The Twentieth Wife

by Indu Sundaresan

Published by Pocket Books

320 pages, 2001

Buy it online


A 17th-century epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India's most legendary and controversial empresses -- a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal empire.

She came into the world in the year 1577, to the howling accompaniment of a ferocious winter storm. As the daughter of starving refugees fleeing violent persecution in Persia, her fateful birth in a roadside tent sparked a miraculous reversal of family fortune, culminating in her father's introduction to the court of Emperor Akbar. She is called Mehrunnisa, the Sun of Women. This is her story.

Growing up on the fringes of Emperor Akbar's opulent palace grounds, Mehrunnisa blossoms into a sapphire-eyed child blessed with a precocious intelligence, luminous beauty, and a powerful ambition far surpassing the bounds of her family' s station. Mehrunnisa first encounters young Prince Salim on his wedding day. In that instant, even as a royal gala swirls around her in celebration of the future emperor's first marriage, Mehrunnisa foresees the path of her own destiny. One day, she decides with uncompromising surety, she too will become Salim's wife. She is all of eight years old -- and wholly unaware of the great price she and her family will pay for this dream.

Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensuous imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, The Twentieth Wife sweeps readers up in the emotional pageant of Salim and Mehrunnisa's embattled love. First-time novelist Indu Sundaresan charts her heroine's enthralling journey across the years, from an ill-fated first marriage through motherhood and into a dangerous maze of power struggles and political machinations. Through it all, Mehrunnisa and Salim long with fiery intensity for the true, redemptive love they've never known -- and their mutual quest ultimately takes them, and the vast empire that hangs in the balance, to places they never dreamed possible.

Shot through with wonder and suspense, The Twentieth Wife is at once a fascinating portrait of one woman's convention-defying life behind the veil and a transporting saga of the astonishing potency of love.


















When my mother came near the time of her delivery, he (Akbar) sent her to the Shaikh's house that I might be born there. After my birth they gave me the name of Sultan Salim, but I never heard my father ... call me Muhammad Salim or Sultan Salim, but always Shaikhu Baba. -- A. Rogers, trans., and H. Beveridge, ed., The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri

The midday sun whitened the city of Lahore to a bright haze. Normally, the streets would be deserted at this time of day, but today the Moti bazaar was packed with a slowly moving throng of humanity. The crowds deftly maneuvered around a placid cow lounging in the center of the narrow street, her jaw moving rhythmically as she digested her morning meal of grass and hay.

Shopkeepers called out to passing shoppers while sitting comfortably at the edge of jammed, cubical shops that lay flush with the brick-paved street. A few women veiled in thin muslins leaned over the wood-carved balconies of their houses above the shops. A man holding the leash of a pet monkey looked up when they called to him, "Make it dance!" He bowed and set his music box on the ground. As the music played, the monkey, clad in a blue waistcoat, a tasseled fez on its head, jumped up and down. When it had finished, the women clapped and threw silver coins at the man. After gathering the coins from the street, the man and his monkey gravely bowed again and went on their way. On the street corner, musicians played their flutes and dholaks; people chatted happily with friends, shouting to be heard above the din; vendors hawked lime-green sherbets in frosted brass goblets; and women bargained in good-natured loud voices.

In the distance, between the two rows of houses and shops that crowded the main street of the bazaar, the red brick walls of the Lahore fort rose to the sky, shutting out the imperial palaces and gardens from the city.

The city was celebrating. Prince Salim, Akbar's eldest son and heir apparent, was to be married in three days, on February 13, 1585. Salim was the first of the three royal princes to wed, and no amount of the unseasonable heat or dust or noise would keep the people of Lahore from the bazaar today.

At Ghias Beg's house, silence prevailed in an inner courtyard, broken only by the faint sounds of the shenai from the bazaar. The air was still and heavy with perfume from blooming roses and jasmines in clay pots. A fountain bubbled in one corner, splashing drops of water with a hiss onto the hot stone pathway nearby. In the center of the courtyard a large peepul tree spread its dense triangular-leaved branches.

Five children sat cross-legged on jute mats under the cool shade of the peepul, heads bent studiously, the chalk in their hands scratching on smooth black slates as they wrote. But every now and then, one or another lifted a head to listen to the music in the distance. Only one child sat still, copying out text from a Persian book spread in front of her.

Mehrunnisa had an intense look of concentration on her face as she traced the curves and lines, the tip of her tongue showing between her teeth. She was determined not to be distracted.

Seated next to her were her brothers, Muhammad and Abul, and her sisters, Saliha and Khadija.

A bell pealed, its tones echoing in the silent courtyard.

The two boys jumped up immediately and ran into the house; soon Saliha and Khadija followed. Only Mehrunnisa remained, intent upon her work. The mulla of the mosque who was their teacher, closed his book, folded his hands in his lap, and sat there looking at the child.

Asmat came out into the courtyard and smiled. This was a good sign, surely. After so many years of complaints and tantrums and "why do I have to study?" and "I am bored, Maji," Mehrunnisa seemed to have finally settled down to her lessons. Before, she had always been the first to rise when the lunch bell summoned.

"Mehrunnisa, it is time for lunch, beta," Asmat called.

At the sound of her mother's voice, Mehrunnisa lifted her head. Azure blue eyes looked up at Asmat, and a dimpled smile broke out on her face, showing perfectly even, white teeth with one gap in the front where a permanent tooth was yet to come. She rose from the mat, bowed to the mulla, and walked toward her mother, her long skirts swinging gently.

Mehrunnisa looked at her mother as she neared. Maji was always so neat, hair smoothed to a shine by fragrant coconut oil, and curled into a chignon at the nape of her neck.

"Did you enjoy the lessons today, beta?" Asmat asked as Mehrunnisa reached her and touched her mother's arm softly.

Mehrunnisa wrinkled her nose. "The mulla doesn't teach me anything I don't already know. He doesn't seem to know anything." Then, as a frown rose on Asmat's forehead, she asked quickly, "Maji, when are we going to the royal palace?"

"Your Bapa and I must attend the wedding celebrations next week, I suppose. An invitation has come for us. Bapa will be at the court with the men, and I have been called to the imperial zenana."

They moved into the house. Mehrunnisa slowed her stride to keep pace with her mother. At eight, she was already up to Asmat's shoulder and growing fast. They passed noiselessly through the verandah, their bare feet skimming the cool stone floor.

"What does the prince look like, Maji?" Mehrunnisa asked, trying to keep the eagerness out of her voice.

Asmat reflected for a moment. "He is handsome, charming." Then, with a hesitant laugh, she added, "And perhaps a little petulant."

"Will I get to see him?"

Asmat raised her eyebrows. "Why this sudden interest in Prince Salim?"

"No reason," Mehrunnisa replied in a hurry. "A royal wedding -- and we shall be present at court. Who is he marrying?"

"You will attend the celebrations only if you have finished with your studies for the day. I shall talk to the mulla about your progress." Asmat smiled at her daughter. "Perhaps Khadija would like to come too?" Khadija and Manija had been born after the family's arrival in India. Manija was still in the nursery, too young for classes and not old enough to go out.

"Perhaps." Mehrunnisa waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal, her green glass bangles sliding down her wrist to her elbow with a tinkling sound. "But Khadija has no concept of the decorum and etiquette at court."

Asmat threw her well-groomed head back with a laugh. "And you have?"

"Of course." Mehrunnisa nodded firmly. Khadija was a baby; she could not sit still for twenty minutes at the morning lessons. Everything distracted her -- the birds in the trees, the squirrels scrambling for nuts, the sun through the peepul leaves. But that was getting off the topic. "Who is Prince Salim marrying, Maji?" she asked again.

"Princess Man Bai, daughter of Raja Bhagwan Das of Amber."

"Do princes always marry princesses?"

"Not necessarily, but most royal marriages are political. In this case, Emperor Akbar wishes to maintain a strong friendship with the Raja, and Bhagwan Das similarly wants closer ties with the empire. After all, he is now a vassal to the Emperor."

"I wonder what it would be like to marry a prince," Mehrunnisa said, her eyes glazing over dreamily, "and to be a princess . . ."

"Or an empress, beta. Prince Salim is the rightful heir to the throne, you know, and his wife, or wives, will all be empresses." Asmat smiled at her daughter's ecstatic expression. "But enough about the royal wedding." Her face softened further as she smoothed Mehrunnisa's hair. "In a few years you will leave us and go to your husband's house. Then we shall talk about your wedding."

Mehrunnisa gave her mother a quick look. Empress of Hindustan! Bapa came home with stories about his day, little tidbits about Emperor Akbar's rulings, about the zenana women hidden behind a screen as they watched the court proceedings, sometimes in silence and sometimes calling out a joke or a comment in a musical voice. The Emperor always listened to them, always turned his head to the screen to hear what they had to say. What bliss to be in the Emperor's harem, to be at court. How she wished she could have been born a princess. Then she would marry a prince -- perhaps even Salim. But then Asmat and Ghias would not be her parents. Her heart skipped a beat at the thought. She slipped a hand into her mother's, and they walked on toward the dining hall.

As they neared, she said again, pulling at Asmat's arm, "Can I go with you for the wedding, Maji? Please?"

"We'll see what your Bapa has to say about it."

When they entered, Abul looked up, patted the divan next to him, and said to Mehrunnisa, "Come sit here."

Giving him a quick smile, Mehrunnisa sat down. Abul had promised to play gilli-danda with her under the peepul tree later that afternoon. He was much better than she was at the game, managing to hit the gilli six or seven times before it fell. But then, he was a boy, and the one time she had tried to teach him to sew a button he had drawn blood on all his fingers with the needle. At least she could hit the gilli four times in a row. She clasped her hands together and waited for Bapa to signal that the meal had begun.

The servants had laid out a red satin cloth on the Persian carpets. Now they filed in, carrying steaming dishes of saffron-tinted pulavs cooked in chicken broth, goat curry in a rich brown gravy, a leg of lamb roasted with garlic and rosemary, and a salad of cucumber and plump tomatoes, sprinkled with rock salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice. The head server knelt and ladled out the food on Chinese porcelain plates. For the next few minutes silence prevailed as the family ate, using only their right hands. When they were done, brass bowls filled with hot water and pieces of lime were brought in so they could wash their hands. A hot cup of chai spiced with ginger and cinnamon followed.

Ghias leaned back against the silk cushions of his divan and looked around at his family. They were beautiful, he thought, these people who belonged to him. Two sons and four daughters already, each special in an individual way, each brilliant with life. Muhammad, his eldest was a little surly and sometimes missed his classes on a whim, true, but that would change as time passed. Abul showed the most promise of becoming like his Dada, Ghias's father. He had his grandfather's even temper and a small streak of mischief that made him tease his beloved sisters. All the more reason he would continue to love them deeply when they were older. Saliha was becoming a young lady now, suddenly shy of even her own Bapa. Khadija and Manija -- they were children yet, unformed, inquisitive, curious about everything. But Mehrunnisa . . .

Ghias smiled inwardly, letting his eyes rest on her last. She was his favorite child, a child of good fortune. He was not normally a superstitious man, but somehow he had the feeling that Mehrunnisa's birth had been a good omen for him. Everything good in his life had come from that time after the storm at Qandahar.

Eight years had passed since their hasty escape from Persia. Sitting here in this safe room, Ghias was suddenly transported to that moment before his introduction to Emperor Akbar in the darbar hall by Malik Masud. They had entered past the forbidding palace guards into the blinding sunshine of the Diwan-i-am, the Hall of Public Audience at Fatehpur Sikri. The courtyard was crowded. The Emperor's war elephants stood at the very back in a row, shifting their weight from one heavy foot to another. Their foreheads were draped with gold and silver livery, and mahouts were seated atop their thick necks, knees dug into their ears. Next came a row of cavalry officers on perfectly matched black Arabian horses. Then came the third, and outermost tier, for commoners. The second tier around the imperial throne was for merchants and lesser noblemen, and this was where Ghias and Masud took their places, behind the nobles of the court.

When the Emperor was announced, they bowed low from the waist. Ghias glanced behind him to see the elephants lumber to their knees, tilting the mahouts to a sharp angle, and the horses and cavalry officers bend their heads. When they rose from the salutation, he gazed with awe at the figure on the faraway throne across a sea of jeweled turbans.

They all stood silent as the Mir Arz, in charge of official petitions, read out the day's business in his singsong voice. Ghias watched and listened to the proceedings in a daze. The cloud of sandalwood incense, the richness of the Emperor's throne with its jasper-studded beaten gold pillars and red velvet cushions, the sleek gray marble floor in front of the throne -- all overwhelmed him. Finally, Masud was called forward. Ghias went with him, and in unison they performed the taslim, touching their right hands to their foreheads and bending from the waist.

"Welcome back, Mirza Masud," Akbar said.

"Thank you, your Majesty," Masud replied, straightening.

"You had a good journey, we trust?"

"By the grace of Allah and your Majesty," Masud said.

"Is this all you have brought us from your travels, Mirza Masud?" Emperor Akbar asked, gesturing toward the horses, and the plates of piled silks and fruits from the caravan.

"One more gift, your Majesty," Masud nodded to Ghias. "If I may humbly be allowed to introduce Mirza Ghias Beg to your court."

"Come forward, Mirza Beg. Our eyes are not as good as they once were. Come forward so we may see you well."

Ghias finally straightened from his taslim and took a few steps forward, raising his eyes to the Emperor. He saw a stout, majestic man with a kind face, a mole on his upper lip. "Where are you from, Mirza Beg. Who is your father?"

Stumbling over his words, Ghias told him. Every sentence he spoke echoed in his ears. His throat was dry, his palms damp with sweat. When he had finished, he looked at the Emperor anxiously. Had he pleased him?

"A good family," Akbar said. Turning to his right, he asked, "What do you think, Shaiku Baba?"

Ghias then saw the child seated next to the emperor, a little boy perhaps eight or nine years old, his hair slicked back, wearing a short peshwaz coat and trousers of gold shot silk. Prince Salim, heir to the empire. Salim nodded solemnly, the heron feather in his small turban bobbing. Trying to mirror his father's tone of voice, he said in his clear, childish voice, "We like him, your Majesty."

Akbar smiled. "Yes, we do. Come back to see us sometime, Mirza Beg."

Ghias bowed. "Your Majesty is too kind. It will be a great honor for me."

Akbar inclined his head to the Mir Arz, who read out the name of the next supplicant from his scroll. Malik Masud gestured to Ghias and both men bowed again and backed to their places. They did not talk. When the darbar was over, Ghias left the hall in a stupor, the Emperor's kind words singing in his ear. He had gone back to the court the next day, waiting for hours until the Emperor was free to talk with him for five minutes. After a few days of conversation, Akbar had graciously granted Ghias a mansab of three hundred horses and appointed him courtier.

The mansab system was used by Mughal Kings to confer honors and estates. The mansabs translated into parcels of land used to support the upkeep of cavalry or infantry for the imperial army, so Ghias's mansab could support, from its produce, a cavalry of three hundred horses. All this Ghias had to learn anew. The Mughal courts were different from the counts at Persia.

As the years passed, Ghias made himself indispensable to Akbar, accompanying him on hunting parties and campaigns and entertaining him with stories of the Persian courts. Akbar replied to Ghias's efforts in kind, granting him the land and budding materials for two splendid houses: one at Agra, the other at Fatehpur Sikri.

Today, they sat down to their midday meal at a rented house in Lahore. A few months ago, a new threat had reared its head on the northwestern frontier of the empire. The Emperor's spies had brought news that Abdullah Khan, king of Uzbekistan, was planning to invade India. Fatehpur Sikri, though nominally the capital of the empire, was too far southeast for the Emperor's comfort. Akbar wanted to be closer to the campaign mounted against the Uzbeg king, and he gave orders for the move to Lahore. The entire court had traveled with the Emperor, leaving the newly built city of Fatehpur Sikri deserted.

Allah had been kind to his family, Ghias mused as he stroked his bearded chin. Opulence surrounded them, a far cry from the destitute manner in which they had entered India. Thick Persian and Kashmiri rugs were pled on the stone floors. The lime-washed walls were hung with paintings and miniatures framed in brass. Little burnished teak and sandalwood tables held artifacts from around the world: Chinese porcelain statues, silver and gold boxes from Persia, ivory figurines from Africa. The children were clothed in the finest muslin and silks, and Asmat wore enough jewelry to feed a poor family for a year.

He still could not believe the blessings that had come his way and how much they had gained in the past years. The children had flourished here, strong and resilient, taking to the country and its people as though their own. Abul, Muhammad, and Saliha had been diffident at first about learning new languages and customs and playing with the children of the neighboring lords and nobles. Young as they were, they remembered much of the long, traumatic journey from Persia. For Mehrunnisa, everything was new and wonderful. The dialects in Agra had come more easily to her mouth. The blistering dry heat of the Indo-Gangetic plains did not seem to bother her; until she was five she ran about the house in a thin cotton shift, balking at having to dress up for festivals and occasions. She took their position for granted as promotions came to Ghias and they moved from one house to a bigger one until Akbar gave them a home of their own. This was the only life she had known. Ghias had worried most about Asmat, anxious about uprooting her and bringing her here. When her father had entrusted her to his care, he surely would not have expected that Ghias would take her away from her family.

Ghias looked at her, warming with pride and love. Asmat was in the early stages of yet another pregnancy, visible only by a slight rounding of her stomach. The passing years had not diminished Asmat's beauty. Time had painted some gray in her hair and etched a few lines on her face. But it was the same dear face, the same trusting eyes. She had been brave, giving him strength at night when they lay beside each other in silence, darkness closing around them, and during the day when he was home working or reading, and she passed by, her anklets chiming, her ghagara murmuring on the floor. Islamic law allowed four wives, but with Asmat, Ghias had found a deep, abiding peace. There was no need to even look at another woman or think of taking another wife. She was everything to him.

A sudden movement caught his eye. Mehrunnisa was sitting at the edge of her divan, her eyes sparkling with excitement, smoothing the long pleats of her ghagara with impatient fingers. He knew she wanted to say something and could not keep still. He looked at her, thinking again of these past eight years, of how they would have been different if she had not been with them. A huge gap would have opened in their lives, never to be filled no matter how many children they had. How he would have missed her musical "Bapa!" when he came home and she flung herself into his arms with a "Kiss me first, before anyone else. Me first. Me first."

Ghias bowed his head. Thank you, Allah.

Then he put down his cup and said, "His Majesty was in a good mood at the darbar this morning. He is very happy about Prince Salim's forthcoming marriage."

"Bapa --" Both Abul and Mehrunnisa spoke simultaneously, relieved that the enforced silence during lunch had finally been broken. Asmat and Ghias were very strict about not speaking during meals: a sign of good manners. And only when Ghias spoke could the rest of the family join in.

"Yes, Mehrunnisa?" Ghias hushed Abul with a hand.

"I want to go to the royal palace for the wedding," Mehrunnisa said. Then she added hastily, "Please."

Ghias raised an eyebrow at Asmat.

She nodded. "You can take the boys. Mehrunnisa and Saliha will be with me." | January 2002


Copyright © 2001 Indu Sundaresan


Indu Sundaresan, born and raised in India, came to the United States for graduate school. Trained as an economist, her short fiction has appeared in The Vincent Brothers Review and on She lives in the Seattle, Washington, area.