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Send your questions to Terrance: girlworkonyou@aol.com

It’s almost the weekend, and it’s “Read A Book” Thursday.

If you don’t have any plans I have the perfect book for you to curl up with and get lost in another world.

This week’s featured author is Indu Sundaresan with the final book of her trilogy, Shadow Princess.

Shadow Princess (Atria Books; $25.99) is the story of Emperor Shah Jahan who took the lives of his own blood brothers in order to gain control over the Mughal Empire.  Although he has multiple wives, he loves Mumtaz Mahal more than life itself.  At a time when he and Mumtaz were to enjoy the fruits of the empire he fought and killed for, she dies after giving birth to their fourteenth child, a daughter.  Her husband, the Emperor, is so grief stricken that he considers giving up the crown.  Just the possibility of this decision sets in motion the dangerous alliances amongst his own children, each of whom has his or her own ideas about who would be most qualified to take the crown.  In a break from tradition, the eldest daughter Princess Jahanara, at the center of the story, becomes her father’s treasured confidante.

Jahanara amasses more power and wealth than any of her other siblings or her father’s remaining wives, as the person upon whom Emperor Shah Jahan most depends.  As a woman, she will never wear the crown, but her influence over the Emperor deems her a threat to the less favored siblings.  Jahanara’s decision is to support Dara, the eldest son and the presumed heir to the throne.  However, a younger son, Aurangzeb, although not as liked within the family and supported by sister Jahanara’s younger sister, Roshanara, also had his sights set on the throne.  He feels strongly that his brothers, including Dara, do not exhibit or possess the courage, capability, skills, and commitment necessary to have the honor of wearing the crown and leading the empire’s people.  The battle for the crown becomes an intriguing, suspense-filled decades-long struggle for the family, particularly as the Emperor emerges from the mourning of his wife, at the behest of daughter Jahanara, to regain the confidence of his people.

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Shadow Princess is an engaging, fascinating page-turner that is not only based on historical fact but offers an intimate look into the enormously wealthy and intricate lives of a royal family who once ruled an entire land.  With a flair and enthusiasm for history and culture, Sundaresan weaves a story full of rich details that also brings the reader deep into the world of the lives of Indian women and their struggles for power and consequence.

Indu Sundaresan was born in India and grew up on Air Force bases all over the country.  Her father, a fighter pilot, was also a storyteller—managing to keep his audiences captive and rapt with his flair for drama and timing.  He got this from his father, Indu’s grandfather, whose visits were always eagerly awaited.  Sundaresan’s love of stories comes from both of them, from hearing their stories based on imagination and rich Hindu mythology, and from her father’s writings.

After an undergraduate degree in economics from India, Sundaresan came to the U.S. for graduate school at the University of Delaware and has an MS in operations research and an MA in economics. But all too soon, the storytelling gene beckoned.

You can find out more about Indu, HERE!

I had the honor and privilege to speak with Indu about her book, research, and journey to India’s Taj Mahal:

TD: The “Shadow Princess” is the third, and final, novel in your Taj Mahal trilogy. Why did you choose to explore and write about this beautiful and opulent place as your backdrop?

Indu Sundaresan:  At one of my readings for Shadow Princess, an audience member made a comment on the image of Princess Diana at the Taj Mahal.  I have to admit, that for a brief moment, I was taken aback.  I’ve been working on this trilogy for about fifteen years now, and the existing forts, palaces, monuments and tombs in India from this Mughal dynasty are peopled in my mind with their original inhabitants—I know these kings and queens, I’ve written about them, researched their lives, questioned their motives.  In my head, they live on, intensely real and vibrant.

So at times I forget the contemporary context of the Taj, or the other tombs or the palaces and forts.  But in many senses, it is because we have today a visual and tangible reminder of the Mughal dynasty in Delhi and Agra (and other places) in India that I was first interested in the stories of the Emperors of the Mughal Empire.  As with everyone else, while I was growing up in India, I visited these places, heard stories, and learned a little about the history in school.

One of the other main reasons for my focusing on this period of history was that I read a lot of historical fiction when I was younger—mostly about European royalty–but there was little about the Mughals, explored in this medium of fiction.  When I began writing, India’s history was what I turned toward first, Mughal history next.

TD:  The story is based on historical facts, which I am sure took lots of research, how did you search your resources and subject matter to tell the story of a royal family?

IS: The interesting (and fortunate) thing about the Mughal Emperors is that they were very aware of their place in history, even as they lived their lives.  So they meticulously documented every aspect of their rule—politics at court; buildings they constructed; people they met; what they thought of this empire they had established in India; at times even who they married and for what reason (usually political).

The six main emperors of the empire left detailed memoirs, either written by their own hands, or the by official court biographers.  And I’ve been fortunate to find English translations of the originals of these documents (in either Persian or Turki) at the two local library systems in Seattle—the University of Washington and the King County Library System!

The three novels of the trilogy (The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses are the first two) are, though, based mostly within the zenanas (harems) of the emperors and are about the aunt of the woman for whom the Taj is built and the daughter of the woman for whom the Taj was built (Shadow Princess).  Given the nature of these women’s lives—confined within the walls of a harem, hidden behind a veil—it was actually a search to find the facts of their lives, even though they were imperial women and wielded an enormous amount of power both socially and politically.

TD: The story centers around the emperor and his children, mainly Princess Jahanara, who amasses power and wealth, along with a strong influence over the emperor. Why did you choose to write the story through the eyes of this fascinating and powerful woman?

IS: I stumbled across Jahanara’s story when I was researching her grand-aunt’s life for the first two novels of the trilogy, and knew, even then, that she would find place in a future novel.

As I mentioned before, there is a real paucity of historical fiction dealing with the lives of the Mughal kings in India, and consequently not much is written either about their wives and daughters who were the prevailing influences in their lives.  So Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan took center stage in the first two novels, and quite naturally for me, Princess Jahanara was the one who came to life in Shadow Princess.

TD:  The power Princess Jahanara has makes her less favored by her siblings. It seems as if everyone wants the crown and a bitter family rivalry ensues. In your research what did you discover about the dynamics within a royal family of enormous wealth who once ruled the land that made them similar to those of average people?

IS: The Mughal Emperors were larger than life!  They built large, they lived large—immense wealth and power over a large population—they loved intensely (Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal after all, for a beloved wife); and they died dramatically.

But I think that family dynamics, even within the royal family, was very similar to the average person’s—they had the same jealousies, the competing for a parent’s attention; the lust for power; the rivalries in matters of love.

TD: What can readers expect from you next? Will you do another historical trilogy or story?

IS: I’m tempted to continue the stories of the Mughal emperors (or perhaps more specifically those stories that deal with the women of their harems), and am mulling over ideas in my mind.

But for now, I’m at work at another historical book, and this one is so new in my life and new in the writing process, that I can’t talk too much about it until I have a first draft down on paper.

I know you want a copy of this fascinating story which transports you back in time and to another country. Indu has agreed to give-away five (5) signed copies of Shadow Princess.  So, the first five persons to email me with the answer to this question will win a signed copy – Shadow Princess is the final book in Indu’s trilogy on the royal family. What are the names of the first two books in this trilogy? Email your answer to: girlworkonyou@aol.com along with your Black Planet screen name.

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