16th century Soap Opera
But I mean it in a good way.
The book came highly recommended by @_viju and since I usually like his taste, I started the book without any pre-Googling. Somewhere in the book, Salim smells roses on Mehrunissa and she says that her mother adds rose petals to the bath water. And then it hit me. This is the story of Noor Jahan, the Mughal queen whose mother discovered attar. It wasn’t pure fiction anymore and it just got even more interesting. Of course, it was highly embellished and glossy and I knew how it would end. It had all the elements of a big budget Bollywood movie and I could close my eyes and picture a zenana dance scene if I wanted to. But it was a story that flowed so smoothly, like a bolt of silk that was unrolled in the bazaar, that I finished it in three sittings. The first day of the year well spent.
A child born to a refugee, abandoned in the desert, finds herself back in her mother’s arms through some twists of fate. At eight, she looks at Emperor Akbar’s son on his wedding day and dreams of becoming a princess herself. Seventeen years, nineteen wives, innumerable concubines, a husband and a daughter later, she finally marries that man she flirted with in the zenana corridor while she was a teenager betrothed to someone else. Mehrunissa. The sun among women. The light of the world.
As a woman, I am expected to outrage about many things. How the woman is considered as the property of men, be it the father, the husband or the emperor himself. Mehrunissa has no say in whom she marries, she has no say in whom her husband sleeps with. She has no say when the emperor orders her father to request her husband to invoke some Turkish law and divorce her so that the emperor can make her his. The emperor who already has a harem full of wives and concubines, an emperor who lusted after his father’s woman and had her buried alive. (Looks like Salim-Anarkali isn’t all Mughal-e-azam as much as it is a Greek tragedy).
But the romantic in me overlooked all that and rooted for love. Love that blossomed at the age of eight ( Meera-Krishna type) and stayed buried deep down somewhere in both those hearts, not giving up hope even when there was no hope. Stalking, noting, spying, watching. Secret smiles, private fantasies and skipped heartbeats. And anyway, towards the end Mehrunissa redeemed herself when she refused the Indecent Proposal and stood up for what she believed was rightfully due to her. More power to women like her. But the truth is, the women back then were much cleverer than the ones today. We cry feminism and take to the streets at the drop of a hat these days, but those 16th century women seemed to have wielded so much power from behind veils and latticed marble walls, all the time allowing the men to believe that they were superior and the actual decision makers. Right from Akbar’s queen Ruqayaa to Salim’s second wife Jagat Gosini and Mehrunissa herself, they seem to be a group of awesomely cunning, shrewd, clever and highly manipulative women; smug and truly powerful. And like the standard fixture in every romcom these days, the gay best friend, you have the important eunuch who calls the shots in the harems. And the men? The men are mostly bumbling idiots, getting drunk on wine, women and power and going to war for no bigger reason than an ego trip.
Oh well. Nothing much has changed over the centuries.