Indu Sundaresan’s new book THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT is in the stores now. Indu has been writing wonderfully about the Mughal period for years now and her books are a delicious journey through Mughal time India.
I “met” Indu (alas, only virtually so far) when her first book and my first book came out. She even did an interview with me for my first book A BREATH OF FRESH AIR as part of the reader’s club part of the book. I’m proud to introduce her book to you and I hope you will rush to get a copy of the story of the Kohinoor diamond – India’s most famous diamond that now adorns the British Royal crown.
Hint: It’ll make a great Christmas present!
Amulya: You obviously have a romance with the Mughal times – how did this love affair start?
Indu: Love the wording, Amulya, and yes, I guess it is a love affair after all! And here’s how it began. I was in graduate school at the University of Delaware, studying economics and operations research and was quite homesick one winter evening. So, I took the bus to the university library, typed in ‘India’ in the subject keyword, went to the section that housed books on India and came home with an armload of books—histories, biographies, travelogues, memoirs. One of those books was about the Mughal harems and Empress Nur Jahan.
I had no idea (I was an indifferent student of history in my school days; perhaps they never taught in such detail anyway) that she was as powerful as she was. Here was a woman, a twentieth wife, low in the harem’s hierarchy, who signs on imperial documents, has coins minted in her name—a privilege only of a sitting sovereign—and influences the course of India’s history. And she does all this living behind a veil, in a time when women were not meant to be seen, and were supposed to be rarely heard.
After I’d finished graduate school and received my degrees, I decided to write a novel. Just that. So, I wrote two, which I then decided weren’t good enough to be published. When I began casting around for another topic, I remembered Nur Jahan’s story, and began researching her life. It led to The Twentieth Wife, my first published book, its sequel, The Feast of Roses, and seven years after the second book, the third novel of my Taj trilogy, Shadow Princess. The last novel is about Nur Jahan’s grand-niece, daughter of the woman for whom the Taj Mahal is built, who was as powerful as her grand-aunt, but in a different way.
Indu: Hard to say—there are so many! But, having written Shadow Princess, I’m intrigued by Emperor Aurangzeb, (the Shadow Princess’ brother) who imprisoned his father and sister in the Agra Fort, took over the empire, and waited for his father to die so that he could legitimately call himself heir to the throne. Aurangzeb is also credited with the decline of the Mughal Empire, and so eventually he’s the man who allowed the English East India Company to begin acquiring vast chunks of India…which led to British rule in India.
And yet, given this damning reputation, in my research for Shadow Princess, I found Aurangzeb to be more than the sum of this reputation. If I go back to Mughal India, he’s the one I want to write about—what, how, I don’t know yet. It’s a thought that’s somewhere at the back of my mind.
Amulya: The Kohinoor diamond is still seen as a symbol of Indian loss to the British Empire – what are your thoughts after spending so much time with the diamond in your book?
Indu: Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India, who was responsible for the annexation of the Punjab Empire to British lands in India in 1849, faced resistance to his actions, both in England and in India.
When Dalhousie annexed the Punjab, its treasuries were emptied, and the heir, eleven year old Maharajah Dalip Singh was allowed to keep a few of his jewels, none of his lands, and just his title. And, the Kohinoor diamond was secreted away to England in 1850.
An earlier treaty with the Punjab and Dalip Singh that the British signed stated that they would keep the peace in the Punjab and give it back to Dalip when he attained his majority at sixteen. The annexation was contradictory to this treaty—which was the reason Dalhousie’s decision made many people uncomfortable. It’s a history that’s not very well known anymore, and I didn’t know this until I began reading—and most of my reading comes from British sources, from the people who were engaged, in one way or another, in the Punjab.
All this happens in the background in The Mountain of Light—what you see in the novel then, is just how all these decisions affected the main players in the story. I took the history I had read, and instead of dwelling upon this part of it, I made the novel what I think novels should be—about the characters, their emotions, their longings, and their eventual losses.
Amulya: What was your least favorite part of THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT?
Indu: I have none! It was a tough book to write because I’m experimenting with style, a new approach to storytelling, but very satisfying in the end to see all that work come together cohesively.
Indu: There’s a chapter about three-fourths of the way into the book, titled ‘An Alexandria Moon,’ in which, in 1850, the Kohinoor diamond is secreted out of India to England aboard a fictional commercial steamer called the SS Indus. I had to pull many characters into this section, give them enough space in the narrative so that the reader will identify with them. And then, the diamond’s on board the Indus, the two men responsible for its safety don’t know (for a while) that almost everyone’s aware they have it with them. Who wants to steal the diamond? Do they manage to? How?
I’ve always been a fan of Agatha Christie’s novels—and here, finally, I was able to channel my inner Agatha Christie. (And I hope I made it work!)
Amulya: What’s next…
Indu: I’m working on a novel right now, reading a lot for it, jotting down notes, preparing the atmosphere in my head. I don’t usually talk much more about my next book at this time, sometimes I will only speak of the book after it’s done and revised.