THE 20TH WIFE
By Mallika Arya
Written by Indu Sundareshan, The 20th wife is a book that revolves around the life of Mehrunissa (later titled Nur Jahaan) and prince Salim who would later be known as the fourth emperor of the Mughal Empire- Jahangir. Apart from the love story between the two, the book illustrates the status and role of women in those times, as well as the inequality between the different social stratas in the society.
In the Mughal Empire, even the birth of a baby girl was an unwelcome event wherein the first thought after giving birth to a girl that came to a mother’s mind was how she had disappointed her husband.
Another interesting fact that comes across in the book is the functioning of the purdah system which was strictly observed among high class families in Hindu and Muslim women. Unveiling could lead to serious consequences like divorce or death. Strong and independent, Nur Jahan proved her courage by breaking the purdah convention.
Child marriage was a popular feature of the time and girls were married of at a very young age. Jahangir himself was married around the age of 8 for the first time but this was probably because most royal marriages were contracted for political reasons or to cement alliances.
The participation of women in administration and politics was present from the beginning among the royal ladies, but in the case of Nur Jahan she was the real power behind the throne of Jahangir. This contrasted with her first marriage to Ali quli which was a suppressive one. On the other hand, her marriage with Jahangir caused her to become one of the most powerful women of her times.
In an age where women were barely seen or heard, Nur stepped beyond the bounds of convention. Coins were minted in her name; she traded with foreign countries and even issued royal orders. She is known to have ruled the empire.
This book was an amazing account of a small section of the Mughal period and was beautifully illustrated through words. Both, thought provoking and interesting, the book is definitely worth a read!