A woman’s take on the famous monument as the Emperor’s daughter recalls her part in its construction and her survival through treachery and war.
With lively period detail and a surfeit of villains, the story that Princess Jahanara reveals to her two granddaughters is a hyperactive saga where plot trumps insight. Now an old woman, Jahanara, thinking it time to tell the two girls the truth about their lineage, returns to the past to explain why they have been kept ignorant of their imperial connections. Her childhood was happy; her mother, Mumtaz Mahal, was not only adored by her father, the Emperor Shah Jehan, but she was frequently consulted in matters of state. She was especially close to Jahanara, with whom she shared her insights into statecraft, but when she died in childbirth, the family began to disintegrate. Jehan’s grief was such that he failed to discipline son Aurangzeb, a brutal warmonger who resented brother Dara, the presumptive heir, and allowed Jahanara to marry Khondamir, a coarse and abusive trader. Obsessed with building a memorial to his wife, Jehan began the construction of the Taj Mahal on the banks of the nearby river. Soon Jahanara is not only helping with the construction but is in love with the architect, Isa. Contrite about her unhappy marriage, the Emperor encourages her to have a secret affair with Isa, and she bears a daughter, Arjumand. But the times are dangerous, and Aurangzeb is not only an ambitious, religious bigot but especially suspicious of Jahanara, whom he fears wants to kill him. He imprisons Jahanara and her father, the Emperor, in the Red Fort; Isa and Arjumand flee, only to be enslaved by a rival sultan; and Jahanara is raped in prison by treacherous Khondamir. Wars and betrayals are commonplace as Aurangzeb fights to consolidate his succession, and Jahanara must endure much travail before she finds a safe haven.
An overly action-packed debut, but agreeably colorful nonetheless.