Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan is a stand-alone novel and the third book in Sundaresan’s trilogy about the Mughal Empire around the 17th Century, the earlier two being The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. This is the story of Emperor Shah Jahan, grief-stricken after the death of Empress Arjumand (Mumtaz Mahal), being propped up by his daughter, the beautiful Princess Jahanara, who subordinates her own life for reasons of political expediency.
It is also an exaltation of Jahanara, age 19, the eldest of Shah Jahan’s royal brood comprising of two daughters and the four younger sons, holding the fort as her mother dies giving birth to her 14th child. There is the strange rivalry between Jahanara and her younger sister, Roshanara, which sets off many palace intrigues, after Shah Jahan relinquishes control of the kingdom into the tender hands of Jahanara. In the competition for a successor to the throne, Roshanara aligns herself with the ambitious and wily Aurangzeb, while Jahanara sees Dara, the eldest son, as the natural successor to the throne. These problems get compounded with Shah Jahan ignoring the affairs of the state and instead, getting unduly pre-occupied with building a monument to his beloved wife – for twenty-two long years, twenty thousand artisans laboured to make this dream monument, a marble tomb, lined with gold, silver and rare jewels – the Taj Mahal. Jahanara pays a heavy price for the emperor’s obsession. Her marriage to Mirza Najabat Khan is put on hold, and ugly rumours surface about her association with her father.
The author is a brilliant writer of description and makes all the characters involved come to life most lucidly – the young princes, the princesses, the servants, the courtiers and their hearts and minds. She vividly describes the durbar halls, the zenana khanas, the market places, the opulence of the palaces, and the sights and smells of a glorious era gone by.
It is the moving story of Princess Jahanara, a girl of exceptional determination and loyalty to her father, who opts to put duty to kingdom before her personal life. It is also a glimpse of India’s history and a young woman’s fight for her hard-earned place in a male-dominated world.
By Indu Sundaresan