It takes something more than writing prowess to condense the imperial backdrop of Mughal dynasty into 370 pages of historical fiction. Indu Sundaresan’s Shadow Princess does perfect justice to the golden age of the Mughals. The opulent novel begins with the death of Arjumand Banu Begum (Mumtaz Mahal), Shah
Jahan’s beloved wife, in 1631. The emperor, crushed by her death and consumed completely in grief, decides to build the raza-i-munnavvra (The Luminous Tomb, which went on to become the Taj Mahal). As Hindustan witnesses the renaissance of the emblematic monument of love, it also observes the gradual collapse of the Mughal Empire.
Shah Jahan begins to lose interest in administration and his sons, especially the complacent and artistic Dara Shikoh, Shah Shuja and the ruthlessly
ambitious Aurangazeb begin to mull over their prospects of becoming the next
emperor. Running in parallel, is the endearing tale of Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter Jahanara, who is vested with the powers of governing the royal zenana at the tender age of 17.
Jahanara dedicates her life to the service of her father, who develops an obsessive attachment to his daughter. Jahanara sacrifices her love to perform her filial duty. She earns her sister Roshanara’s disapproval and witnesses her brothers engaging in a game of power politics. Wars, sieges and confinement ensue, despite Jahanara’s efforts to glue the family together.
Jahanara is very similar to Mehrunnisa (Nur Jahan), Sundaresan’s protagonist in her previous novels, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. One need not have read her earlier novels in the Taj Trilogy to appreciate Shadow Princess. The author’s portrayal of Jahanara as a strong-willed and compliant daughter is admirable. The portions involving Jahanara’s struggle in her ‘convoluted, loyal-one-day-blithely-unfaithful-the-next’ world are very inspiring.
Sundaresan’s descriptions of the lush Mughal gardens in Kashmir, the royal platter, regal clothes and the description of the luminous tomb’s construction reveal her eye for fine details. Her prose, where Jahanara has her evanescent, passionate moments with lover Najabat Khan is delightful. However, in the last few chapters, all the excitement and commotion seems to have been shrunk abruptly — due to lack of space, probably.
Sunderasan’s passion for Mughal history is apparent in every single page of the book. Her ability to lace history with a graceful, fictional narrative must be lauded. Taking her cues from postscripts and tidbits from various biographies and foreign travellers’ accounts, she weaves an enchanting tale of treachery, fratricide, devotion, love, intrigue and obsession. She takes the wraps off a powerful woman, who was believed to be ‘the princess who lived in the perpetual shadow of a queen who had died’.