It was a dark, winter night when Zeenat was thrown into the Mughal emperor’s harem to satisfy his lust. Set against the backdrop of Jahangir’s indolence and Shahjahan’s rebellion, Escape from Harem tells the story of her life that changes forever that fateful night. From the harem of Jahangir to Shahjahan’s golden age of architecture and Jahanara’s boudoir, Zeenat’s life is a dizzying roller coaster of events, with moments happy and sad trapped in the quagmire of the imperial zenana. The silken skeins of romance juxtaposed with the coarse threads of passion and aggression recreate the tumultuous period of Mughal history. Traversing the span between circa 1610 and 1650, her story is also a preview of the Mughal culture and way of life.
Women, in times good and bad Afternoon Despatch & Courier Monday, April 08, 2013 By Robin Shukla
This week, our books span across ages, from the Mughal to the mythological. Escape from Harem by Tanushree Podder explores the life of women during the reigns of emperors Jahangir and Shahjahan, while delving into the rich and tumultuous history of the times.
Escape from Harem by Tanushree Podder is one of those rare books that extract you from Mumbai of April 2013 and transport you a full four hundred years back, to the 1600s. The story revolves around Zeenat, a beautiful girl living in very abject circumstances, who at age 15, was taken to Mughal emperor Jahangir to satisfy his lust, and was later confined to the constricted life in his harem, until she became part of an ill-fated enterprise to break free.
Zeenat and her mother were living in one of the poorest localities of Agra, with rows of shops surrounding their house, some selling liquor. ‘With her peaches and cream complexion, buxom figure and chiselled features, the girl attracted the attention of the shopkeepers and the inebriated men walking around the street.’ To protect her, the mother would take her along when she went to work at the harem each morning, where the girl would indulge in playful antics to the delight of the women there. That was when she caught the eye of the salacious Jahangir who summoned her to his bed for four nights in a row, after which he inevitably lost interest.
The general belief in our revered Bharat desh is that only the Mughal rulers were sexually insatiable rogues, and that the concept of acquiring women from the countryside, more often than not, by force, intimidation and coercion. History implicates quite a few Hindu rajas from kingdoms big and small located all across the Indian subcontinent of similar rapaciousness. After them, the rest of the courtiers in the palaces, the small time jagirdars, and even their henchmen, would freely help themselves to those hapless women who had escaped the wretched eyes of the higher nobles in the feudal system. Some of that blot continues to stain India even today, and those trying to fight back mostly get branded as Naxals.
While this book speaks of Jahangir as a lecherous drunkard needing a new woman every night, it also exposes a culture where palace eunuchs and others could go about heartlessly procuring girls for the emperor. And times were such that many girls were actually more than willing to lie down with him. The tragedy is that even as he violated a woman, the emperor kept pining for a green-eyed 35-year-old widow, the stunning Meherunnisa, who managed to keep him at arms length under some pretext or the other. When Jahangir ultimately coerces her into marriage, renaming her, Nurjahan, (know her now?) it is one of the most lavish ceremonies laden with astounding wedding gifts, ‘There were caskets full of gold coins totalling to eighty lakh gold asharfis. Eunuchs carried in over five hundred sets of exquisitely tailored and embroidered dresses in muslin, silk, velvet and satin, in various colours, for the empress. There were heaps of priceless pearl necklaces, each pearl the size of a nugget, chokers set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, gold bracelets and armlets, hundreds of gold rings set with precious stones, countless casks of perfumes, musk and ambergris, satin and velvet slippers embroidered with seed pearls.’ Drool as you read this.
But this book looks at much more than the lasciviousness of the Mughals. It offers a historical perspective on Mughal rule from the time of Akbar, to his son Jahangir, and later on, life as it was in the time of Jahangir’s son, Shahjahan. It touches upon the frayed relationships between fathers and sons, between the sons themselves, the mutual suspicions, the murderous hatred of each other, and the palace intrigues, in which women of the time played no less a mean part.
On her part, Nurjahan is extremely ambitious, and sets about taking control of Jahangir and his kingdom, a move much resented by the nobles as well as the residents of the harem. Interestingly, the harem is a place that has its own hierarchy, with the queen dowager, the mother of the emperor, ruling the roost, followed by the wife of the emperor, then his favourites, with their respective servants and eunuchs constituting a parallel pecking order. The eunuchs are the eyes and ears for all that needs to be spied upon on behalf of the ruler. Nurjahan drives a wedge between Jahangir and his son, Khurram (Shahjahan), and the latter is constantly chosen to undertake long and dangerous military campaigns either against the Rajputs kings of Rajasthan or the rulers of the Deccan. Khurram finds himself far away from Agra for months at a stretch, accompanied by the ever faithful Arjumand (Mumtaz Mahal!), and the two are so besotted with each other, that Arjumand is constantly pregnant, delivering one child after another, inspite of all advice to the contrary.
Zeenat finds employment with Bahar begum, who at 21, no longer enjoys Jahangir’s attention, and so falls for a nobleman, Zafar Khan, who is also a poet. They plan to escape from the kingdom in order to be together, but are set upon and butchered by soldiers from the palace. Caught in the tragic escapade are Zeenat, Bahar’s faithful eunuch, and Zafar’s faithful guard, Salamat Khan. The bloody clash sees Zeenat and Salamat, the lone survivors, fleeing away in a desperate bid to reach the Deccan where Khurram is camped. There are rebels who have become dacoits after being displaced and made to suffer atrocities by Jahangir, and they help the fugitive couple traverse dangerous and difficult terrain, mountainous and forested, to reach Burhanpur, the major Mughal outpost in the Deccan.
This is a beautiful story of striving hope, through the eyes of Zeenat, who lands up as the handmaiden of Arjumand, a kindhearted and thoughtful person. She marries the brave Salamat, with whom she has seen so many ups and downs in their race to escape Jahangir’s soldiers. They start a beautiful life together, and move around with Khurram as he is sent from campaign to campaign by Jahangir, at the devious goadings by Nurjahan. There is the gradual deterioration of Jahangir’s health, while Nurjahan goes ahead with her machinations. There are siblings to be slaughtered, as the battle for the throne escalates. Women struggle to hold sway as death and bloodshed destroy one of the most artistic and culturally advanced realms, before the austere and religiously fanatic son of Shahjahan, the cruel Aurangzeb ascends to the throne.
Love or folly? Deccan Herald Raghu Krishnan, April 20, 2013
Even while English historians and novelists like Alex Rutherford (pseudonym for Diana and Michael Preston) are recreating for 21st century readers the lives of the Moghul emperors who ruled India for 250 years or so from 1526 AD, Tanushree Podder has written a novel from the perspective of a kaneez, a female servant in the harem of Jahangir.
From a regal perspective, Babar founded the empire which Humayun just about managed to hold on to until Akbar expanded it to its furthest point through not just conquest but matrimonial alliances with Rajput princes, only to be followed by the debauched Jahangir, the megalomaniacal builder of monuments Shah Jahan, and the bigoted Aurangzeb whose reversal of his great-grandfather’s policies started the decline and fall of a dynasty which, at its peak, was more powerful and affluent than any of its contemporaries anywhere in the world.
Podder is better known for her non-fiction You are What you Eat, where she makes the point that the right kind of food can invigorate, heal, cure, elevate moods, improve memory and make the brain sharper. Her first novel Nur Jahan’s Daughter (on the sensitive Laadli who, says Podder, “is a pawn in the hands of her mother’s ambitious machinations”) takes you back to the medieval past.
Her second novel, Boots Belts Berets, is a fascinating fictionalised account of life in the National Defence Academy in the early 1970s, as seen through the eyes of four cadets, one of whom could even have been her spouse Ajoy. It could be this indirect nodding acquaintanceship with military tactics and strategy which raises Escape from Harem to something more than a historical romance since the Moghul royals kept fighting each other when not taking on the world.
Podder’s protagonist Zeenat, who is forcibly ravished by Emperor Jahangir and made a member of the imperial harem until she escapes and marries a brave soldier, is able to assess the Moghul badshahs with the objectivity of an insider who would have preferred to remain an outsider.
While what ripped the Moghul empire apart was fratricide, the saving grace, as seen through Zeenat’s eyes, was Arjumand, aka Mumtaz Mahal, who did her best to keep the family together until she died while delivering her third and last daughter.
While even a glimpse of the Taj Mahal reminds Zeenat of jannat (paradise), she tells herself after walking past the makeshift houses with crumbling roofs where the construction workers lived, “So this is where the poor people who constructed the most amazing structure in the world lived. She (Mumtaz Mahal) would never have imagined that he (Shah Jahan) could squander the wealth of the great Moghul Empire on a mausoleum for her while people living just a distance from the edifice should live this way (in abject poverty).”
All of which reminds one of the comment made on January 28 by the UP urban development minister, Muhammad Azam Khan, that, “Had people decided to demolish the Taj Mahal instead of the Babri mosque, I would have led them. Shah Jahan had no right to spend crores from the public coffers on his sweetheart”. Khan may have been using the 17th century Taj Mahal to score a point by drawing a parallel with the monuments and statues built by the former UP chief minister Mayawati, when the BSP government was in power.
However, Podder’s book is firmly rooted in the medieval past when Agra was the capital of the Moghul Empire until Shah Jahan relocated to Delhi. Since she is not constrained by the historian’s obsession with facts, Podder lets her imagination soar. Her lyrical prose takes the reader to a different time and place from the beginning of Zeenat’s narrative (“January 1610 Agra: The gnarled hands of winter gripped the capital in their freezing talons. It was one of the coldest years, people said.”) to the end (“Life will not be the same now that I have seen Taj Mahal, she sighed.
It was the end of an era — an era of sublime love that had beaten in the hearts of Arjumand and Khurram. Shah Jahan was now a different person. He was a stranger she didn’t know — transformed from a devoted lover to a man obsessed with structures and women.”). Which is one way of remembering the Moghul emperors even while we walk down memory lane to Humayun’s Tomb, Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal.
Review : Riveting tales of the Mughal era April 21, 2013, 11.53 AM IST Manju Latha Kalanidhi
Escape from Harem is a refreshing change from the chick-lit series of books which spin around single girls in big, bad cities and their escapades
The best way to gauge a book’s worth is perhaps the way it sparks off your imagination and lets you explore more all by yourself. Forty pages into Tanushree Podder’s period novel ‘Escape from Harem’ and you will find yourself Googling keywords like Dara Shikoh, Nur Jahan’s clout in Mughal era, Shah Jahan and Jahanara’s incestuous relationship and more.
The book is about the story of beautiful, young Zeenat who is forced to satiate Jahangir’s carnal desires on two fateful nights. After those two eventful days, she is forever his girl in the golden cage called the harem. She loses her mother and her dreams soon enough, but her mistress Bahar Begum’s tempestuous love story with a soldier lands her in trouble leading to an elopement with a knight in shining armour.
Just as she builds her dreams of a family and child, life changes course to land her back into the harem. The ladies-only harem is a place where conspiracies are hatched, where women forever long for a loving touch, where they share their frustrations openly, where they live their dreams together… It is the life story of Zeenat who finally manages to see her foster son married and of course, witness the opening of the world’s best known love monument – Taj Mahal.
Those who despise History and especially chapters on Mughal era will find this book particularly fascinating. The author throws light on unknown facets of the women in the era – about the role Noor Jahan played in ensuring the kingdom does not go to unworthy sons of Jahangir who she does not favour; how Arjumand (Mumtaz Mahal) who sired 14 children of Shah Jahan was not a meek, doormat wife but a strong-willed spirited woman who travelled with her Prince on to the war front fully pregnant on several occasions to give him moral strength during crucial times.
It describes in detail how Shah Jahan showed unflinching devotion to his wife and was faithful to her throughout despite the fact that he could lust and get any woman; It also delves deeper into how Shah Jahan was a capable warrior with many victories, not at all the moony-eyed prince (as portrayed in staid History textbooks) whose only claim to fame is building the Taj Mahal. The best chapter is the one which talks about the sheer opulence Shah Jahan family enjoys and how they also experience abject poverty as refugees.
Escape from Harem is a refreshing change from the chick-lit series of books which spin around single girls in big, bad cities and their escapades. This one gives you a glimpse into the royal Mughal era with all its opulence in detailed prose. Tanushree leaves no chapter without her signature style of description.
Her words capture the festivities, fun and frolic that marked the period. However, the only question that could nag the reader is – How much of the story is true. It almost reads like a racy, fiction novel. Is Zeenat for real? Was Shah Jahan really so heartbroken after his wife’s death? If it true, then one can’t but help to remark – fact is stranger than fiction. In short, the book is a time travel into the era of ghazals, rose water, chandeliers and expensive pearls.
THE HINDU Ringside view ASHA CHOWDARY November 10, 2013
Nurjahan is the central figure of this charming historical tale.
Tanushree Podder’s Escape from Haremtransports 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.