Home > Book Review > Women, in times good and bad

Women, in times good and bad

Monday, April 08, 2013
By Robin Shukla

This week, our books span across ages, from the Mughal to the mythological. Escape from Harem by Tanushree Podder explores the life of women during the reigns of emperors Jahangir and Shahjahan, while delving into the rich and tumultuous history of the times. Arjuna by Anuja Chandramouli details the fascinating life of the greatest warrior of ancient Indian lore.

Making the best of a bad bargain
Escape from Harem by Tanushree Podder is one of those rare books that extract you from Mumbai of April 2013 and transport you a full four hundred years back, to the 1600s. The story revolves around Zeenat, a beautiful girl living in very abject circumstances, who at age 15, was taken to Mughal emperor Jahangir to satisfy his lust, and was later confined to the constricted life in his harem, until she became part of an ill-fated enterprise to break free.

Zeenat and her mother were living in one of the poorest localities of Agra, with rows of shops surrounding their house, some selling liquor. ‘With her peaches and cream complexion, buxom figure and chiselled features, the girl attracted the attention of the shopkeepers and the inebriated men walking around the street.’ To protect her, the mother would take her along when she went to work at the harem each morning, where the girl would indulge in playful antics to the delight of the women there. That was when she caught the eye of the salacious Jahangir who summoned her to his bed for four nights in a row, after which he inevitably lost interest.

The general belief in our revered Bharat desh is that only the Mughal rulers were sexually insatiable rogues, and that the concept of acquiring women from the countryside, more often than not, by force, intimidation and coercion. History implicates quite a few Hindu rajas from kingdoms big and small located all across the Indian subcontinent of similar rapaciousness. After them, the rest of the courtiers in the palaces, the small time jagirdars, and even their henchmen, would freely help themselves to those hapless women who had escaped the wretched eyes of the higher nobles in the feudal system. Some of that blot continues to stain India even today, and those trying to fight back mostly get branded as Naxals.

While this book speaks of Jahangir as a lecherous drunkard needing a new woman every night, it also exposes a culture where palace eunuchs and others could go about heartlessly procuring girls for the emperor. And times were such that many girls were actually more than willing to lie down with him. The tragedy is that even as he violated a woman, the emperor kept pining for a green-eyed 35-year-old widow, the stunning Meherunnisa, who managed to keep him at arms length under some pretext or the other. When Jahangir ultimately coerces her into marriage, renaming her, Nurjahan, (know her now?) it is one of the most lavish ceremonies laden with astounding wedding gifts, ‘There were caskets full of gold coins totalling to eighty lakh gold asharfis. Eunuchs carried in over five hundred sets of exquisitely tailored and embroidered dresses in muslin, silk, velvet and satin, in various colours, for the empress. There were heaps of priceless pearl necklaces, each pearl the size of a nugget, chokers set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, gold bracelets and armlets, hundreds of gold rings set with precious stones, countless casks of perfumes, musk and ambergris, satin and velvet slippers embroidered with seed pearls.’  Drool as you read this.

But this book looks at much more than the lasciviousness of the Mughals. It offers a historical perspective on Mughal rule from the time of Akbar, to his son Jahangir, and later on, life as it was in the time of Jahangir’s son, Shahjahan. It touches upon the frayed relationships between fathers and sons, between the sons themselves, the mutual suspicions, the murderous hatred of each other, and the palace intrigues, in which women of the time played no less a mean part.

On her part, Nurjahan is extremely ambitious, and sets about taking control of Jahangir and his kingdom, a move much resented by the nobles as well as the residents of the harem. Interestingly, the harem is a place that has its own hierarchy, with the queen dowager, the mother of the emperor, ruling the roost, followed by the wife of the emperor, then his favourites, with their respective servants and eunuchs constituting a parallel pecking order. The eunuchs are the eyes and ears for all that needs to be spied upon on behalf of the ruler. Nurjahan drives a wedge between Jahangir and his son, Khurram (Shahjahan), and the latter is constantly chosen to undertake long and dangerous military campaigns either against the Rajputs kings of Rajasthan or the rulers of the Deccan. Khurram finds himself far away from Agra for months at a stretch, accompanied by the ever faithful Arjumand (Mumtaz Mahal!), and the two are so besotted with each other, that Arjumand is constantly pregnant, delivering one child after another, inspite of all advice to the contrary.

Zeenat finds employment with Bahar begum, who at 21, no longer enjoys Jahangir’s attention, and so falls for a nobleman, Zafar Khan, who is also a poet. They plan to escape from the kingdom in order to be together, but are set upon and butchered by soldiers from the palace. Caught in the tragic escapade are Zeenat, Bahar’s faithful eunuch, and Zafar’s faithful guard, Salamat Khan. The bloody clash sees Zeenat and Salamat, the lone survivors, fleeing away in a desperate bid to reach the Deccan where Khurram is camped. There are rebels who have become dacoits after being displaced and made to suffer atrocities by Jahangir, and they help the fugitive couple traverse dangerous and difficult terrain, mountainous and forested, to reach Burhanpur, the major Mughal outpost in the Deccan.

This is a beautiful story of striving hope, through the eyes of Zeenat, who lands up as the handmaiden of Arjumand, a kindhearted and thoughtful person. She marries the brave Salamat, with whom she has seen so many ups and downs in their race to escape Jahangir’s soldiers. They start a beautiful life together, and move around with Khurram as he is sent from campaign to campaign by Jahangir, at the devious goadings by Nurjahan.  There is the gradual deterioration of Jahangir’s health, while Nurjahan goes ahead with her machinations. There are siblings to be slaughtered, as the battle for the throne escalates. Women struggle to hold sway as death and bloodshed destroy one of the most artistic and culturally advanced realms, before the austere and religiously fanatic son of Shahjahan, the cruel Aurangzeb ascends to the throne.

Escape from Harem
by Tanushree Podder
India Ink (Roli Books)

A real good story, well written
Arjuna (Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince) by Anuja Chandramouli is a story that most of us are at least half familiar with, what with the many books that are take-offs of mythological topics.

This book is extremely readable, with an insight of the how the saga comes to be recounted: Vyasa, who has arrived for a yajna, commissions his disciple, Vaishampayana, to narrate the Mahabharata.

What amused this reviewer is the revisiting of the various situations of births of many characters in this book, and though the author may have not intended, we have come to be sufficiently amused by the sexual incontinence of many of the sages, seers and also gods of ancient times. Many just were unable to control urges at the sight of beautiful woman. We were intrigued that the beautiful young wives of Vichitravirya, princesses Ambika and Ambalika, could be made to get impregnated by the Queen Mother Satyavati’s son, Veda Vyasa, ‘despite his unattractive face, unkempt appearance and unwashed body with its powerful odour.’ The poor girls were so appalled at the ordeal they had to go through just to ensure continuity of the Kuru lineage, that one shut her eyes tightly and the other became pale, probably because of holding her breath against Vyasa’s stench. The punishments – a blind son, Dhritarashtra, and a pale son, Pandu. When Satyavati suggested another round of mating, a disgusted Ambika sent Vyasa a servant disguised and dressed in her own finery, who begat Vidura, the wise one. Troubled times for women right from the days of the good gods! Of course, the story goes interestingly ahead, and like we said, is well written.

by Anuja Chandramouli
Platinum Press (Leadstart)

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