Tanushree Podder’s historical fiction set in the Mughal times is the first book in this genre that I have read by an Indian author. It gave me great pleasure to know that Indians are exploring this genre. While mythological fiction (such as the Shiva Trilogy, etc.) have become hugely popular, those are in the realm of fantasy and are not truly historical. However, Indian history is replete with events that provide ample material for an imaginative writer who can mould them to any genre — be it thriller, romance, suspense or mainstream fiction.
Amazingly enough, Mughal history had at one time been a source for a number of films way back in the 1940s and 1950s. Sohrab Mody was one of the great exponents of film in this genre and then there is Mughal-e-Azam, the love story of a prince and a court dancer that is still considered the greatest Indian film of all times. The story of how Prince Salim (who went on to become Emperor Jahangir) falls in love with Anarkali and defies his father, emperor Akbar, leading to a battle between father and son has become so embedded in popular culture that many still believe that the story is a part of history, not just a piece of excellent historical fiction.
Tanushree Podder’s foray into historical fiction with Escape to Harem is not her first. She is also the author of Nurjahan’s Daughter. Clearly, Tanushree has a great grasp on Mughal history and this is evident from the deft manner in which she drops nuggets of historical facts and keeps the reader engaged with details about the palaces, the workings of the harem and the political machinations of the harem’s women who aspire to curry favour with the royalty. The most interesting historical character in the book is that of Nurjahan, the wife of Emperor Jahangir who is an ambitious politician, aspires to control the empire and conspires to keep Jahangir’s son Shahjehan from his rightful inheritance.
Disappointingly though, Tanushree’s command over her fictional characters (Zeenat, the slave girl who is the protagonist) is not as strong. Zeenat who is the daughter of a widow is condemned to be one of the many young girls who is brought in for a night of pleasure with Emperor Jahangir. But soon, the emperor loses interest in her and she is condemned to a life in the harem which is rife with jealousies and petty intrigues. She is relegated to serving a senior concubine with whom she develops a close bond. When the concubine falls in love with a common man, they plot a daring escape from the harem.
The premise of the story is fascinating and kept me turning the pages. The love interest between Zeenat and Salamat Khan also helped in progressing the plot. However, mid-way through the book, Zeenat’s story peters away and the exciting thriller-like feel of the book is lost. The author then uses historical details to keep interest alive and readers get a glimpse into the struggles of Shahjahan as he tries to wrest control of the empire from Jahangir and his queen Nurjahan. While the historical insights are fascinating, there is a kind of disconnect with the fictional plot of the story leading to a near non-existent climax and a disappointing end.