The Mountain of Light by Indu Sundaresan

Of all the books I have reviewed, this is the only one which I actually asked an author for a review copy. How could I not, when it is one of my favourite author’s book? I’ve loved every book of hers so far!

Indu Sundaresan was kind enough to send me an e-book as I was not located in the right geography for a proper book.

MountainofLight

The enchanting story of the Koh-i-Noor, the diamond that captured the imagination of so many people, rulers and common man alike. A tale of loyalty, treachery, duties, betrayals, it has it all. The mountain of Light starts at the time when Shah Shuja and his wife, Wafa Begum are imprisoned, by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Emperor of Punjab. The Koh-i-Noor, is the often unseen, but omnipresent protagonist of this historical saga. A tale of the numerous lives touched and affected by the legendary diamond, be it those who owned it, or those who protected it, or those who yearned for it. The majestic yellow diamond, weighing 186 carats was something everybody wanted their hands on, be it the kings in India, or the British. The diamond for all it’s brilliance was also supposed to carry a curse on its wearer. Only women could wear it on a crown, safely. It was said that the curse brought destruction to men who wore it, which is probably why the Mughals had it embedded in the throne and Maharaja Ranjit Singh wore it as an amulet. The story follows the Koh-i-Noor, from the time Wafa Begum held on to it, as a bargaining tool, to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who kept it safe until he died. After his death, the British took over the Empire of Punjab. Maharaja Dalip Singh, Maharaja Ranjit’s Singh’s eight-year-old son was king only in name, and very soon the Koh-i-Noor was on its way to Queen Victoria, as a ‘present’. Even the journey to England, by ship was not without excitement. The tale then goes on to Maharaja Dalip Singh’s life in England, who followed the diamond to Britain, and finally died in France.

The book is a feast of imagery. Sundaresan’s words transport you to the garden where Wafa Begum has secreted the diamond. Her words bring to life, the richness and the power play of Indian courts, the lavish lifestyles that the royals lived. The generosity of gifts that Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his queen bestows on the visitors to their kingdom, took my breath away. How rich India must have been at that time, if they could gift away diamond necklaces and emeralds shaped as grapes! The life of the British in India was really beautifully portrayed. Some who brought their whole homes into India, to set up their British parlour in the heart of India. Others who mingled, blended into the rich tapestry of India, who understood and respected their hosts, some ruthless, while others sympathetic. Each with their own perspectives, some who felt it was their divine right to rule over India, others who understood how unfair that assumption was. British rule in India, and the mechanics of they managed to annex so much of India is brought out really well.

The book is a beautifully balanced portrayal of the times. Maharaja Dalip Singh’s tale filled me with such sadness.. A boy, a mere boy, made a puppet king, and then indoctrinated in ways that were totally foreign to him and his culture that he soon becomes as British as they come. Only to realize that no matter how British he felt, he would always be foreign to them. His life changes, even though he was a favourite of Queen Victoria’s. It was such a sad end for someone who grew up knowing that he had the world in his hands.

The portrayals of the women in the tale is great. Be it sophisticated Wafa Begum, the clever Maharani Jindan Kaur, the alluring, mysterious Roshni, the British sisters Emily and Fanny Eden, or Lady Login. Despite the number of characters in the book, the author has done a brilliant job of assigning them full characters, none of the characters feel hard done by. And as usual, I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of research that must have gone into writing this book, just like her other books. Especially given the fact that there are so many factual events and characters in the book.

It was a book that I took very long to read, by my standards. Not because it was uninteresting, but because I just had to find out more about all the characters that turned up in the book. I kept looking up events and characters that came up in the story. To my surprise and delight, the author has used so many factual events and fictionalized them so well, that one is left wondering what is fact and what is fiction. Just my kind of book. A book that I hoped wouldn’t end. And when it did, I ended up reading up whatever information I could find about that period in history.

If anything, I wish I could know a bit more of the Kohinoor before it reached the Mughals, but from the look of it, there isn’t much documentation about it. It makes me wonder what other adventures it must have gone through. Its current resting place, must seem so very boring indeed. I love books that transport you to the times another era, and this was one of the best of the genre.

I would definitely recommend it. I would rate it a 4.5/5. Thank you so much, Indu Sundaresan, for the copy of the book.

About the Author
Indu Sundaresan
Indu Sundaresan was born in India and grew up on Air Force bases all over the country. Her father, a fighter pilot, was also a storyteller—managing to keep his audiences captive and rapt with his flair for drama and timing. He got this from his father, Indu’s grandfather, whose visits were always eagerly awaited. Indu’s love of stories comes from both of them, from hearing their stories based on imagination and rich Hindu mythology, and from her father’s writings.

This book is available from Amazon(US), Amazon(India) and Flipkart(India)

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Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan

As with her other books, Sundaresan brings to life, the Mughal Era, and the lives of the royals at that time.

I had read the other two books based on Mughal history -The Twentieth Wife and the Feast of Roses, and had been dying to get my hands on Shadow Princess.

Shadow Princess chronicles the life of Jahanara, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s oldest daughter, from the time her mother died giving birth to her fourteenth child. Mumtaz Mahal’s death comes as a complete surprise, and nobody knows what needs to be done. Shah Jahan goes to pieces, and the teenaged Jahanara has no option but to pick up the reigns and be strong for everybody else. The role of Padsha Begum, which in normal circumstances would have gone to her father’s other wives, fell to her, and she rises up to the occasion, and proves that she has the ability and the mental strength to handle it all. Not only does she organize everything, she also helps her dad to go back to ruling the country, something he was ready to give away to one of his sons. Knowing that her brothers were too young to take up the responsibility, Jahanara perseveres and gets her heart-broken father to become King again. She navigates through her father’s sorrowful state, her brother’s rivalry and her sister’s treachery.

Shah Jahan comes to depend upon her so much that he even refuses to think about her marriage – he needed her to support him with the ruling of his kingdom. Jahanara, slowly becomes the most powerful woman in the kingdom. The book chronicles Jahanara’s story, bringing to life, the Mughal court and it’s politics. Brothers fighting for the throne, sisters in conflict for power,alliances made for grabbing power, life as a royal, where sometimes what you really want, you never get, although you have the access to all the jewels, the money, and the power that one could possibly want. Jahanara, while she had everything, still did not get to lead a life that she wanted. As Jahanara’s story progresses, we also get a glimpse of the Taj shaping up. The monument of love, which remains the most known symbol of the Mughal Period, and the most recognized Indian monument, even centuries after it was built. While we have all read, and learnt about Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, this was my first exposure to Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter, who, from reading this book, might have been a far better and fairer empress than her father or her brother would turn out to be. One can only wonder, I suppose, of how India’s history might have turned out, had she been ruling India, instead.

Sundaresan’s descriptions transport you to that era, effortlessly. You almost feel the heat of the afternoon, the texture of the silk that they wear, and the aromas of the food she describes. The grandeur and the opulence of the court, the power play, and the way in which seemingly powerless women of the zenana controlled the kingdom in more than one way is brought to life by Sundaresan’s words.

I loved the book, just as much as I loved all her others. If you like historical fiction, you will love it too!

The Splendor of Silence By Indu Sundaresan

The Splendor of Silence is a sweet romantic story, woven into the period where India was still under British Rule.

It starts off with Olivia, an American girl, getting a trunk filled with her Indian mother’s belongings. She has grown up with her grandmother and father, who has always been curiously quiet about her mother. In the trunk, she finds a letter which begins to tell her the story of her parents.

It was 1942, Mila, the daughter of the Political Resident, Raman, is betrothed to Jai, the Prince of Rudrakot. Raman, is a widower, with 3 children, 2 boys and a girl – Mila. He dotes upon Mila, giving her opportunities that most Indian parents would have balked at, in those times. He is determined that his daughter has the opportunities that his wife did not. At a time, where people would not even want girls, Raman was the exception to the rule. One day, Sam Hawthorne, an American captain reaches Rudrakot and everything changes from that point on. Sam, ostensibly, was there to rest his injured shoulder, has another hidden agenda, which is very important to him, personally.

The author has done a wonderful job in characterization. Each person in the story has a very well etched out character. It is quite understandable at the end of the book, why some of the main characters behaved the way they did. Mila’s confusion, her choices, and her decision, are all understandable given the circumstances and the society that she lived in.

She has also very brilliantly captured the dynamics of India in those days. The caste system, the racial discrimination between the British and the Indians, the manner in which Indians remained less than equal. The political sentiments that prevailed at that point is brought out very well in the narrative. Mahatma Gandhi’s influence, the manner in which some people chose to interpret it, and the confusion of some Indian, who genuinely believed that the British in India, was doing a good thing.

I love the book. I loved everything about this book. I would give it a 4/5. Anyone who likes historical fiction, is sure to love this one.

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Another book that came highly recommended by Swaram, and I was not one bit disappointed.

Starting from the birth of Mehrunnisa, a child who was born into poverty, while her parents were on the road. Her birth heralded, in a lot of ways, a big change of fortune for her father, a Persian courtier who goes on to find a place in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Mehrunnisa has a special place in her father’s heart, and she grows up to be an intelligent , astute young lady, who soon catches the eye of Empress Ruqaya, Akbar’s favourite queen. She is summoned to the zenana, and from then on, is a frequent visitor  there. One day, she meets Salim, the crown prince. She is fascinated by him and longs to meet him again. But before that happens she gets engaged to an Afghan soldier. The Emperor has sanctioned the marriage and she had to go along with it, because nobody could go against him. Just days before her wedding, she catches Prince Salim’s eye again.This time, he is so enamoured by her that he tries to get his father to annul Mehrunnisa’s engagement, but it does not work.

They both go their separate ways, Mehrunnisa,  comes across lots of unhappiness and sadness in her marriage, while the Prince adds a few more wives to his harem and becomes the King – King Jahangir.

Eventually, they do get married, and she goes on to become Nur Jahan(as she was popularly known),  his most influential wife. Apparently she went on to become one of the most powerful queens, even by today’s standards. Mehrunnisa manages to capture Salim’s attention and manages to get what she wanted at an age where most women would be grandmothers in those days. Her years of unhappiness, her multiple miscarriages, the birth of her daughter(whom she adored), none of all this took away from her charms.

Indu Sundaresan’s words recreate the Mughal era beautifully.Right from the zenanas where political battles were fought, the lives of royal families, the Mina bazaar, to the emotions that seem to rule almost all the decisions that are taken. The power that was wielded by these veiled women, hidden away in the zenana is brilliantly portrayed. Emperor Akbar was expertly manipulated by Ruqayya, his favourite queen, while Salim(Jahangir) was controlled very effectively by Jagat Gosini, his most influential queen, until Mehrunnisa arrived on the scene. For a while,Jagat Gosini, even managed to convince Salim that Meherunnisa belonged to a family of traitors, and so was untrustworthy. Finally, Salim’s attraction towards Mehrunnisa is more powerful than everything else.

If only they wrote history textbooks like this, I am sure I would have enjoyed history in school, far more.

Having said that, I had some trouble coming to terms with their ‘romance’. From the very beginning, Salim comes across as a spoilt brat, someone who is used to getting things easy, surrounded by sycophants and women(including wives and slave girls). He was more interested in drinking and hunting and having a good time, than being a responsible king-to-be. For him to be attracted towards Mehrunnisa is easy to comprehend. Meherunnisa, on the other hand, is supposed to be smart and astute, so what did she see in a man who comes across as so weak?  He tries to unseat his own father, gets swayed easily by the people around him and hardly ever interested in matters of governance. Mehrunnisa is shown badly affected by her father’s corruption, but Salim’s corruption, both moral and political, does not seem to bother her at all. Unless, it was less of a romance and more of a challenge for her, that she, a commoner could become a queen, if she wanted to. Or love is indeed blind!  Either way, it is still a fascinating read and anybody who likes historical fiction, would love it.

Just one more thought. Did you notice the cover? Doesn’t it look incongruous when the book is supposed to be a historical saga involving the Mughals? What do you think?

Edited to add: I seem to have posted an earlier version of my post 😦 Have now edited and tried to recreate what I had originally intended it to be. Apologies to all you guys who came looking for it, and thanks Deeps! I would not have known if it weren’t for you 🙂

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan.

Another book that came highly recommended by Swaram, and I was not one bit disappointed.

Starting from the birth of Mehrunnisa, a child who was born into poverty, while her parents were on the road. Her birth heralded, in a lot of ways, a big change of fortune for her father, a Persian courtier who goes on to find a place in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Mehrunnisa has a special place in her father’s heart, and she grows up to be an intelligent , astute young lady, who soon catches the eye of Empress Ruqaya, Akbar’s favourite queen. She is summoned to the zenana, and from then on, is a frequent visitor  there. One day, she meets Salim, the crown prince. She is fascinated by him and longs to meet him again. But before that happens she gets engaged to an Afghan soldier. The Emperor has sanctioned the marriage and she had to go along with it, because nobody could go against him. Just days before her wedding, she catches Prince Salim’s eye again.This time, he is so enamoured by her that he tries to get his father to annul Mehrunnisa’s engagement, but it does not work.

They both go their separate ways, Mehrunnisa,  comes across lots of unhappiness and sadness in her marriage, while the Prince adds a few more wives to his harem and becomes the King – King Jahangir.

Eventually, they do get married, and she goes on to become Nur Jahan(as she was popularly known),  his most influential wife. Apparently she went on to become one of the most powerful queens, even by today’s standards. Mehrunnisa manages to capture Salim’s attention and manages to get what she wanted at an age where most women would be grandmothers in those days. Her years of unhappiness, her multiple miscarriages, the birth of her daughter(whom she adored), none of all this took away from her charms.

Indu Sundaresan’s words recreate the Mughal era beautifully.Right from the zenanas where political battles were fought, the lives of royal families, the Mina bazaar, to the emotions that seem to rule almost all the decisions that are taken. The power that was wielded by these veiled women, hidden away in the zenana is brilliantly portrayed. Emperor Akbar was expertly manipulated by Ruqayya, his favourite queen, while Salim(Jahangir) was controlled very effectively by Jagat Gosini, his most influential queen, until Mehrunnisa arrived on the scene. For a while,Jagat Gosini, even managed to convince Salim that Meherunnisa belonged to a family of traitors, and so was untrustworthy. Finally, Salim’s attraction towards Mehrunnisa is more powerful than everything else.

If only they wrote history textbooks like this, I am sure I would have enjoyed history in school, far more.

Having said that, I had some trouble coming to terms with their ‘romance’. From the very beginning, Salim comes across as a spoilt brat, someone who is used to getting things easy, surrounded by sycophants and women(including wives and slave girls). He was more interested in drinking and hunting and having a good time, than being a responsible king-to-be. For him to be attracted towards Mehrunnisa is easy to comprehend. Meherunnisa, on the other hand, is supposed to be smart and astute, so what did she see in a man who comes across as so weak?  He tries to unseat his own father, gets swayed easily by the people around him and hardly ever interested in matters of governance. Mehrunnisa is shown badly affected by her father’s corruption, but Salim’s corruption, both moral and political, does not seem to bother her at all. Unless, it was less of a romance and more of a challenge for her, that she, a commoner could become a queen, if she wanted to.Or love is indeed blind!  Either way, it is still a fascinating read and anybody who likes historical fiction, would love it.

Just one more thought. Did you notice the cover? Doesn’t it look incongruous when the book is supposed to be a historical saga involving the Mughals? What do you think?

Edited to add: I seem to have posted an earlier version of my post 😦 Have now edited and tried to recreate what I had originally intended it to be. Apologies to all you guys who came looking for it, and thanks Deeps! I would not have known if it weren’t for you 🙂