The Feast of Roses – Indu Sundaresan

By- Sonakshi Singh

‘The Feast of Roses’ is a rich work of historical fiction written by author Indu Sundaresan, based on the telling and anecdotes of the local people. Indu Sundaresan has published a lot of books, mostly based on historical fiction, the most prominent amongst which remains the Taj Trilogy series of three books, of which this book forms the second part. Other books of the series include ‘The Twentieth Wife’ and ‘Shadow Princess’.

This book takes the reader on a time-travel machine to the era of Jahangir’s reign of Mughal throne and ventures into the under-explored events and relationships of that period. The protagonist of this story is the twentieth and the most beloved wife of Emperor Jahangir – Empress Nur Jahan. The story is a telling of the most intimate marital relationship of the Mughal Era, an unparalleled love story between the aesthetic Jahangir and his ‘light of the world’ (literal meaning of ‘Nur Jahan’, a title given to her by Jahangir himself), Mehrunnisa. While the patriarchal stigma surrounding the Era casted an audacious and fearsome image of an Empress who puppets the Emperor, this book shows us a gender-neutral observation of a daring woman who breaks all shackles of her veiled position and proves her sagacity by being the most trusted advisor of the Emperor, a role that had always been male centric. The book is a tribute to the purest love of the Mughal Empire, which got overshadowed by the grand gesture of another love story through Taj Mahal. It is true that there are no outwardly physical structures to prove their love, but the power sharing received by Nur Jahan through their love and trust has been documented in all accounts of the Era.

The predecessor of this book entails the long years of yearning spent in reminiscence of their young love and ends with their marriage with Mehrunnisa being 34 years of age. This book accounts the intricacy of the relationship shared between them in their marriage, surrounded by jealousy and animosity within the safe of the Mughal ‘zenana’ and their own kindred. A marriage for love with a wife who is not young was something that the Mughal people could neither fathom nor understand. But, Jahangir was not to be influenced. He was enamored by his beloved wife and trusted her immensely, thereby giving her powers and responsibilities that did not fit in with the roles defined and catered for a Mughal Empress. Their relationship had in this aspect transcended even the ideologies of 21st century, where patriarchal mindset still remains intact.

Nur Jahan’s indomitable spirit and strength of character is seen in her way of handling all her enemies and supporting her husband throughout his life. The Mughal court’s attempt to appeal to Jahangir’s male ego and break their intimate bond is redolent of their intolerance towards growing female power in the empire. However, the Empress is not someone who cowers down to male dominance and surrenders, but she fights against it and forms her own ‘junta’ with her father, brother and Khurram (Shah Jahan), which remains strong until its destined fall-out. In this book, the author beautifully speaks to the feminist souls of the readers and lauds the courage of the woman who ruled the empire from behind her veil. The story reveals her struggles to keep her power in the Mughal court after being deceived by her kindred, but always sharing love and companionship with the Emperor till his last breath.

Although this book is based on the Mughal period of 16th-17th century, the female characters portrayed in the book bear the confidence and ambition of women of 21st century. The same desire to be at the forefront and not be shackled by the gender conformed roles imposed by the society is conveyed to the readers. Even today, while we call ourselves a modern society, we fail to ensure that the rights and liberties of a modern society are available universally to everyone in the country. We still inflict our ideologies of the early centuries into the contemporary context, which is quite evident from the patriarchal personal laws of the country. A man is normed to occupy the main role in the society, while the wife needs to fulfill the supporting role. If compared to today, the women of the Mughal era portrayed in the book seem to have more strength of character as the norms of that period were more gender-conformed and freedom was not a right, but a privilege. The protagonist, Mehrunissa inspires the women of today to step out of their boundaries and raise a voice of their own. She shows how being opinioned and independent, instead of succumbing to societal restrictions would make one lead a successful and memorable life. Unlike Arjummand, popularly known as ‘Mumtaz Mahal’ who was known just because her husband Khurram, popularly known as ‘Shah Jahan’ constructed Taj Mahal to leave his mark for prosperity to remember in the disguise of ‘memory of his eternal love for his wife’, Mehrunnisa is remembered for her strength of character and her hold over the Mughal empire stronger than Emperor Jahangir himself. Why else is she the most remembered and outshone woman of the Mughal empire?

The most prominent point of the book and also the reason for its title is the famous ‘Feast of Roses’. During some point in their marriage, Nur Jahan and Jahangir experience miscommunication and misunderstanding, leading to days of silence. However, given their deep love and need for each other, Jahangir rekindles their relationship by a beautiful gesture. He orders to cover the stone path of the zenana garden with rose petals from one end to the other and takes the hand of Nur Jahan to walk alongside him on the path of roses, as if they were feasting on the beauty of their relationship. While Taj Mahal is considered to be the most beautiful epitome of love, the ‘feast of roses’ appeals to the reader as the most intimate and romantic gesture of love, which is shared between two people while they are still living and ‘loving’. This also illustrates the aesthetic nature of Jahangir, who loves and is intrigued by the wonders of nature.

Beautifully written with historical details and spirit of the Mughal Era, the book takes the readers on a rollercoaster ride through the realm of Mehrunnisa’s and Jahangir’s eternal love story. Thomas Moore beautifully describes in Lalla Rookh –

“The Mask is off, the charm is wrought

And Salim to his heart has caught,

His Noor Mahal, his Haram’s light!

And well do vanish’d frowns enhance

The charm of every brightened glance;

And dearer seems each dawning smile

For having lost its light awhile:

And, happier now, for all her sighs,

As on his arm her head reposes

She whispers him, with laughing eyes,

‘Remember love, the Feast of Roses’.”

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