When I was a teenager, this book became a sensation among the girls in my set. It claims to tell the true story of a Saudi princess, trapped in a gilded cage. And this book fixed in my mind a certain impression of the wealthy, Muslim woman living in a traditional society.
Indu Sundaresan’s The Feast of Roses is a counterpoint to this image. Yes, these women live in the zenana and veiled. Yes, their power comes primarily from their husband the Emperor.
And yet, they are extremely influential and independently wealthy. For example, the Padshah Begum held the imperial seal and could issue farmans (diktats) in her own name. Not only did these women own jewellery and precious objects, they owned land and even ships, which they bought with their own money independent of the Emperor. They were raised to know their place as women and, yet, this place involved such activities as hunting and riding. There is an incident in the novel, based on recorded historical anechdotes, of how the Jahangir’s first wife Jagat Gosni killed a tiger (albeit a drugged one) on the hunt and how Nur Jahan practiced for months after to supersede her as a shot. These women seemed much more powerful and liberated than their contemporary royal women in Europe.
Of course, it takes an extraordinary woman to reach the heights of power that Nur Jahan did. There were very few women mentioned in the history textbooks we studied from. Mumtaz Mahal, everyone knew of, but that was because her husband built a monument in her name. But I also recall Nur Jahan being mentioned. None of her achievements elaborated but, thinking back, the very fact that she was mentioned meant that she must have been extraordinary in some way,
And she was. By the time she was 50, she was virtually ruling, side by side, if not the de facto Emperor. One of her first and most startling achievements was to get Jahangir to allow her to stand beside him at the jharoka, the daily viewing of the Emperor. From there, there was no looking back. It shouldn’t have stunned me, but it did, when she ordered war on the Portuguese. This is historical fact – there is a letter signed and sealed by her, ordering the attack on Daman. A woman, a mere woman, declaring war on the Portuguese.
These books have reminded me how tragically one-sided our knowledge of history is, how cheated we were in what we were force-fed in school. Under the SSC syllabus in the 90s in Mumbai, we studied Shivaji’s exploits, repeated year after year from Standard IV to Standard X, with only brief interruptions for the Indian freedom struggle and briefer notes on world history. Shivaji was a great king but I think we overdosed on him. His enemies were the Mughals, Aurangzeb in particular and so, of course, they were evil and to be hated.
The general impression of the Mughals was one of either of indolence or viciousness. The only exception was Akbar and I have a feeling his tolerance of the Hindu religion had something to do with it. No doubt, Akbar’s might have been the golden age but I wonder if Jahangir, Shan Jahan and even Aurangzeb were half bad as rulers go. They might not have been as tolerant of other religions in their realms but the fact was, rulers of those times were not meant to be. I have a feeling that the Mughals were much maligned retrospectively basically because they were Muslim.
Coming back to The Feast of Roses, this is going down as one of my all-time favourite books. I am thrilled to have discovered Nur Jahan in all her glory. It is not just an incredible historical and political story, it is also a great love story, greater, I feel than the one of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal which has survived through time in the Taj Mahal.
On a side note, I’ve always been rather skeptical about the love story behind the Taj Mahal. My impression was that marriages in those days were more political than passionate. Reading this trilogy, I stand corrected.