Some legends in India say that the bold and witty Mehrunnisa bewitched seventeeth-century emperor Jahangir of India with her azure eyes and astonishing beauty. Hundreds of years later, their love story takes on new life as Indu Sundaresan molds their courtship into a very plausible account of passion, betrayal, and political intrigue in her first work of fiction. More than just a love story, this novel offers a kaleidoscope of India's history and culture, including the battles that shaped its development and the customs that have made it a unique society. Sundaresan also sheds light on the emperor's harem and the paradox of empowerment it provided to women who achieved status and independent wealth through monetary gifts and land holdings. Through the intelligent and perceptive Mehrunnisa, Sundaresan conducts a symphony of textures. A helpful glossary assists to decipher the many Indian words that pepper the text, and a useful character list helps the reader keep track of the many political players. (Booklist)
First-time novelist Sundaresan writes in the great tradition of the Indian epic, an art she carries forward with grace and brilliance. Born and raised in India, and having first come to the United States for graduate school, Sundaresan is a trained economist long enthralled with the stories of her father and grandfather. Her debut is a fictional saga based on Mehrunnisa, the daughter of a Persian refugee who became the 20th and most dearly beloved wife of the emperor of 17th-century Mughal India. Although she never produced an heir, Mehrunnisa became one ofthe most powerful women of her time. That she had imagined this life while only a small girl of eight propels the story in an unbelievable and dramatic way. The dream of a small and seemingly insignificant child takes on larger-than-life meaning for a woman who lives boldly and courageously, though not without the dire consequences attached to all who lead unconventional lifestyles. This is a remarkably readable book despite the historical basis, with which many readers will not be familiar. (Library Journal)
Sundaresan's debut is a sweeping, carefully researched tale of desire, sexual mores and political treachery set against the backdrop of 16th- and 17th-century India. It centers on the rise to prominence of Mehrunnisa, the beautiful, intellectually astute daughter of a Persian courtier to the Mughal emperor, Akbar. Mehrunnisa falls in love with Akbar's heir apparent, Salim (who later becomes Emperor Jahangir), in her childhood; although Jahangir comes to share her passion, fate and the dictates of his royal station keep them apart for much of the novel. It isn't until Mehrunnisa has weathered a disastrous, loveless marriage to the brutal soldier Ali Quli, several miscarriages and the jealous plotting of Jahangir's chief wife, Jagat Gosini, that she gets the chance to defy the male-dominated Mughal culture and become a savvy, powerful empress. Like most historical fiction, Sundaresan's novel takes its fair share of liberties with plot and characterization, but still endeavors to be factually accurate as much as possible.
Sundaresan charts the chronology of the Mughal Empire, describing life in the royal court in convincing detail and employing authentic period terms throughout. Despite its descriptive strengths, however, the work doesn't quite convince as creative fiction. So much plot is squeezed into the novel that there's little time for character development Mehrunnisa and Jahangir are wooden and one-dimensional creations, and matters aren't helped by the often stilted prose ("restlessness rose over her like tide on a beach"). Regardless of the wealth of edifying historical detail, this tale of palace intrigue is less than intriguing. (Publishers Weekly)
Lustily detailed life in another time--the Mughal Empire of early-17th-century India--sluggishly chronicles the long, convoluted path of a love affair between an emperor and a courtier's daughter.
Drawing on historical records, newcomer Sundaresan, an Indian-born writer living in the US, gives her own interpretation of the fabled woman who, once she married the Emperor Jahangir, becoming his 20th and last wife, ruled the empire in his name for 15 years. Born in what is today Afghanistan as her parents were fleeing their native Persia en route to India, Mehrunnisa is abandoned soon after birth by her father Ghias. With three children, no money and no future, Ghias despairs of being able to rear her, but Mehrunnisa is rescued by Malik, a merchant, who not only befriends Ghias but finds a position for him at the imperial court in Lahore. There, the family prospers and Mehrunnisa thrives. When she's eight, she accompanies her mother, Asmat, to the imperial palace to witness the marriage of Prince Salim. Watching from the women's quarters, the young girl not only falls in love with the handsome prince but also attracts the attention of the powerful Empress Ruqayya, who insists that Mehrunnisa attend her at court. Once there, Mehrunnisa learns all the court gossip, observes the rivalries among the wives and concubines--and has a brief meeting with Salim, who is struck by her beauty. They see each other again infrequently in the turbulent years ahead, but Mehrunnisa never stops believing that one day she will be Empress of India. It is a dream realized after many pages and much bloodshed as wars, marriages, and desperate intrigues intervene.
The great love at the heart of the story, which became the stuff of legends, unfortunately gets lost in the heat of battle and history. (Kirkus )