Jahanara: Princess of Princesses

Welcome to 2017! Let’s start the year off with an excellent example of YA fiction that teaches without being preachy, and is a ball of fun to read as well, and will probably make you want to go drink some tea.

I never had one lick of the history of India in school, other than maybe a brief pass by the East India Trading Company, which is of course a tragedy, but reading books like this desperately makes me wish I had. Indian history is fascinating.

Jahanara: Princess of Princesses, India, 1627, Kathryn Lasky, 2002.

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If you are like me and know very little Indian history, which is to my shame, Jahanara is the daughter of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz. Jahanara lives at court with her mother and her father’s three other wives: Tali, who is Persian; Indira, who is Hindu, and Samina, who is only described as “sour;” along with the various children and eunuchs in the court. They observer purdah, which means that they do not go out in public and are not seen by men outside of the circle, and Jahanara, at fourteen, feels trapped.

Like any royal family, especially one with a multitude of wives, they have their fair share of drama and struggle. Shah Jahan’s stepmother, Nur Mahal, holds two of Jahanara’s brothers hostage, Dara and Aurangzeb, after accusing Shah Jahan of rebellion and taking them in order to repay the “debt” of the rebellion. Jahanara worries about her brothers and stresses about her grandmother, to the point that her tutor Satty begins to castigate her for not doing well. Jahanara tells Panipat, the chief eunuch, about her worries, and he tells her to be still in her mind until the plan is revealed.

Jahanara’s father dies—or, at least, he appears to die, and Nur Mahal makes an attempt to seize the throne. But it turns out all to be a con, and he’s alive and well, and her father will ascend the throne and be named emperor. This means that Jahanara will never be able to marry, since imperial princesses do not marry, but it’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make for her father—which is mind-blowingly intense, since it’s really not a sacrifice if she has no choice in the matter. So they process to Agra, for the coronation, which is a magnificent palace that’s fallen into some disrepair, and is slowly being renovated. And that is where her father receives Nur Mahal, and declares that their future trade with the East India Company is far more important than her.

One of the things that this book focuses on is the material culture surrounding the imperial court—their palaces and their clothing and the food (oh dear, so much food) and the gemstones. “The pants are of silver cloth and…very tight from the ankle to the knee. The ankles, though, are trimmed with yellow diamonds and emeralds that have been sewn on to look like daffodils…I shall wear my emerald ankle bracelets and two toe rings, both diamonds that Ami gave me.” It’s spectacular. The coronation is particularly beautiful, and one of the things Shah Jahan can demand is the return of his other sons—although Nur Mahal negotiates that she will stay as well, though in special apartments. Jahanara and her other siblings are very excited about the return of her brothers, and discuss it endlessly, even though her mother warns her that they will probably be changed from what she remembers of them.

When she does meet them, Dara is overjoyed at being reunited, but Aurangzeb is much changed and seems like an old man rather than a child. He calls his sisters vain and has become an extremely observant and strict Muslim, which Jahanara attributes to Nur Mahal’s influence. Aurangzeb refuses to study certain subjects, and doesn’t want to associate with the Hindu court members, and Jahanara finds herself drawing closer and closer to Indira, feeling that she has been ill-treated. And when the ladies of the court go on a picnic and Indira tells them Krishna stories, Aurangzeb is extremely rude and has to be taken away by a nursemaid. The next day, Indira is terrible ill, and it’s discovered that Aurangzeb and Raushanara poisoned Indira with an overdose of betel nuts, because Aurangzeb felt it was his Muslim duty. The emperor and Jahanara’s mother are horrified at this, of course, and while the children are punished, Jahanara is afraid that Nur Mahal is at the bottom of it.

During Ramadan that year, Jahanara is bored and hungry all the time and eventually Dara and her strike on the idea of smuggling food during the day so no one will see. Aurangzeb manages to figure this out, somehow, and they stop in fear that someone else will be punished for what they’re doing. Steadily Jahanara grows more and more concerned with Aurangzeb’s increasing piety and his ongoing relationship with Nur Mahal.

Indira’s niece is married in October, and Jahanara gets her nose pierced for the wedding, which she is extremely excited about and then there’s a month gap while Jahanara is celebrating and recovering. Much needed, since there’s weeks and weeks of dancing and parties and plays, and a henna party the day before the wedding, with dancers and music and “the flinging of colorful powders.” Afterwards, she learns that Aurangzeb is ill, and goes to read to him from the Koran despite Raushanara’s protests. While there, she learns that Aurangzeb plans to take the throne one day over his older brother, and this is why he is so taken with Nur Mahal—she’s promised him the throne.

During the fall and into the winter, Jahanara is bored with the monotony of the court. She asks her father if he can hold a Flirting Bazaar, which is a fake bazaar where the court’s women can go out in veils and pretend to haggle and buy and sell things. He agrees, and it’s held just a few days after her fifteenth birthday. Now, this is one of those things that I think it’s interesting to have in a YA book, since it’s so very, very, very far removed from the life most Western girls lead, and it doesn’t really have a direct parallel to the modern era, unlike things like problems with school or friends or parents. Well, I suppose if you wanted to get technical you could compare this to your average girl feeling like she doesn’t get any attention from boys or that she feels trapped, but that’s kind of pushing it.

Anyway, Jahanara has the best time at the Flirting Bazaar, and manages to flirt with an Englishman from the East India Company, who speaks flawless Persian and has bright yellow hair, which she finds incredibly strange and fascinating. But afterwards she thinks someone has been reading her diary and all about her “quiverings” and can’t forget the horribly violated feeling, and leaves the diary alone for eleven months.

When she does write again, it’s to note that there is a general amassing troops in the south in an effort to rebel against her father, and they’re off to the Deccan with the war party. Dara and Jahanara spend most of their time traveling together and she notes “I think the reason Dara and I are so close is not because we share deep philosophical thoughts…but because we think the same things are funny.” I really love this, I think it’s one of the best and truest things to come out of all of these books.

For her sixteenth birthday, Jahanara receives a star sapphire from her father, but the irony is that she receives it when they’re traveling through some of the poorest and most destitute areas of India. People are starving, even children, and Jahanara rescues an infant girl along the way (although frankly it’s a bit too much to say she personally rescues her, because she really just cuddles and plays with her and then hands her off to the nurses to care for). Her father wins the battle against the rebel forces, and a few months later Jahanara learns that her mother is pregnant again for the fourteenth time.

But in June, her mother goes into labour and suffers for days before bleeding to death. There’s some really lovely writing about it, with some hope mixed in with her sorrow, and in the epilogue you learn about how Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal, and how Jahanara became her father’s and later her brother’s trusted companion and the Empress of Princesses.

Rating: B+. I enjoyed this very much, and I think I can’t be as harsh on it because I know so little about Indian history that it could have tons of inaccuracies and I would have no idea. And while normally I would whine a bit about how they couldn’t find an Indian author to write this, I do think Kathryn Lasky did a nice job (even though she freely admits that she knew very little Indian history either). I can never, ever fault Scholastic for introducing more novels about non-white royals, and this has some really beautiful writing in it to boot. It’s very sumptuous, and she brings to life the smell of spices and food and the feel of cool marble and gemstones—lovely. The only thing that knocks it down from an A rating is that it’s a bit on the slow side…the A-plot of the drama and danger with Aurangzeb and Nur Mahal is pretty well dropped by about two-thirds through the book, but the way it’s replaced with a subplot about rebellion that’s also taken care of very quickly? I didn’t care for that as much. But overall, it’s really nice and well above average.

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