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Meet Indu Sunderesan, On Her Boston Book Tour

Nirmala Garimella

What was Mehrunnisa or Nur Jahan as she was later called? A princess with ambition, a stateswoman, a woman of courage and conviction or a woman of power behind a veil? Rarely does a book of historical fiction of Mughal India come along, which is so captivating and riveting as the Feast of Roses. The book is the sequel to the Twentieth Wife written by Indu Sunderesan, a writer based in Seattle and presently promoting her novel on a book tour in the US.

The story that Sunderesan tells us has all the charm and dazzling pace of a fine fiction novel written with historical accuracy. As Sundersan says “Most of the research was done well before I started writing the novels. I spent a lot of time reading books, manuscripts, memoirs, travelers’ tales to India, following bibliographies, searching for maps to give me a sense of the time and place. I was familiar with Mughal India, of course, from having visited the monuments, forts and palaces when I was young, and from my history textbooks also. But my research focused on the politics of the time, the gossips and myths that arose from incidents that have a historical basis, the intimate details of everyday life in the imperial harem and at court.

To get a sense of this period she says “At one point during my reading and the consequent writing of the novel, I had papered the walls of my office with maps of Mughal India, so I had a better physical sense of the movements of the court and nobility from one jagir or district to another”. Imagination is definitely her forte as the book brings together in a fascinating fusion the relationship between Jahangir and NurJehan in full force and their love and dependence on each other.

Vivid and colorful and rich in detail on the descriptions of the empire, its people and history, the Feast of Roses is a delightful discovery when the Mughal Empire was at its height. As Sunderesan says “Emperor Jahangir, however, ruled in a time of relative peace and security, for his father, Akbar, had handed him a stable empire. So the arts and culture and architecture flourished during Jahangir’s and Nur Jahan’s rule. In both The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, though, you will get a sense of the fact that they were rulers—they had an empire to reign over, approximately 130 million people who depended upon them for their existence, and frequent border skirmishes to deal with from independent kingdoms outside the empire.

Her writing is image provoking, vivid and alive. For example, the section where Jahangir gifts NurJahan, the royal seal. She laid the bag against her chest and the coolness of the metal seeped through the weave. With this piece of metal she owned the world. Possessed power over every corner of its lands, all of its people, why, even the earth on which it rested and the sky above it.There is a wealth of information in the book. We learn about the famous Chain of Justice in which many tales have been weaved, the arrival of the Portuguese to India, the resentment of the British and the visit of Sir Thomas Roe and the love story of ShahJahan and Mumtaz Mahal.

We also get a glimpse of the tremendous influence of the Mughal women. Says Sunderesan “Perhaps the biggest early surprise from all of my reading was this sheer sense of power the women had in the imperial harem. They were physically confined behind the walls of a harem, lived behind a veil, and I had thought of them as being inconsequential in the country’s politics or even in their own social circles. I found that this was not so. In researching Mehrunnisa’s life, I realized that many women in the zenana owned ships that plied the Arabian Sea routes (and so engaged in overseas trade); had vast incomes that they had to learn to manage on their own by appointing stewards and overseers; built tombs, monuments, gardens and sarais, or rest houses for travelers. They also had access, if they wanted, to tutors in history, astronomy, logic and math. They were fluent in many languages, wrote poems and prose (some of which still exist today), and also excelled at playing musical instruments and singing. The Humanyunama—the memoirs of Emperor Humayun, who was Akbar’s father and Jahangir’s grandfather, was written by his sister, Gulbadan Begam. It is, perhaps, one of the best known, and most important, pieces of literature to come out of the Mughal harem.

Somewhere else, Sunderesan has been quoted as having been cursed with an overactive imagination. One is instantly marveling at this talent of hers. The elaborate chess scene which runs to almost nine pages has an almost surreal quality to it as Nur Jahan battles her biggest adversary Mirza Mahabat Khan. Her ultimate victory is indeed sweet. Mahabat turned to Mehrunnisa, his eyes haunted. By tomorrow news of his defeat will be all over Agra. Mirza Mahabbat Khan has been bitten by the Empress a mere woman. She was smiling under her veils, her king’s knight moved forward to Shah’s Bishop seven. Mahabat’s Shah was now smothered by his own three pawns and his bishop. Says Indu of this scene,” The chess scene in The Feast of Roses comes from my imagination. Mehrunnisa plays a chess game with Mahabat Khan, one of Emperor Jahangir’s ministers, on a huge, indoor, chess board that holds “live” pieces—the rooks are calf elephants, some other pieces are slaves dressed in imperial livery. While the scene is fictional, the idea for it came from various historical sources. Emperor Akbar built a huge Parcheesi board in Fatehpur Sikri and used slave girls as the pieces—this board still exists in the main courtyard. As for Mehrunnisa inviting a man into the imperial zenana, someone who was not connected the royal family—that also has some historical basis. A lot of kings, noblemen, and commoners were asked to visit the harem as a sign of favor from the Emperors—it was a reward, perhaps the highest honor given to them.

Now to all of you readers, if you are wondering why the novel is called the Feast of Roses, you have to turn to Chapter 10, page 150 to read this fascinating part of the title.

Lokvani: How is your book tour coming along? Have you been to Boston in the past? How long did it take for you to write the sequel?

Indu : I’m traveling a lot more for The Feast of Roses, than I did for The Twentieth Wife, and have already been to more cities. The reception to the novel has been excellent. I’ve met (and heard through my Web site) from readers who have gone seeking The Feast of Roses after having read the first novel; or the other way around, where readers have read this book first and then gone in search of The Twentieth Wife which tells Mehrunnisa’s story before she married Emperor Jahangir and became his twentieth wife, and consequently, Empress Nur Jahan. Yes, I’ve been to Boston before to visit with a friend who was at Harvard—this was a long time ago. I wrote both the novels one after another, without really pausing to edit The Twentieth Wife, since they are so intimately connected with each other. The characters are the same, the world around them is the same; the only difference is the passage of time…and of course, a vast change in Mehrunnisa’s circumstances from being the wife of a Persian soldier to the wife of the Emperor, on her way to becoming the most powerful woman of the Mughal dynasty.

Lokvani: Writing historical fiction is a big challenge. Did you feel that way in trying to be true to both fiction and history?

Indu: Yes, this was the most demanding aspect of writing The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. One of the reasons I wrote the two novels in this medium of fiction was because there isn’t much historical fiction available from the Mughal era, and because I think that history is better learned through this medium, where an entire life can be created in a story—the sights, sounds, aromas, the intimate details of life, the very sense of the people behind the dates of battles and years of reigns that most history textbooks tend of focus upon.
I also found quite a few gaps in the timeline where Mehrunnisa disappears from the historical documentation (possibly because she was a woman, and women were very little written about), and this was especially true during The Twentieth Wife, when she was merely a noblewoman at court, the wife of a Persian soldier, and until she was thirty-four years old, there was nothing in her life that gave an indication of how famous, or powerful she would eventually become.
I’ve read extensively from that time period, and filled the gaps in the chronology with what I consider to be educated guesses about her. If I found no documentation about her, I went in search of documentation on her father or her first husband, found out where they were, what the situation at court was, how these men would be affected by the politics or society of the time, and then extrapolated it into her life.
One example of this occurs in both The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses where Mehrunnisa is gardening in the melon patch in the imperial zenana. Sir Thomas Roe, who was the first official ambassador from the court of James I of England, mentions an incident where Mehrunnisa’s father comes to him with muskmelons as a gift in summer, and says that she grew them herself. This seemingly trivial gesture was nonetheless a sign of imperial favor, from an Empress to an ambassador—which is why Roe notes it in his memoir. But that got me thinking that Mehrunnisa enjoyed gardening—it was restful to her, and she was not above digging in the mud when she wanted to relax!
Most of what you will read in the two novels had been documented in one source or another. It was very important to me to be historically accurate, so the reader goes away from the novels not just with a sense of story, but also an understanding of the Mughal period in all of its detail.

Lokvani: After reading the two books, I noticed that you dwelt more on the love and romance of Jahangir and NurJahan. The Mughal kings were believed to be ruthless, immoral and savage. Did you deliberately underplay this part?

Indu: In India, the love story that celebrates this romance between Jahangir and Nur Jahan is better known than the romance behind the Taj Mahal. I wanted a sense of this woman who was so beloved of an emperor, that he gave her his powers of sovereignty, made her king in all but name.
I haven’t underplayed the ruthlessness of the emperors or of the times. The Mughal kings were, first and foremost, conquerors. They charged into India with the intention of creating an empire, and succeeded in doing this. In the 17th century, the Mughal Empire encompassed all of modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and a massive chunk of northern and central India.

Lokvani: How are the plans for the TV mini-series coming along? Indu: Both The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses have been pre-optioned for a television mini-series. I understand that the first half of the screenplay has been written, based on The Twentieth Wife, and that the production company is working on the second part.

Lokvani: What is the perception of this genre from the reading public and the reaction in India?

Indu: Most of the people I’ve heard from have professed a fascination for historical fiction that tells the story with some accuracy. Readers in the United States, and abroad (The Twentieth Wife has been translated so far into Portuguese, Polish, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Greek, Chinese and French) write to me and say that they knew little about this era in India’s history (which is so celebrated by the Taj Mahal) until they read the novels.
The Twentieth Wife came out in India last year, and The Feast of Roses will come out sometime this year, both published by Penguin Books India. I was in India in January of this year and did a reading there, and the response there was excellent—from the audience, the readers, and the reviewers. Perhaps the single biggest impression from the readers is that few people had an idea of just how influential Mehrunnisa was, how much she directed the empire’s policies and politics, and how powerful she was. Most people (like I did, before I started working on the novels) thought of her simply as the wife of Emperor Jahangir.

Lokvani: Do you believe in writer’s block?

Indu: I think there’s always some reason for this thing we call ‘writer’s block,’ and once that source is identified, writing comes pretty smoothly. I usually have trouble starting a piece, whether it’s a short story or a novel, and this is not because I cannot write. I will write, but nothing will seem to work, because the voice of the piece doesn’t ring true. In case like this, I keep plodding on until the voice comes—there’s no forcing it, a lot of patience and belief that I have something worthwhile to say brings me to the right direction.

Lokvani: Which authors do you admire most?

I’ve grown up on classical literature—Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Margaret Mitchell, and George Orwell—and they are still favorites who I reread. There are a lot of contemporary authors whose work I admire, among them, Chitra Divakaruni, Michael Ondatjee, Margaret Atwood, and V. S. Naipaul.

Lokvani: Tell us more about the community theatre that you are a part of? Your future plans?

Indu: I worked with a local theatre in Seattle called Encore Playhouse for many years and did all sorts of odd jobs for them—ushering, selling cookies at intermission, painting sets, building sets, stuffing envelopes... We staged some wonderful plays and musicals during the time that we were in business, but are in hiatus right now, since we lost our funding.
I’m working on my third novel right now, and once I’m done with all the touring will settle down seriously to the writing business—something I am very much looking forward to!

Indu Sundaresan will read from and sign copies of her new novel, THE FEAST OF ROSES, the sequel to THE TWENTIETH WIFE. Both novels are based on the life of Empress Nur Jahan on July 22nd at Brookline Booksmith at 7.00 PM.

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