim's ascent to the throne.The Twentieth Wife is a fictionalized account of the life of actual Empress Når Jahån, consort to Jahangir, Emperor of Hindustan, and father of Shah Jahan (best known for building the Taj Mahal.::: Five Stars :::I read the other reviews of this book as soon as I brought it home, and was pleasantly surprised by my own experience with this book. From Mehrunissa's favorite status with her father and his education of her beyond the usual education provided to girls at the time, we see a character that couldn't help be enchanting as well as intelligent and wanting a higher station in life. Mehrunissa knows that women in power are the ones who have favored status in the Emperor's zenana for they have the most freedom, and examples are given in the book of how the women in the harem often influenced the Emperor's decisions, from marriage arrangements to punishment of would-be assassins.Vivid descriptions of clothing, food, and decor serve to set the tone, giving the reader a taste for how those in the Mughal Empire lived. The wealth and style of living is fascinating, and the small mentions of both the Portuguese Jesuits and the English traders demonstrate the future that is to come for India.The cast of characters can be difficult to follow at times, but standouts are Emperor Akbar's favored wife, Ruquyya; the scheming Jagat Gosini, who will stop at nothing to remain Jahangir's favored wife; and Ali Quli, the soldier who conspires against Jahangir at every turn.The only downside to this book is the characterization of Salim/Jahangir. We never see what changes him from the selfish, callow youth to the mature Emperor, nor what drives a drinking, opium-smoking boy to become a morals-wielding Emperor. However, all is forgiven because this is a book about Mehrunissa, and we see her hopes and desires, laugh and cry with her, and wish right along with her that she will finally get to live the life of her dreams.This review previously published at Epinions:

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