Honest to God, I felt a sad prick on my heart when this book ended. I have always been intrigued by the Mughal era for their flamboyance, architecture and trade and to read how this magnificent era ended was distressing. The first thing that comes to anyone’s mind when uttered “Mughals” is THE Taj Mahal, hands down. This epic monument has over the years become the epitome of love and a popular stature for India. This book, Shadow Princess, the third book in the series, narrates the story of Taj Mahal on one hand, and a beautiful story of Jahanaara, daughter of Mumtaz, who isn’t often remembered for her timely contributions to the running of the governance then, on the other hand.
I was taken by surprise when the author decided to skip a generation and focus on Jahanaara instead of Mumtaz. I felt it was a very risky decision as Jahanaara isn’t very well known. I didn’t know who she was, honestly. But that was what made this book really exciting. The story begins with the death of Mumtaz forcing Jahanaara, the eldest daughter, to take charge of the kingdom from behind the screens. Shah Jahan, consumed by grief is beyond any action. Jahanaara steps into her father’s shoes making important decisions and keeping her siblings under control. Dara and Aurangzeb, at 16 and 12, are already plagued by their dream to succeed their father. Jahanaara sensing this, puts an end to it by nursing her father back to normality. But the thirst to succeed endures for both the brothers.
Even though, essentially, the book is about the succession, the story is primarily focused on Jahanaara’s part in the succession. Her wish is for Dara to succeed, him being the legal heir to the Kingdom. At the same time she could see his inability to get the ministers behind him and also his frequent immature and playful actions. Aurangzeb, on the other hand, has proved his metal as a courageous young man on the battlefield. But his arrogance and impatience scares Jahanaara to support him. Meanwhile, while all her brothers are getting married and having their own family and life, Shah Jahan keeps Jahanaara close to him curbing her from having her own family life. Jahanaara secretly has an affair with one of the Amirs, producing a son at the end, a son whom she couldn’t recognise as her own publicly. The book revolves around Jahanaara’s interesting relationships with her father, sister, and her brothers. I absolutely loved her interaction with Mehrunissa. I almost forgot that Nur Jahan was alive when Shah Jahan took over the rein. I definitely felt Mehrunissa had a stronger personality than Jahanaara’s in those conversations.
We also get a glimpse into how Aurangzeb took over the kingdom, as a result of several ignores and insults, killing his own brothers, just like his father, to capture the throne. But this entire capturing the throne was covered in a matter of few pages which was a little disappointing. It was interesting to read how Jahanaara and Shah Jahan spent nearly 9 years in Aurangzeb’s captivity and those years being one of the best days for them. Even though the first half of the book was running in a continuous timeline, the second half had 8 or 10 years being skipping in between which affected the continuity of the story. I still couldn’t get why Jahanaara hated Aurangzeb in spite of him caring for her illegitimate son. Also, Roshanaara had so little to do in the story. I felt she had a very interesting personality.
Another parallel story running is the construction of the Taj Mahal. The idea behind, the immense amount of hardwork behind and Shah Jahan’s only motivating factor to live. I loved the point made how despite great achievements by Akbar and even Jahangir, Shah Jahan is the most popular Mughal king because of this magnificent monument. The same goes to Mumtaz. Even though, she didn’t live for long and had been the Queen for only a few years, she is the most popular Mughal queen.
I loved the fact that this book was both plot driven and character driven. There were moments I was lost in the world of Mughal architecture wanting to be a part of it. I wish the story hadn’t stopped with Shah Jahan’s death. Jahanaara, after Aurangzeb’s insistence for several years, becomes the head of his zenena after her father’s death. I longed to read her role during Aurangzeb’s rein, her feelings towards her new King. Hence, I felt the ending to be a little weak, left me wanting more. Also, only by reading the Afterword, you seriously get to know the parts that were facts and those that were fiction.
On the whole, it was an amazing experience to read this trilogy. A must read for all the historical fiction fans. And finally, a great book to read after a long time.
I remember having history lessons on Mughal Empire when I was in school and I used to be so fascinated by the grandeur life of the Kings and Queens, the magnificent architecture and the stories behind their establishments. The Mughal Raj is always looked at as a time when India flourished in trade and economy. The same era was also very popular for its love stories- I mean Taj Mahal! Can any sign of love beat this beautiful monument? My point is- the Mughal era instigates a certain amount of interest in everyone’s mind. I am no different. Look at the amount of movies made based on the Mughal kings. It’s really difficult to read the essayed account of the Mughal period, it’s too theoretical. That’s when my friend suggested me The Twentieth Wife- the first book in the Taj Trilogy. I absolutely loved The Twentieth Wife. It amazingly blended facts and fiction to give a perfectly entertaining and engaging book. The Twentieth Wife follows the life of a young and ambitious girl, Mehrunissa- her aspirations and plights and how she eventually becomes Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s wife, Jahangir’s 20th wife.
The Feast of Roses continues Mehrunissa’s life, her life as a Queen, as Nur Jahan. Commonly, when talked about Mughal Queens, the first name to pop in our minds is Mumtaz Mahal- mainly because of Taj Mahal, right? It’s surprising to see how much Nur Jahan had contributed to the development of the empire. She wasn’t a puppet queen. She was more of a King; her decisions were Jahangir’s decisions. She was a headstrong, powerful and practical woman, who understood the nuances of politics to the tee. She was always ready with her next move, calculating the moves of her enemies perfectly. Reading Mehrunissa was a delight! She wasn’t hasty. She knew she had to move through the ladder slowly, without offending her husband, the King. Her biggest strength was her husband. Jahangir’s love and support for Mehrunissa is commendable. He never discriminated her. In spite of the fact that Mehrunissa couldn’t bear him a child, his love for her never decreased or ceased. One sad point was the meager amount of time Mehrunissa could spend with her daughter, Ladli, from her first husband. I loved reading the interactions between them.
Who will succeed Jahangir? That’s the basic plot of this book. With Mehrunissa unable to produce a child, Jahangir is forced to look at his other sons. Khusrau, his first, blinded as punishment for revolving against him before, is a weak contender. Parviz, a drunkard, is never in the competition. Shahryar is very young. That leaves with Khurram, young and dynamic man, who later wins the title Shah Jahan. Mehrunissa’s goal is to win Khurram’s support. It’s important because, at the death of her husband, she would be left alone and she would need the support of the next king for survival. Thus begin the battle of wits and valor. Mehrunissa, by marrying her niece Arjumand (Mumtaz Mahal) to Khurram, believed Khurram would be grateful to her for that. But she never expected Arjumand would silently turn Khurram away from her. There are many more instances like when Mehrunissa commands Khurram to marry Ladli, and he refuses. I felt really bad for Ladli. She was just a coin in the game, a game she never wanted to participate in.
I found little interest in the English-Portuguese-Mughal treaty part. Even though, that sowed a lot of discomfort in relationships within the family, somehow, it wasn’t engaging enough. I was surprised at the significant role Mehrunissa’s brother, Abul Hassan played in getting Khurram crowned as the next ruler. Hoshiyar Khan, Mehurnissa’s aid eunuch, stood out at the end as someone who didn’t betray his mistress till the end. I wonder how he did that? He worked for the previous queens too, but stayed true to Mehrunissa, supporting and guiding her at all times. On thinking, Khurram never won the throne on his own. He wasn’t nominated by the King or the Queen either. He just attained it because the rest were killed. Now that’s not a good start for a king, is it?
The narration was brilliantly paced. You never realise that you are running through years within a few pages. The description of the Mughal cities and their architecture was beautifully worded. I never wanted to skip any of the descriptions as it was so captivating. I wonder why Jahangir and Nur Jahan are never talked much as compared to Shah Jahan and Mumtaz. It seems like Jahangir did a lot more to the empire than Shah Jahan. Guess, it’s thanks to Taj Mahal!
I am eagerly waiting to read the next part of this series- The Shadow Princess. If you want to read and get transported to the Mughal age, this series is THE ONE!
Go for it!