November 2017
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Interview with Indu Sundaresan
[Lifestyle-August 2008]

Indu Sundaresan is the author of The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses as well as the recently published novel The Splendor of Silence. The Twentieth Wife tells the love story of Mehrunnisa who becomes Empress Nur Jahan and the twentieth wife of Emperor Jahangir. This won her the Washington State Book Award in 2003. The same year, The Feast of Roses, sequel to The Twentieth Wife, was published and continued the story of Mehrunnisa and her life as an empress and the most powerful woman in the Mughal dynasty of India. Before The Twentieth Wife, Sundaresan wrote two other novels as practice runs. She has written a few short stories as well. More information on her work can be found on her website. In this interview, Sundaresan talks about her books, writing career, and her recently published novel The Splendor of Silence.

How many books have you written?
A total of five so far.  The first two, written before The Twentieth Wife are still on my computer–I consider them “practice runs,” that taught me how to construct a novel in its totality, plot, structure, character development and pacing.  The Twentieth Wife is my first published novel, followed by its sequel, The Feast of Roses. My third novel, set in India in 1942 and published in September 2006 and is titled The Splendor of Silence.

What is your favorite book?
Jane Austen is my favorite author and I consider Persuasion to be her finest novel.

What inspired you to write about Empress Nur Jahan?
When I was in graduate school at the University of Delaware (I have graduate degrees in economics and Operations Research) I was homesick one evening, and went to the university library in search of books on India.  I typed out the keyword “INDIA” under the subject heading, went to the section that housed books on India and returned home with an armload full of books.  Among them was one book that dealt with life in the Mughal harems and Nur Jahan in specific–how incredibly powerful and influential she was in a time when women were meant not to be seen or heard because they lived in harems, behind a veil.  The love story between Emperor Jahangir and Empress Nur Jahan was also fascinating and a little slice of Indian history that I didn’t recall from my school history lessons!

Why did you choose Mughal culture as a topic for your books?
I chose Nur Jahan as the main protagonist for my two novels, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses.  I wanted to tell her story, to remind people of her life, to draw her out of the obscurity she has fallen into over the last 400 years or so.  More people today know more about Nur Jahan’s niece, Mumtaz Mahal, only because the Taj Mahal is built for her, but Nur Jahan in her time had more authority than her niece and influenced the course of India’s history.

The Feast of Roses was originally named Power Behind the Veil. Why was it changed?
The second novel was published in May 2003, and by that time, there was this increased interest in Afghanistan and the status of women there, which had led to a variety of non-fiction books on the lives of women in an Islamic world who still lived behind a veil.  My editor at Simon & Schuster wanted a title for the second novel that didn’t sound like a non-fiction work but described the book in lush and evocative terms nonetheless.

I had been thinking of The Feast of Roses as a title for quite a while before the novel came out and suggested it to my editor and she loved the new name.  The title comes from a phrase in Thomas Moore’s 19th Century poem titled “LALLA ROOKH”, in which a princess of southern India is narrated three love stories–and one of those love stories was that of Nur Jahan and Emperor Jahangir and Nur Jahan uses these words while talking to Emperor Jahangir, asking him if he remembers “the feast of roses.”

Your third novel is set in the 1940s; any hints for our readers on what it is about?
The Splendor of Silence, published in September 2006, is the culminatino of a five year project that finally marries both my American and my Indian inspirations.  It opens with twenty-one year old Olivia in Seattle receiving a trunk from India with treasures within, including a letter from an (as yet) unknown narrator who fills all the silences of Olivia’s childhood, about her Indian mother, and tells her that the silences are splendid indeed.  The novel traces the story of Olivia’s American soldier father who goes to the princely kingdom of Rudrakot in 1942 in search of his missing brother and there falls in love with the daughter of the Indian political agent.  The Splendor of Silence then is as much a love story as a tale that deals with the racial prejudices and nationalist movement in India in the last days of the Raj.

Will you be writing any more Mughal historical fiction?
Yes, I intend to go back to Mughal India for my fourth novel, which I have started researching already.

Did you have to do research when writing the novels?
All the novels have involved an enormous amount of research for specific details on historical events, foods, politics and background.

What novels did you write before The Twentieth Wife?
My first two novels were set in Kashmir in the 1500s, and were entirely fictional stories.

You have worked with a local theatre group (Encore Playhouse), have you ever considered turning your own books into movies?
My agent and I are working with an option offer to convert The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses into movies.

The story of Nur Jahan definitely changed my life and taught me so much I’ve always wondered about.  How has her story inspired your own life?
Nur Jahan’s story was endlessly intriguing to me right from the beginning, which is why I wanted to put it down on paper.  She was a powerful woman in a time when women had no power; she continues to be a role model for many young girls and women in India even today.  I hear from many readers that they have heard some or many of the stories in the two novels from their mothers and grandmothers and have been inspired by her when they were children.  Even after writing the two novels, and researching her life so exhaustively, I still find myself fascinated by her.

The most interesting part of your novels was that Nur Jahan is portrayed as a powerful and greatly influential woman as we all know she was, of course.   However, many times she is portrayed as “evil” in books such as Jahanara and movies like Taj Mahal because these take the viewpoint of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan. What is your comment on this issue?
There is this “evil, cunning and sly” perception of Nur Jahan even in extant literature from Shah Jahan’s reign as emperor and for a very good reason.  When Nur Jahan married Emperor Jahangir in 1611, she made sure that Mumtaz Mahal (her brother’s daughter and so her niece) married Jahangir’s son Prince Khurram (who later became Emperor Shah Jahan).

For the first few years after these two marriages took place, Nur Jahan had a very good working relationship with Prince Khurram, her brother, and her father, and these four people came to be regarded as a very powerful ruling “junta” in the empire.  But she soon had a falling out with Khurram and her brother, and my theory in The Feast of Roses is that she wanted her daughter Ladli (from her first marriage) to marry Prince Khurram also, so that Nur Jahan could continue to be powerful well after Jahangir’s death.  But Khurram refused, and that began the decline in their good relations with each other.

By the time Emperor Jahangir died in 1628, Prince Khurram was officially in exile from the empire, and Nur Jahan actually managed to put another son, Shahryar, on the throne for a few short weeks before she was imprisoned and Shahryar was executed.  When Khurram then came to the throne as Emperor Shah Jahan, he sent Nur Jahan into exile and for the rest of her natural life, did not allow her to come near the royal court.

So you can see, given this torrid history of likes and dislikes between Nur Jahan and Shah Jahan, why even official court documents from Shah Jahan’s reign label her as evil and cunning and sly!  It was all politics!

Mumtaz Mahal is known and remembered by all because of the Taj Mahal.   However, Nur Jahan is hidden and most people do not know enough about her.  Do you think that your books will help the truth come out and portray her magnificence as it should be?
I hope so.  Nur Jahan doesn’t have a Taj Mahal to celebrate her death and make her known to the outside world.  But she now does have The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses as a monument to her magnificence.

How long did it take you to write the novels?
The writing and the marketing of the two novels took me around five years or so.

When you wrote The Twentieth Wife did you know that it would have a sequel?   When did you decide to write The Feast of Roses?
I actually wrote both novels at a stretch.  It would have been difficult to stop after The Twentieth Wife (which ends just as Nur Jahan married Jahangir and comes into his harem as the twentieth wife) because the story of her power and influence, and the real love story of the marriage takes place after that in The Feast of Roses.

Can you tell a little bit about your background?
I grew up on Air Force bases around India because my father was a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force–he was also the one who instilled in my sisters and me a deep love for storytelling, recounting to us anecdotes from his life or from mythology and Indian history.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I garden, paint in watercolors and read.

When did you begin your writing career?
After graduate school.

You also write short stories.  Have you ever written or plan to write children’s books?
Haven’t thought of that yet–but perhaps in the future sometime.

Where do you get your ideas?
From everywhere–books, movies, stories my friends tell me, things I see around me.

What is your advice for amateur writers?
Publishing is a difficult business, with a lot of heartbreaks and rejections along the way, but there are many opportunities for success also.  So if you want to write, have a story to tell, want to be published, you must persist and believe in your self, your stories and your vision.

[photo credits: indusundaresan.com]

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One Response to “Interview with Indu Sundaresan”

  1. Tanuja Chatterjee Says:

    Thank You so much for publishing this interview! It’s nicely done. What could be more satisfying than watching her being loved, wanted and appreciated all over the globe. Thank you once again for letting Indu reach out to billion others.

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