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Indu Sundaresan
ISBN # : 9780143028581
Publisher: Penguin Books
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In The Twentieth Wife, first-time novelist Indu Sundaresan introduces readers to life inside a bejeweled, dazzling birdcage--the world of the Mughal Court's zenana, or imperial harem. Her heroine exercises power in the only way available to a woman in 17th-century India: from behind the veil. At the age of 8, Mehrunissa (the name means "Sun of Women") has already settled on her life's goal. After just one glimpse of his face, she wants to marry the Crown Prince Salim. And marry him she does, albeit some 26 years later, after overcoming the opposition of her family, an ill-starred early marriage, numerous miscarriages, and the scheming of other wives.
The story's gothic trappings have a basis in fact. As Sundaresan writes in her afterword, the historical Mehrunissa exercised far more power than was usually allotted to an empress, issuing coins in her own name, giving orders, trading, owning property, and patronizing the arts. (Curiously, the book ends just as Mehrunissa is ascending to the throne as empress, dwelling on her years of powerlessness and struggle rather than those of her enormous political influence.) Although the empress was fabled in her time, we know next to nothing about the woman herself. Unfortunately, Sundaresan does little to flesh out this intriguing figure. Despite the vivid historical detail, the reader remains more aware of the author's presence--and her own contemporary take on women's issues--than of her characters' inner lives

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