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.