I recently read, back to back, two works of fiction that are based on one historical figure’s life. I didn’t expect them to be overly similar, but I wasn’t prepared for them to be so different either.
What made them so dissimilar was the point of view of each of the authors. And by that I don’t mean the first person or the limited/omniscient third person view they used to narrate the tale, but the perspective and understanding of the authors about the life and times of the subject matter.
The books are Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan and Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Both the books examine the life of Mughal princess Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and Empress Mumtaz Mahal (yes, the Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj Mahal fame). The stories are set in an India of the 1600s that is thrown into turmoil by the constant bickering of the various invading forces like the Mughals, the British, the Portuguese and other opportunists.
Shadow Princess is the last of a set of three books called the Taj Mahal trilogy. Sundaresan sets the stage beautifully for Jahanara and narrates her story (in alluring poetic prose that enhances the ambiance) with the right mix of awe and slight disdain that Mughal lives tend to evoke in most Indians’ hearts. Sundaresan’s Jahanara is bold and decisive, but tempered by subtlety and decorum. When suddenly burdened with the responsibility of a mourning father and confused siblings upon her mother’s death, teenager Jahanara steps into the role with aplomb. Over time, she learns to protect her own interests with the requisite cunning that is inevitable in her position.
Shors’s Jahanara, on the other hand, is outspoken and in-the-face courageous. So much so that she rides astride a horse in broad daylight, walks around the city unveiled and openly disobeys her husband. In short, she could pass for a twenty-first century (almost American) teenager, if you didn’t know any better.
Having grown up in India and read its history, I know that Mughal women were rarely allowed outside their palaces and certainly never without purdah. If it were a princess, then her life was even more circumscribed owing to the intrigues surrounding her as the candidate for a powerful political alliance.
I feel Sundaresan, being an Indian and a woman, handles the subject with better insight into the traditions and restrictions Jahanara possibly faced during her lifetime and how those same constraints shaped her into the strong and influential figure she grew into.
Shors deals with the situation head-on and makes a formidable heroine of Jahanara. I didn’t dislike the book. In fact, after I managed to swallow my irritation (even if it took me several trials and dozens of pages into the book to get there) at how modern Jahanara and the other characters and their interactions with each other sound, the book grew on me. I loved the gumption and resourcefulness of Shor’s Jahanara.
This exercise brought home to me forcefully once more that a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is colored by the past and present life experiences of the author among many other things. When we open a book, we’re stepping for the duration of the story into the author’s private chamber upon their invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends upon our own point of view as a reader.
Have you read two or more books by different authors but based on the same personality or incident? Please share with us your experiences from the activity!