Indu Sundaresan’s novels are a CitySaheli favorite (she made it onto our Summer Reading List for a reason!) Her descriptive style of writing instantly transports readers to whatever era of history she is writing about, making most of us wish we were born Mughal princesses soon after finishing her Taj Mahal trilogy. We recently had a chance to interview Indu, exclusively for CitySaheli.com—read on as she tells us what she thinks about powerful Mughal women, her own personal influences, and what she wants to write about next.
CS: Tell us about your focus on strong female protagonists, especially in the Taj Mahal trilogy.
IS: I began writing the trilogy after I stumbled, quite by chance, on a book on Mughal harems during my last year of graduate school at the University of Delaware. Until then, and I admit this, my knowledge of the power the women of the Mughal zenanas had was sketchy at best; most of my history textbooks focused on the men with few mentions of how influential the women were. Therein, lay my first and initial inspiration. Then, I began reading further, mostly foreign travelers’ tales to India during the 16th and 17th Centuries, the emperors’ memoirs, other more contemporary histories, and realized that there were stories to be told here (or retold, if you will).
I was astonished at how powerful Mehrunnisa was during the 17 years of her marriage to Emperor Jahangir–that he gave her all the powers of sovereignty except one; she had coins minted in her name, signed on imperial farmans (which were an exclusive privilege of the sitting sovereign). The only authority not granted to her was, naturally, the khutba–which was an official proclamation of sovereignty sung in the mosques around India before the Friday noon prayers. And to cap all of this power was a real, tangible love story between Mehrunnisa and Jahangir, of love and longing for some 17 years. By the time she marries him, she’s 34 years old already, ancient by Mughal standards, and has been married and widowed, with a child from that previous alliance.
CS: Keeping with the theme of strong South Asian women, who are your major female influences? In writing, in history, in life?
IS: My early reading influences were Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Later, in high school, I began reading the few Indian authors who wrote and published in English at the time, Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sahgal. In history, I’d say the women who are most memorable are Razia Sultana, the Rani of Jhansi, and of course, Nur Jahan and now, Jahanara. Personally, my mother and sisters.
CS: Are there other periods of Indian history you would eventually like to write novels about?
IS: I have written one novel, The Splendor Of Silence, set in India during four days in May of 1942; just before Indian independence from British rule; during World War II, which India did not officially participate in, but Indian troops fought abroad in British armies; and during the nationalist movement in India. There was a whole lot of reading and research involved for Splendor from a different time period; it’s also set in a fictional desert kingdom called Rudrakot and is a love story between an American soldier, Sam Hawthorne, and and Indian woman who is the daughter of the Indian political agent at the kingdom of Rudrakot. For this book, I did a fair bit of reading on the China-Burma-India theatre of war also, because I needed a reason for Sam to be in Burma (and so eventually travel to India and Rudrakot).
Splendor is then, more ‘modern’ than the novels of the Taj Trilogy and I will eventually write a sequel to this novel, which will take me to India in the 1960s or so. As for other, different time periods, I am working on something now which spans another historical period in Indian history.
CS: There are a number of recent short story collections focusing on contemporary India—what is it about contemporary India that makes it an interesting setting for short stories, or fiction in general?
IS: My collection of short stories, In The Convent Of Little Flowers, is set in a present-day India that is facing varied pressures to adapt from tradition to western/modern influences. I think it’s this juxtaposition of ideas—how to incorporate this change seamlessly, the pains of trying to do so, how to be one thing at home, another at work or in the outside world, how to present our ideas and thoughts to that outside world—that’s vital to talk about. Stories are, in the end, about conversations and thought. They appeal because they paint a complete picture of the reality—the good, bad, and the ugly—and in the process allow for change.
CS: As a writer, how does the process of writing a short story differ from writing a full-length novel?
IS: The stories in Convent, the way I present them, are filled with a non-stop emotion. I’ve taken a moment of change in the character’s life, filled in a past, sketched out a future, shown that moment when something explosive happens. My novels are more leisurely paced (and truly, this sort of galloping emotion would be difficult to sustain for the length of a novel for me as a writer, and for the reader); they have lulls, quiet times when the narrative voice takes over, action-packed times when the plot does.
Both forms of writing are challenging in their own way and I enjoy both equally, only I tend to gravitate more toward novel-length fiction than short stories.
CS: Back to the Taj Trilogy, how was writing about Jahanara, a figure that is lesser known in Mughal history, different from writing about Mehrunissa in the first two novels?
IS: The interesting thing about both women, Mehrunnisa/Empress Nur Jahan in The Twentieth Wife and The Feast Of Roses, and her grand-niece, Princess Jahanara in Shadow Princess, is the lack of cohesive and complete information about their lives. There exist no official biographies or autobiographies of the two women; the imperial memoirs of Emperor Jahangir and Emperor Shah Jahan mention both women in laudatory, distant terms. They’re both credited with immense power, unimaginable in today’s world, huge incomes which they spent lavishly in building tombs, mosques, palaces, and also with jewelry they designed, poetry they wrote, imperial farmans (edicts) they sent out; the politics at court that they influenced.
Of the two, Mehrunnisa suffers in most of the literature coming out of her stepson/nephew-in-law Emperor Shah Jahan’s times, because she had, when in power, sent him into exile as a prince, a favor he returns when he gains the throne of India. Jahanara, his daughter, comes across as pious, devoted to her father, a woman who stays on in her father’s harem and never marries to leave for another man’s harem.
And then, there are the foreign travelers’ tales of India–the men who came to India on work, for pleasure, to join an army, or for no reason at all, and stayed on to see what was going on, picked up on local bazaar gossip, and then turned all of this into some wonderfully informative memoirs!
CS: What is it about the Mughal period that makes it such a fascinating setting for novels, epic movies, etc.?
IS: Someone talked to me about a Mughal ‘revival;’ but I’ve been working on the books of the trilogy for some 17 years, just because I was interested initially in Mehrunnisa’s story and then found so much literature that was equally interesting. My interest was because the Mughals lived these larger-than-life lives; it’s the stuff of good storytelling!
CS: Any parting words for CitySaheli readers?
IS: Thank you, for inviting me to be on this page, and for reading, thus far, with patience and interest!
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