Book Review: The Twentieth Wife

Week 14

Prompt for the week: 20th April – 25th Apr 2015

Prompt: Write book review of a book you read recently. (No word limit, you can write a thesis if you’d like)


The Twentieth Wife


Indu Sundaresan

My Review

Indian medieval history always fascinated me and it still does. It was the time when the tremors of change began rippling and today we still are enduring the aftermath to decisions made and executed, then.

Most notable dynasties during that time were the Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Cholas, Hoysalas, Kakatiyas, Rajputs, Marthas among other minor ones. However, the Mughal period ushered in tremendous change in all areas – Social, religious, political and economic; thus claiming its place in Indian history especially since Akbar and the battle of Haldighati in 1576. Akbar fought Rana Pratap who lost most of Mewar to Akbar, which he later reclaimed in the battle of Dewar.

Also, when we talk of the Mughals, Akbar, Jahangir (Salim), Meherunnisa (Nur Jahan), Shahjahan, Tajmahal and Aurangzeb come to mind, right?

This story is about the very people that top the charts of the Mughal reign and rule. It is the story of love and lust between Nur Jahan and Salim which has been recounted umpteen times. And honestly, I am tired of the story.  I picked up the book out of sheer curiosity, to see if I could find a good fictitious plot that could convince me to like Jahangir. Why? He was a treacherous son, a terrible father and a tactless husband apart from being an alcoholic, opium addicted, womanizing slob. His ‘special’ love for one of his wives (of the 300 plus zenana women) sounds ludicrous to me. He, IMHO, takes lust to an altogether different plane. The master stroke was Akbar catching his son flirting with one of his concubines, Anarkali. Amidst his indigestible revolting character, it is impossible to believe he could truly love someone other than himself. Ironically, it is even harder to believe Nurjahan loved and yearned for ‘this’ man, unless she had an agenda of her own. And she did for a fact.

He first met Meherunnisa at his wedding (third) and falls in love instantaneously and yearns for her.  What I can’t get past is the fact that he married others after he fell in ‘love,’ not once, but numerous times and twice after he married Meherunnisa. Can someone define love for me please? This story has been epitomized as a ‘true’ love story in our movies, where audience is drooling at them for being the prize winning couple. Or may be like a friend, Mamatha said, “May be love and lust are just perspectives.”

Anyways, enough history. Let me not digress anymore and get straight to the book.


The book starts brilliantly with a prologue and the birth of Meherunnisa (Nisa). It recounts how a new born not only survives beating the odds of poverty and weather, but also brings good luck to the family. Her father Ghais Beg a Persian refugee is fleeing his country, accompanied by his pregnant wife and kids, to safety. Asmat delivers Nisa under dire circumstances. Unable to pay for a wet-nurse Ghais Beg abandons her one night leaving her wailing on a street corner, with a hope that some generous soul would take care of her. A merchant and traveler named Malik Masud, en-route to India finds Nisa and returns the cherubic child to her parents with a promise to support them monetarily along with getting Ghais a position in the imperial court of Akbar. Masud keeps his promise and Ghais is appointed a courtier with a grant of mansab.

As Nisa turns eight and our dear man Salim is already into his third marriage.  Nisa watches the ceremony and him from the zenana along with her mother and Ruqayya Begum (Akbar’s chief wife or Padshah Begum). Ruquyya takes a liking to the child and thus Nisa gains access to the zenana and her yearning to be Salim’s wife germinates and grows over time.

The usual twists and turns are dished out, just as they did in history. Salim plots to kill his father and fails. Akbar loses faith in his son and he avenges him by opposing his union with Nisa. She succumbs to the Emperial and familial pressures, gets married to a Persian soldier and has a girl child from him. How he dies, and how Nisa and Jahangir unite to form a happy ending is the plot.

There is lot of history in the middle and it reads like a history textbook rather than involving the reader. Seems like the author used history as a filler as fiction in the plot was drawn too slim. However, all the important incidents in history are covered which is commendable.

The only good touch to the entire plot was Jahangir invoking Tura-i-Chengeezi so that Nisa’s husband divorces her and Jahangir could marry her.


When intent is missing or is not convincingly strong enough, the characters seem uni-dimensional and flat. Especially Nisa’s character reads like a gold digger rather than a yearning lover. The only character reasonably well flushed is Ruquyya Begum.

Other Nits

The way time-shifts were handled is awkward. Sometimes you have to get past a few pages of the chapter to know that three, six or 13 years of time has lapsed. And I went oh, okay, thanks for letting me know and continued reading.

Here are some examples that reflect lack of research:

The guards smoking beedis on their night watch.

Indian tobacco cultivation began in the late 17th century,[11] and beedies were first created in Gujarat when tobacco workers took left-over tobacco and rolled it in leaves.[11] Initially the leaf used was kachnar. In 1899, during the Gujarat famine, brothers Mohanlal Hargovindas Patel migrated to Jabalpur region as railway contractors. They discovered that the local tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leaves are ideal for wrapping the tobacco and founded the beedi rolling factories locally. The first trademark was registered by Haribhai Desai of Bombay (using kachnar leaves) 1901, and Mohanlal and Hargovindas obtained their trademark in 1902 for tendu-rolled beedi.[11]  WIKKI.

So, tobacco was imported and used in the hukkas of royalty. It was expensive and inaccessible to commoners. Chewing paan or beetle nut would be more appropriate.

“Hamida Banu, Akbar’s Hindu wife, gave birth to Jahangir…” The book claims.

Jahangir and his brother Daniyal were born to Mariam uz-Zamani, who was also known as Harka Bai or Jodhaa Bai.

Also, I am not a Muslim but haven’t heard anyone greet saying Insha Allah. Isn’t the correct usage, “Assalam alaikum?

The women did not wear ghagraas in the zenana; they wore gharaaras (Divided skirts) at the time.

Maternal grandparents are called Nana and Nani not Dada and Dadi.

Zenanas were structured with stringent hierarchy to follow. Here the author clubs wives, concubines, eunuchs and slave girls all together like it was one la-la land.


Many to mention them all here.

Example: But most of all, most of all… Pg 59


The beginning was brilliant and I started with a 4 star rating. By the time I finished, I gave it a 2 star. On my second read, I gave it 2.75

With 80% history reported from Wikki pages and 20% story showcasing writer’s imagination IMHO doesn’t fit the genre definition of historical fiction. However, it can more aptly be categorized under Mughal history text books.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews -2015, Project 52 -Write Every Week. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review: The Twentieth Wife

  1. Sumit Kapoor says:

    Great review! i was excited to see you came just with friendly suggestions than those with laundry lists of suggestions..

    Liked by 1 person

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