Nurjahan is the central figure of this charming historical tale.
Tanushree Podder’s Escape from Harem transports you into another world, where colour and beauty, joys and deceit, love and hate co-exist against the backdrop of a period in Indian history that was rich in art, culture and politics.
The story traces the life of Zeenat, a beautiful slave girl who is brought into a Mughal Emperor’s harem for a few nights to satiate his lust for very young women. Once the emperor tires of her, Zeenat is taken to the harem where she is to spend the rest of her life. But the emperor is pining for another woman, a beautiful widow who seems to be spurning his advances.
Zeenat soon finds a job working for Bahar Begum, another inmate of the harem. More intrigues follow and the emperor finally manages to marry the love of his life, Meherunnisa, whom he renames Nurjahan. Meanwhile, Bahar falls in love with a man named Zafar Khan and they make plans to escape from the harem. However, their plans are foiled, leaving Zeenat and Zafar’s bodyguard Salamat Khan the only survivors.
The scene then shifts to Burhanpur, the Mughal headquarters in the south, where Shah Jahan’s royal entourage is camped. A new love story emerges as Zeenat finds employment in another royal household and Salamat Khan becomes a soldier in Shah Jahan’s army. After a while, Zeenat’s story seems inconsequential because important historical events begin to take over.
Nurjahan becomes a central figure in the book and we are caught up in her intrigues and plotting. With a ringside view of the shifting sands of politics, the tragic consequences of disobedience and the gore and glory of battles, the reader is not sure if history retold is far more fascinating than the fictional tale of young Zeenat.
The beauty of the story lies perhaps in the writing. Whether the author is describing the Nauroz festival with a lovely spool of words or bringing in the turn of season with a unique turn of phrase, the simplicity of her style is vastly appealing.
The festival season and the Meena Bazaar are described vividly and the reader can imagine the joyous occasions playing out in the mind’s eye.
If there is a problem, it is perhaps the fact that Zeenat’s story begins with a lot of promise but soon gets lost amid the various events.
The end is a bit of a let-down too. But by weaving history, fact and fiction together, the book shows historical characters not just as names in a dull textbook, but as people with passions and loves, jealousies and insecurities, hopes and dreams not too different from our own.
The emperor was ecstatic. His dream was shaping up perfectly. The pristine white marble of the mausoleum shimmered like a tear drop looming up from the banks of the river, delicate and divine. Its fragile lines flowed like a beautiful picture, against the background of the rippling waves of Yamuna… Soon, very soon, it will be ready.
Escape from Harem, Tanushree Podder, Roli Books, Rs.295.