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The Feast of Roses

A Novel

About The Book

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....


Chapter One

Nature had endowed her with a quick understanding, a piercing intellect, a versatile temper, sound common sense. Education had developed the gifts of nature in no common degree. She was versed in Persian literature and composed verses, limpid and flowing, which assisted her in capturing the heart of her husband.

-- BENI PRASAD, History of Jahangir

The months of June and July passed. The monsoons were tardy this year -- the nights hinted rain constantly with an aroma in the air, a cooling on the skin, soundless lightning across skies. But when morning came, the sun rose strong again, mocking Agra and its inhabitants. And the days crawled by, brazenly hot, when every breath was an effort, every movement a struggle, every night sweat-stewed. In temples, incantations were offered, the muezzins called the faithful to prayers, their voices melodious and pleading, and the bells of the Jesuit churches chimed. But the Gods seemed indifferent. The rice paddies lay plowed after the pre-monsoon rains, awaiting the seedlings; too long a wait and the ground would grow hard again.

A few people moved torpidly in the streets of Agra; only the direst of emergencies had called them from their cool, stone-flagged homes. Even the normally frantic pariah dogs lay panting on doorsteps, too exhausted to yelp when passing urchins pelted them with stones.

The bazaars were barren too, shopfronts pulled down, shopkeepers too tired to haggle with buyers. Custom could wait for cooler times. The whole city seemed to have slowed to a halt.

The imperial palaces and courtyards were hushed in the night, the corridors empty of footsteps. Slaves and eunuchs plied iridescent peacock feather fans, wiping their perspiring faces with one hand. The ladies of the harem slept under the intermittent breeze of the fans, goblets of cold sherbets flavored with khus and ginger resting by their sides. Every now and then, a slave would refresh the goblet, bringing in another one filled with new shards of ice. When her mistress awoke, and wake she would many times during the night, her drink would be ready. The ice, carved in huge chunks from the Himalayan Mountains, covered with gunnysacks and brought down to the plains in bullock carts, was a blessing for everyone, nobles and commoners alike. But in this heat, ice melted all too soon, disappearing into a puddle of warm water under sawdust and jute.

In Emperor Jahangir's apartments, music floated through the courtyard, stopping and tripping in the still night air as the musicians' slick fingers slipped on the strings of the sitar.

The courtyard was square, built with Mughal and Persian precision in sharp-cut lines. An arched, cusped verandah filled one side; along the others were trees and bushes, smudged and indistinct in the darkness. In the center was a square pool, its waters silent and calm. The sandstone steps of the verandah led down to a marble platform that thrust into the pool like a missing tooth in a gaping smile. Two figures lay here in sleep under the benign gaze of the night sky. The music drifted down from the screened balcony over the verandah's arches.

When Mehrunnisa opened her eyes, she first saw the sky above her, packed with stars. Every inch of her vision was filled with them, a ceiling of diamonds on black velvet. Emperor Jahangir slept by her side, his forehead resting on her shoulder. His breath, warm on her skin, was steady. Mehrunnisa could not see her husband's face, just the top of his head. His hair lay flattened against his skull with a ring around where the imperial turban sat during the day. She touched his face lightly, her fingers resting against his cheekbones, then swirling down his chin, where a stubble scratched at the pads of her fingers. She did this without waking him, feeling his face, searching through familiarity, although her memory was flooded with every contour and line.

When Mehrunnisa had gone to sleep, she had been alone. She had waited for Jahangir, reading by the light of an oil lamp, but soon, exhausted by the heat, the words blurring before her eyes, she had slept, the book by her side. He must have come to her later, taken the book away, covered her with a weightless cotton sheet. Her fingers stilled on the Emperor's face and moved to lie on his chest.

For the first time in many, many years, Mehrunnisa woke to an absence of feeling. There was no fear, no apprehension, no sense that something was amiss in her life. For the first time, too, she had not put out a hand blindly, half-asleep, for Ladli. She knew that Ladli was safe, in a nearby apartment. She knew, without thinking about it, that before he slept, the Emperor would have glanced in at Ladli, so he could tell her when she woke that her daughter was fine.

She rested her face on his head, the dull essence of sandalwood filling her nostrils. It was a scent she associated with Jahangir, with comfort, with love. Love. Yes, this was love. A different kind, one she had not known existed, did not think she could have. For many years she had wanted a child, then she had had Ladli. For all those years she had wanted Jahangir too, not really knowing why. Because he made her smile inside, because he lightened her life, gave it meaning, a fullness, a purpose. It surprised her, this force of feeling. It frightened her -- this possibility that her self would be so engrossed by him once they were married that she could have no control over the life she had so carefully built.

And now it was two months after the wedding, two languorous months, when time seemed to pass in a slow circle around them. Even the empire and its concerns stepped away, hovering somewhere in the periphery. But last night, for the first time, Jahangir had been called away as they had gone to bed. The empire would wait no longer.

She moved Jahangir's head gently onto a silk-covered pillow, shifted his arm from where it lay on her stomach and sat up. To her left, along the arches of the verandah, the eunuchs on guard stiffened. She sat there looking at them, these half-men who had care of the Emperor's person. There were fifteen eunuchs, one in each sandstone arch. They stood with their feet apart, hands behind their backs, gazes fixed past the pool into the deep shadows of the garden. The guard around Jahangir changed every twelve hours, and in different combinations so no two men would have the opportunity to concoct a conspiracy.

As she sat there, looking at them, being pointedly ignored by them, sweat began to pool damply under the weight of her hair, on her neck, soaking through the thin cotton of the kurta she wore. She rubbed her back and unwound her hair from its plait until it lay about her shoulders in a dense blanket. Stepping past the sleeping Emperor, Mehrunnisa went to the edge of the platform and sat down, letting her legs dangle in the water. A breeze swept through the courtyard, and she raised her face to it, lifting her arms so it could ruffle the long sleeves of her tunic. It brought the scent of smoldering neem leaves from braziers in the verandah, unpleasant enough to keep away the mosquitoes.

The water around her was afloat with banyan leaf lanterns, stitched together with little sticks to form cups that held sesame oil with a cotton thread wick. At one end of the pool, in full night bloom, a parijat tree swooned over, slowly drifting its tiny white flowers into the water. The stars were captured on the pool's surface too, intermittently, where the light of the lanterns did not reach. Pushing herself off the edge of the marble platform, Mehrunnisa melted into the pool.

The water was warm as honey and heavy around her, but cooler than the air. Mehrunnisa dipped her head in, letting her hair swirl wet about her face. She said her new name out loud. "Nur Jahan." Her voice fractured in the denseness of the water, little air bubbles blossomed and escaped to the top, tickling around her cheeks.

She was Nur Jahan. "Light of the World." In her reposed the brilliance of the heavens. Or so Jahangir had said when he had given her the title the day they were married. From today my beloved Empress will be called Nur Jahan. No longer just Mehrunnisa, the name her father had given her at birth. Nur Jahan was a name for the world, for other people to call her. It was a name that commanded, that inspired respect and demanded attention. All useful qualities for a name to have. The Emperor was telling the court, the empire, and the other women of the imperial harem that Mehrunnisa was no trifling love.

She kicked away from the platform and swam. When she reached the parijat, she rested against the wall, watching the white flowers coast down like flakes of snow. She did not turn to her left to look at the hazy figures in the verandah, and if they were watching her, they did not betray it by any movement. Yet, had she stayed too long with her head under the water, some hand would have come to lift her out of it. For to them, she was Jahangir's most prized possession now. Mehrunnisa pedaled her feet in the water, restless, longing for some movement, something the eunuchs could not see, something that the whole imperial zenana would not know by tomorrow.

This watching bothered her, tired her out, always wondering if she was doing the right thing. Jahangir never worried about the people around him -- he had grown up with them, understood they were necessary. He thought so little of them that in his mind they were as divans or the cushions or the goblets of wine.

She turned away and cleared the parijat flowers from the stone edge of the pool with a wet hand. Then, picking up the flowers one by one, she laid them in a row. Then another row, petals turned inward toward her. This was the courtyard of the Diwan-i-am, the Hall of Public Audience. Here were the war elephants at the back, the commoners ahead of them, the merchants, the nobles, and, in the very front, the throne where Jahangir sat. To the side, she put two more flowers, behind and to the right of the Emperor. Pulling off the petals of the parijat flowers, she laid the orange stems, edge to edge, around the last two flowers. This was the harem balcony at court; the stems were the marble latticework screen that hid the imperial zenana. Unseen by the men below. Unheard by them.

Jahangir had just begun his daily routine of darbars, public audiences, meetings with courtiers. Mehrunnisa sat behind him in the zenana balcony, watching as the Emperor dealt with the day's business. Sometimes, she almost spoke out loud, when a thought occurred to her, when an idea came, then she stopped, knowing that the screen put her in a different place. That it made her a woman. One without a voice, void of opinion.

But what if...she picked up one of the harem flowers and laid it in center court, in front of the throne. For many years, when she had been married to Ali Quli, when Jahangir had been just a distant dream, Mehrunnisa had chafed against the restrictions on her life. She had wanted to be in the imperial balcony, not merely an onlooker but a member of the imperial harem -- not just a lady-in-waiting but an Empress. She moved the flower back within the orange-stem confines of the balcony screen. It was not enough. Could she ask for more? But how much more, and how to ask for it? Would Jahangir give to her what she asked? Would he defy these unsaid rules that fettered her life as his Empress, as his wife, as a woman?

Her hand trembling, she picked up the flower again and put it next to Jahangir. There they sat, two parijat flowers, fragrant with bloom, side by side on the imperial throne. Mehrunnisa laid her chin on the edge of the stone and closed her eyes. All her life she had wanted the life of a man, with the freedom to go where she wished, to do what she wanted, to say what came to her mind without worry for consequences. She had been a watcher in her own life, unable to change the direction it took. Until now...

With a gentle finger, she moved her flower back a little, just behind Jahangir, but still in open view of the court.

In an inner street, the night chowkidar called out the hour as he went by, his stick tapping on the ground, "Two o'clock and all is well." Mehrunnisa heard a muffled cough and saw a eunuch's hand move to cover his mouth. A small frown gathered on her forehead. In time, only she would be exempt from the prying eyes of the zenana servants and spies -- when she was the Padshah Begam, the chief lady of the realm. Empress Jagat Gosini held that title now.

She swam back to the platform through the warm water, and when she reached it, she put her elbows on the marble and rested her head in her hands, looking at Jahangir. She traced a finger over his brow, then put it in her mouth, tasting his skin. He stirred.

"Can't you sleep?"

He woke like this always, not needing to shake off dreams. Once she had asked him why. And he had replied that when she wanted him, he would give up sleep.

"It is too warm, your Majesty."

Jahangir smoothed her wet hair from her forehead, his hand lingering on the curve of her cheek. "Sometimes I cannot believe you are here with me." He looked intently at her face, then reached into the water for a leaf lamp. Holding it close to her, he said, "What is it?"

"Nothing. The heat. Nothing."

The Emperor laid the lamp back in the water and pushed it on its way. Clasping her hand, he pulled her out of the pool. A eunuch slid into view, holding out silk towels. Mehrunnisa knelt at the edge of the platform, lifted her arms, and allowed the Emperor to peel off the kurta she was wearing. He wiped the water from her body slowly, bending to inhale the musk scent of her skin. Then he dried her hair, rubbing the strands with a towel until it lay damp around her shoulders. He did all this with great deliberation. She waited obediently until he was finished, the warm night air on her shoulders, her waist, her legs.

"Come here." Jahangir pulled her onto his lap, and she wrapped her legs around him. He framed her face with his hands and pulled it close to his own. "It is never nothing with you, Mehrunnisa. What do you want? A necklace? A jagir?"

"I want them out of here."

"They are gone," he replied, knowing what she meant. Jahangir did not look back as one of his hands left her face to signal the eunuchs in dismissal, but Mehrunnisa clasped it and pulled it back.

"I want to do this, your Majesty."

"You have as much right as I do, my dear."

Still looking into his shadowed face, she raised her hand. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the eunuchs tense, hold still, then glance at each other. They had strict orders not to leave the Emperor's presence unless commanded by him...and only by him. No wife, no concubine, no mother had that power. But this wife, she was different. So they waited for a sign from Jahangir. But he did not move, did not nod his head in assent. A minute passed thus, then one of the eunuchs stepped out of line, bowed to the royal couple, and shuffled out of the verandah. The others followed, hearts suddenly wild with fear -- afraid of obeying, yet more afraid of disobeying.

Mehrunnisa dropped her hand.

"They have gone, your Majesty," she said, wonder in her voice.

"When you command, Mehrunnisa," Jahangir said, "do so with authority. Never think you will be ignored, and you will not be ignored."

"Thank you."

The Emperor's teeth flashed. "If I were to thank you for all you have brought to me, I would be doing so for the rest of my life." His voice echoed near her ear. "What is it you want? Tell me or you will fret for it."

She was silent, not knowing how to ask, not really knowing what to ask for. She wanted to be more of a presence in his life, and not just here, within the walls of the zenana.

"I wish to...," she said slowly, "I wish to come with you to the jharoka tomorrow."

Early on in his reign, Jahangir had instituted twelve rules of conduct for the empire. Among those rules were many he did not obey himself -- prohibiting consumption of alcohol was one. But these, he thought, would provide a framework for the empire, not for himself. He was above those rules. Wanting to be fair and equitable to his subjects, he imposed the ritual of the jharoka, something his father, Emperor Akbar, had not done, something that was exclusively Jahangir's.

He called it thus -- a jharoka -- a glimpse, for it was to be, for the first time since the Mughal conquest of India around a hundred years ago, a personal viewing of the Emperor by any subject in the empire.

The jharoka was a special balcony, built into the outer bulwark of the Agra fort, where Jahangir gave audience to the people three times a day. In the early morning, with the rising of the sun, he presented himself at the balcony on the eastern side of the fort, at noon on the south side, and at five o'clock in the evening as the sun descended into the west sky, on the western side. Jahangir considered this his most important responsibility. It was here the commoners came to petition him, here he listened to their appeals, important or not. And in the balcony he stood alone, his ministers and the commoners below him. It cut away the pomp surrounding his crown, made him less of a figurehead on a faraway throne.

"But you do come to the jharoka with me, Mehrunnisa," Jahangir said. Something more was coming. He was wary, watchful now. For the past few weeks, Mehrunnisa had stood behind the balcony arch, along with the eunuchs who guarded his back, listening, talking with him later about the petitions.

"I want to be with you in the balcony, standing in front of the nobles and commoners." She said this softly, but without hesitation. Ask with authority and she would not be ignored, he had said.

Clouds began to move across the skies, blanketing the stars. Lightning flashed behind them, branches of silver light blotted by gray. She sat in his arms, unclothed, covered only by her now-dry hair that tumbled over her shoulders down to her hips.

"It has never been done before," Jahangir said finally. And it had not. The women of his zenana, whatever their relationship to him, had always stayed behind the brick walls of the harem. They were heard outside, in the orders they gave through stewards and slaves and eunuchs, heard also when he did something they wanted. "Why do you want this?"

She asked a question in response. "Why not?"

The Emperor smiled. "I can see that you are going to cause trouble for me, Mehrunnisa. Look," -- he raised his eyes to the sky, and she followed his gaze -- "do you think rain will come?"

"If it does..." She paused. "If it does, can I come to the jharoka tomorrow?"

The clouds had now covered the skies above their heads. They looked like the others had, fat and thick with rain, sometimes pelting drops of water on the city of Agra. And then, some errant wind would come to carry them away, clearing the skies for the Sun God to ride his chariot again. Mehrunnisa was commanding the monsoon rains. She smiled to herself. And why not? First the eunuchs, now the night sky.

He said, "Close your eyes."

She did. With his eyes shut too, with her aroma to lead him, Jahangir bent to the curve of her neck. She wrapped her hair around them. She did not open her eyes, just felt the warmth of his breath, sensed him tasting a line of sweat that escaped from her hairline down her face to lodge itself against her shoulder blade, shivered as the rough of his fingertips scraped against the sides of her breasts. They did not speak again.

And afterwards, they slept.

The sun, a flat line of gold behind purple clouds against the horizon, woke them the next morning. Mehrunnisa lay with her head against a velvet pillow looking up at the play of light against the sky. The clouds hung dense above her. But there was no rain. Moisture in the air, but no rain.

The eunuchs were back in their positions in the verandah arches, slave girls moved in on noiseless feet carrying brass vessels of water. Mehrunnisa and Jahangir brushed their teeth with a twig from the neem tree, and when the muezzin's voice called for prayer from the mosque, they knelt side by side on prayer rugs and lifted their hands toward the west, toward Mecca.

And then, as they had all these days past, the Emperor and his new wife left their apartments to wend through the palace corridors for the first jharoka of the day.

They walked in silence, hand in hand, not looking at each other. The servants behind them padded on soft bare feet, Mehrunnisa's ghagara swished over the smooth marble floors. She could not talk, could not bring herself to ask again -- would she be standing behind the arch of the balcony or with the Emperor? In a sudden flight of superstition, she looked again at the sky as they passed, but no, the clouds lay massive and unwilling. A weight settled over her and her feet dragged.

They reached the entrance to the balcony, where the eunuchs of the imperial zenana spread out from the doorway in two lines. When Jahangir entered the balcony, they would close ranks behind him.

Hoshiyar Khan stood in front, taller than most of the other men around him. He was dressed, even this early in the morning, as immaculately as a king. His hair was smoothed down below his turban, his face grave with responsibility, his manner impeccable. Hoshiyar had been head eunuch of Emperor Jahangir's harem for twenty-five years now. For a long time, almost all that time, Hoshiyar had been Empress Jagat Gosini's shadow, by her side, advising her, lending her his support. A month before her wedding, Mehrunnisa, greatly daring, asked for him to be her personal eunuch. So Hoshiyar had come to her side, and willingly, for had he not wanted to be here, he would have found a way to disregard even Jahangir's orders.

He bowed. "I trust your Majesties had a good night?"

He would know of all that passed, know also that Mehrunnisa had dismissed his men from the verandah, know that they had left at her command and why. It seemed to Mehrunnisa that he nodded briefly, just a flicker of an eyelash, with a smile more on his countenance than on his lips before he turned to the Emperor.

Hoshiyar leaned out of the arch and raised his hand. The royal orchestra started to play, announcing the Emperor's arrival. The shehnai trilled, the drums were beaten, and in the distance, a cannon let out a harmless boom.

Mehrunnisa almost spoke again, opened her mouth, and then closed it. With the noise of the orchestra echoing around them, the Emperor reached behind her head. Her indigo veil lay shawl-like over her shoulders, and he raised one end and brought it over her face. As Jahangir stepped out into the balcony to the glow of the lightening eastern sky, he tightened his grip on Mehrunnisa's hand and pulled her with him.

Almost the first sensation she experienced, one utterly irrelevant, was that the marble ledge of the balcony, carved with thin vines of jasmine flowers, came up to her waist. It hid their hands, still linked together. Then Mehrunnisa looked down at the expanse of inclined backs, clad in thin cottons embroidered with gold zari, bowed in unison. The nobles and the commoners, the orchestra itself to one side, the slaves and guards armed with spears and muskets -- not one eye was raised to them.

Even the Mir Tozak, the Master of Ceremonies, had his head bent. His was the first to raise though, the first to see the Emperor and the lady by his side. His voice, when he found it, came in an uneasy quaver, "All hail Jahangir Padshah!"

The nobles straightened up and saw the veiled figure at Jahangir's side. Involuntarily, most of the men drew in breaths of astonishment. In the silent courtyard, stilled of drums and trumpets, the noise was like a rush of wind, gone in an instant.

Mehrunnisa held on tight to Jahangir's hand. Unsaid between them was that Jahangir was granting her a privilege, and Mehrunnisa acknowledged it in silence. It was not a privilege she would misuse. It filled her heart that he would take her into the jharoka despite the chaos it would cause.

Mehrunnisa watched the men below, knowing no one could see her face. This life of hers, behind a veil, had its advantages. Her hands were cold. It was the first time a woman from the imperial harem had appeared in public, veiled from view, but boldly present. Jahangir stepped ahead of her, holding his back straight, his shoulders thrown back, his imperial turban sitting squarely on his head. For these minutes of the jharoka, he was the Emperor, no longer the man who slept with such comfort in her arms. These were lessons she was fast learning, on how to have a private face and a public one.

"My good people," Jahangir began, his voice strong with authority, "as you can see, I am well and have had a good night's sleep." He turned to the Mir Arz, the Officer in Charge of Petitions. "Bring forward the petitioners."

For the next thirty minutes, the Mir Arz called out the names of the nobles gathered in the courtyard to present petitions to the Emperor. They came forward, performed the taslim thrice, and then presented the Emperor with a gift. Depending upon the gift's value or uniqueness, Jahangir would signal his consent for them to speak. As for the common people, he chose his petitioners based on their looks, or perhaps the color of a turban or where they stood in the courtyard or whether they faced east or west. This whimsical culling out of the supplicants was the only way to hear as many petitions as possible in the limited time allowed. Given the sheer numbers, most were turned away, and they would return day after day, hoping that eventually the familiarity of their faces would catch the Emperor's eye.

Mehrunnisa was silent, watching the two men on the right side of the jharoka. Mahabat Khan and Muhammad Sharif were the two main players at court. They were powerful, in both position and influence over the Emperor. Mahabat Khan was an intelligent man, grasping and cunning. It was said he had refused the rank Sharif now held, that of Amir-ul-umra -- Prime Minister and Grand Vizier -- preferring to rule without a title.

A petitioner came forward. Mehrunnisa listened to what he had to say, thinking all the while that his name was familiar. Ah, he was Mahabat Khan's cousin. And so it had been during the daily darbar also. Cousins, friends, brothers, all had been granted honors, estates, and contracts while others had been turned away.

Unable to restrain herself, Mehrunnisa put a hand on Jahangir's arm. "Your Majesty."

The Emperor turned to her.

"Perhaps it would be best if this matter was decided later on. There are others, more needy. This man already has a mansab of six hundred horses, raising it now would do little good," she said. She spoke softly. Jahangir hesitated, then allowed his gaze to fall back on the Mir Tozak. This was the Mir Tozak's cue to dismiss the petitioner.

In the courtyard below, anger lit Mahabat Khan's face, and he whipped around to Mehrunnisa. From under her veil, Mehrunnisa held his gaze, forcing herself to keep from flinching.

When the jharoka was over, Mehrunnisa and Jahangir left together, the audience quiet, cautious. She went back to her apartments immersed in thought. She had raised her voice against Mahabat Khan. It was not something he would easily forget, this public denial of a request. Mahabat would be a dangerous enemy, one to be regarded with care.

Her step faltered. Why had she spoken at the jharoka? It was a small thing -- this touch on Jahangir's arm, this murmur in his ear, but played out under frighteningly huge circumstances. Mahabat's flare of wrath at her, as though he could see through and beyond the cover of her veil, proved this. But to Mehrunnisa, standing there alone, among those powerful men of the empire, above those men, this blatant demonstration of her power had been irresistible. Mahabat would never forget this morning's jharoka. And neither would she, Mehrunnisa thought.

She went through the wide doors of her apartments and stood with the docility of a tame fawn as the slave girls undressed her for a bath.

Hoshiyar had told her once that Mahabat had tried to stop the Emperor from marrying her. Why? What did Mahabat care about the women of the imperial harem? He had no enmity against her father or her brother...yet he had spoken against her. Why?

It was almost as though Mahabat was the Emperor, not Jahangir. He held no special title. Yet there had been times when he had cleverly overruled Jahangir's intentions. One word from Mahabat, and the empire stopped in its tracks, righting itself in whatever direction he pointed. This Mehrunnisa had forgotten in her haste to speak during the jharoka. It did not matter, she told herself. It could not matter. If she were to be supreme in the zenana and at the court, she would make enemies. That she had always known.

Coolness flitted over her skin and she turned to the window. One of the slave girls, about Ladli's age, ran excitedly to the balcony. Clouds blotted out the weak morning sun, enraged and black. They seemed to suck out the heat from the palaces. When Mehrunnisa stepped into her bath, it started to rain. No mere sprinkling -- this was a violent, war-filled rain, thronging with the sound of a thousand drums.

As she lay there, listening to and watching the rain outside, Mehrunnisa's heart became light. It would not be easy to break the hold Mahabat had over the Emperor. Theirs was a connection that went back many years. But, Mehrunnisa thought, so did her understanding with Jahangir. All things could be broken in the end.

Before the jharoka was over, the whole zenana knew of Mehrunnisa's presence at the balcony. The eunuchs and attendants had been very busy. Even as the new Empress left the balcony, word fled throughout the palaces of this unprecedented occurrence.

The palaces of the imperial harem were many and scattered, connected by a maze of exquisitely wrought brick courtyards and lushly verdant gardens, all inside the Red Fort at Agra. Within the harem lived the three hundred women connected with the Emperor.

The hierarchy was simple. The reigning Emperor's wives took precedence over all the other women in the zenana. Of them there would be one dominant one -- the Padshah Begam. With that title came supremacy over the entire zenana, the power to watch, to weave intrigues into the women's lives, to control their finances, their very lives.

Empress Jagat Gosini, Jahangir's second wife, had married him twenty-five years earlier, when he had still been a prince. Then, Jagat Gosini had been a young girl with classic features and a haughty countenance. Emperor Akbar's ruling Padshah Begam, Ruqayya, had seen the stiffness in Jagat Gosini's spine as she bent to perform the taslim in front of her, the raising of an eyebrow when something disgusted her, and she had viewed this arrogance with wariness.

And so a feud had started between the two women. They never fought openly; instead, they waged a subtle campaign for supremacy, tormenting each other with sarcastic, hurtful comments delivered on the sly. As long as Emperor Akbar had been alive, Ruqayya had been absolute in the zenana, but once Jahangir ascended the throne, she had to give up her place to Jagat Gosini. For though Jahangir had married many wives by the time he became Emperor, Jagat Gosini, a princess in her own right, born to a mighty king, easily established herself paramount in his harem.

The evening of the momentous jharoka, Mehrunnisa went to visit the Dowager Empress in her palace. There were six palaces fronting the Yamuna River at Agra within the walls of the fort, and each had a unique style reflective of its occupants. Some had marble balconies and verandahs built into the battlements of the fort, and some were made of the same red sandstone that graced the fort's walls. Mehrunnisa did not have one yet; but when the time came, she wanted it to be hers, with her voice directing the laying of each stone, and supervising the polishing of the marble floors.

Among the symbols of imperial esteem, this mansion of brick, sandstone, marble, enamel, and mirrorwork was paramount in the zenana's world. The abodes, though, were merely loans during the Emperor's lifetime; sometimes, if a woman was stupid enough to lose favor, for less than the Emperor's lifetime. And as the crown moved to the heir, his harem would chase out the current occupants.

Yet Dowager Empress Ruqayya -- a woman who was not even Jahangir's mother, but merely his father's favorite wife -- had a palace.

When Mehrunnisa entered, Ruqayya was lounging in her usual pose on her divan, puffing at a hukkah and watching the antics of a Chinese lapdog someone had presented her. The water pipe gurgled as she drew on it, and smoke swirled blue around the room, laced with the sweet smell of opium.

Ruqayya saw Mehrunnisa at the doorway -- it was hard to ignore her presence, for all the maids had risen to bow and there was a general bustle. But Ruqayya turned her attention to the dog, putting down the hukkah to clap with the delight of a child, then calling the ugly little animal to her to pet it. A few minutes passed thus, with Mehrunnisa standing at the door, waiting, and Ruqayya busy with the dog as it pranced around her, filling the now-silent room with little yips of barks.

Finally the Dowager Empress turned to one of her eunuchs. "Well, here she comes, after all this time. One would think she grew horns of pride when she married the Emperor. Some people forget I have been Empress for a long time, longer than them."

Mehrunnisa laughed and bent in front of Ruqayya in a well-executed taslim, touching her right hand to her forehead and bending from the waist. "How could I forget, your Majesty? Even if I were to do so, you would not let me."

She straightened and watched Ruqayya try to maintain the frown on her face. Then she gave up and laughed in return, her plump face creasing into well-run lines. "Ah, Mehrunnisa, it is good to see you. Does it take two months to visit an old friend? Has the Emperor enamored you this much?"

Mehrunnisa sat down next to her. "Only a little. I hear it is said in the zenana that I am the one who has enamored him. Not just enamored him, but used sorcery to cast a spell on him, to keep him by my side. I am a simple woman, your Majesty. Where would I have access to such guiles?"

Ruqayya laughed again, a rich, deep laugh from inside her throat. "You simple? Nothing has ever been simple about you, Mehrunnisa. Not since you were nine and refused to cry when the concubine slapped you."

"And you saved me then by scolding her."

"True." Ruqayya's beady eyes took on a shrewd look. "That was a small thing, but this, your becoming an Empress, was also due to me. Remember that always, Mehrunnisa."

Mehrunnisa shook her head. "I will not forget, your Majesty. There are few things I forget, this is certainly not one of them."

A servant brought a copper and silver hukkah and set it near Mehrunnisa. Ruqayya leaned forward on her divan, balancing her weight on one elbow. "Will you not smoke some opium?"

"No, your Majesty. I am here to talk. Did you hear of the jharoka this morning?"

Ruqayya nodded. "Everyone knows of it. Wait." She snapped her fingers, and the slaves and eunuchs bowed and left the room, taking the dog with them. When they had gone she continued, "Was that wise? A woman's place is in the harem, behind the zenana walls. Even I never asked Emperor Akbar for such a favor."

"But you asked for other things, your Majesty," Mehrunnisa said softly. "Khurram, for one."

Prince Khurram was Empress Jagat Gosini's son. When he was a year old, Ruqayya, who had no children of her own, demanded custody of the prince from Jagat Gosini and got it, for Emperor Akbar rarely refused her anything. So Khurram had grown up with Ruqayya, thinking her to be his mother and Jagat Gosini some subordinate princess. The transposition in power in the harem had not changed Khurram's affections, though he was now twenty and knew Jagat Gosini to be his mother and Ruqayya his step-grandmother; he still called Ruqayya "Ma." So Jagat Gosini would not forgive Ruqayya.

The Dowager Empress stared unblinking at Mehrunnisa, then her face cracked into a smile. "You are wicked, Mehrunnisa. But no matter, I think I taught you to be wicked. Here is another debt you owe me. And be wary of Jagat Gosini; she is still the Padshah Begam."

"I know that, your Majesty. Today, I went to the jharoka. Tomorrow, who knows, perhaps even that title will be mine. Only time will tell." Mehrunnisa picked two cashews from a silver bowl from the Dowager Empress's side and popped them into her mouth. "But this is what you have always wished for, isn't it?"

Mehrunnisa watched as Ruqayya leaned back and drew on the hukkah, spinning lazy circles of smoke in the air above her. This was what Ruqayya had recently wanted. But once, the Dowager Empress had supported Emperor Akbar's decision to give Mehrunnisa to Ali Quli, even though Jahangir, then a prince, sought after her. One word from Ruqayya might have changed the shape of things...but there was a streak of cruelty in the Dowager Empress that made her sometimes turn even on those she loved.

But when Mehrunnisa had come back to the capital, widowed after Ali Quli's death, Ruqayya had taken her into the zenana as a lady-in-waiting, against Jagat Gosini's wishes. And it was Ruqayya who had engineered the meeting between Jahangir and Mehrunnisa at the Mina Bazaar. This was what the Dowager Empress wanted her to remember. She was saying, in effect, Don't forget who put that crown on your head, Mehrunnisa -- if it wasn't for me, you would still be a maid in the imperial zenana.

Which was why Ruqayya called her by her old name, Mehrunnisa.

But she was here for another reason.

"Your Majesty, tell me Mirza Mahabat Khan's story," Mehrunnisa said.

Ruqayya sat up. "Ah, you angered him at the jharoka."

Mehrunnisa nodded. "Why is he against me? I can be no threat to his position. Yet I hear he was opposed to my marriage to the Emperor. Why?"

"I am not sure," Ruqayya said slowly, chewing on the tip of her hukkah. "But I have heard it comes from Jagat Gosini. She has never wanted you in the zenana, this you must know. I wonder if it is possible she enlisted his support in the matter. But what argument did she use to convince him? That she was apprehensive of your intelligence? Of your beauty? Would a powerful minister listen to such reasoning? Hmmm..."

And so the two women sat and talked late into the night. The Dowager Empress's memory was almost perfect. She recalled for Mehrunnisa incidents from the Emperor's childhood when Mahabat had said or done something unusual. She told her of his hold over Jahangir, of the deep affection the Emperor had for Mahabat that sometimes blinded him to his faults. Mehrunnisa listened, wanting to know everything about him.

As the night lengthened and the palace slept around them, Ruqayya suddenly said, "It is late, why are you not by the Emperor?"

"He needs his sleep, your Majesty."

Ruqayya grinned. It was a knowing grin. She reached out to touch Mehrunnisa's face. "You know this will not last."

Mehrunnisa moved away. "My face, or my relationship with the Emperor?"

"Both, my dear. You have to have much more. So be wary. Watch your face for signs of aging, watch your mouth too. Emperor Jahangir does not like a woman who is too witty or too intelligent."

Jahangir's Empress kept her expression immobile, but inside a sharp anger flared to life at Ruqayya's words. She could have said much to Ruqayya about the Emperor, much she did not know or willfully ignored. The Dowager Empress was prejudiced for many reasons, most of which hinged on Jahangir's rebellion against his father when he was a prince -- a rebellion that in Ruqayya's mind, had hastened Emperor Akbar's death. Mehrunnisa did not say anything, because she was fearful also that perhaps, just perhaps, what Ruqayya said was true. No other woman in the zenana had enjoyed such favor from Jahangir....And so came the little pestering doubts Mehrunnisa tried to keep at bay, as they always did when she talked with Ruqayya.

The Dowager Empress was again lying back on the divan, watching Mehrunnisa with cunning eyes. "Go now," she said. "Go back to your apartments and to bed. You need to sleep."

As Mehrunnisa kissed Ruqayya's hand and rose to leave, she said, "It was good to be with you again, Mehrunnisa."

Mehrunnisa bowed to the Dowager Empress. At the door she turned. "I now have a new title, your Majesty, I am no longer Mehrunnisa."

"Be careful, Mehrunnisa. Be careful of how you talk to me. Remember what I have done for you."

Jahangir's newest Empress shook her head. Two months ago, Ruqayya's words would have cowed her, but things were no longer as they once were. "I will never forget the debt I owe you. But I am now Nur Jahan. Perhaps I will allow you to call me by my old name. But I am no longer Mehrunnisa. You must not forget that."

Copyright © 2003 by Indu Sundaresan

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?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Indu Sundaresan was born in India and came to the US for graduate school at the University of Delaware. She is the author of The Twentieth Wife, The Feast of Roses, Splendor of Silence, In the Convent of Little Flowers, Shadow Princess, and The Mountain of Light.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (May 18, 2004)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743456418

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Raves and Reviews

Booklist Weaving another rich historical tapestry...Sundaresan colors the life of a fascinating woman whose female wiles inspired the Taj Mahal.

Publishers Weekly Impressive....Readers who enjoyed the first volume will find similar pleasures tracking the fate of one of history's most intriguing women.

The Seattle Times Sundaresan [is] a bright addition to the new generation of women writers from India.

USA Today There is no question that Sundaresan is a gifted storyteller with an obvious passion for history.

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