Songs Of Stone by Sujata Sabnis, is about the life long romance of the couple, Jagat and Nilofer, set in the Mughal era, starting in 1617 during the reign of Jahangir and ending with the construction of the Taj Mahal in 1641. The book presents the Mughal era through the eyes of Nilofer, initially a vivacious and mischievous teenager who is kidnapped and forced in to the service of Emperor Jahangir as a part of his harem in Agra. She is rescued by her fiancé, Jagat, after which they start a normal life together keeping out of the sights of the Emperor and his harem.
After over a decade of marital bliss, and a peaceful family life with one son, they apprehensively return to Agra, so that Jagat can have his dream job. Around the same time, their son leaves to pursue his own dreams on the silk route, so they have only each other to depend upon. Once again, their lives are intertwined with that of the harem and its petty politics, plunging them into one tragedy after another. But this time around, Nilofer is a grown woman and faces her difficulties with rationality, determination and intelligence. The practical approach the major characters use in dealing with tragedies, taking them one day at a time, is almost like a well run triage operation, and had a very soothing effect on me through the most turbulent parts of the story.
The story sketches the typical lives of harem inmates over a span of 20 years, combating their biggest problems which are unexpectedly mundane. Boredom is staved off through gossip and petty politics. Opulence and comforts are effective psychological tools that quell most urges to break away from a hollow, purposeless life of forced servitude fraught with sexual frustration. While violence is relatively rare, cruelty is rampant. Harem inmates are denied the right to love, follow passions, or have any sort of identity. They are basically prisoners, as the only way out of the harem is death. Their entire existence is defined by how much favour they garner with the Emperor and then with the highest ranks of the harem itself, which is a ruthless hierarchy. Even queens and princesses are not exempt from the feelings of lovelessness, helplessness and bitterness that are an inevitable consequence of this misogynistic system.
Never having read a romance novel before, my expectations were based on the various romantic movies I have seen. But the book is not about the chase or insecurities of lovers in the courtship stage. Instead the lovers have unwavering faith in each other and are comfortable with expressing their vulnerabilities like age old friends. Their familiarity however does not diminish their passion. In fact, because of their high comfort level, they share not only physical, but also profound emotional intimacy.
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- The story maintains excellent suspense and yet points out many endearing details of the lives of the characters. It also generates a vivid picture of life in the Mughal era.
- A couple of characters were particularly interesting for their shades of grey:
- Beheroze Khan is a sympathetic character, in spite of his cruel nature. His cruelty is a product of the system that stole his freedom, returned his loyalty with indifference and later sadism, and yet gave him great power over a few. It was impossible for him to confront those who hurt him, so he sought retribution among those who were defenceless. This attitude is seen among other harem inmates too.
- Zohra is cheerful, selfless, loyal and values all her friends. Yet she has human failings in impossible situations, that adds depth to her character.
- The story contrasts the reactions of Shahjahan and Jagat on losing their beloved. Shahjahan indulges in his grief and turns to debauchery, while others take care of his duties, a luxury of the privileged. But Jagat must deal with his grief and yet return to everyday life almost immediately. Ironically, Jagat, in spite of limited resources, comes out of the heartbreak a happier man. They both build equally beautiful edifices to celebrate their love. Yet the bitter emperor is able to break Jagat’s newly rebuilt spirit in one fell swoop. The comparisons were subtle and well executed.
- Nilofer and Jagat are equal partners in the marriage. Nilofer has strong convictions and stands up for herself. For a large part of their marriage, Nilofer is a house wife. But she is able to support herself and her husband through a calamity. When her husband is able to work again, she chooses to quit her job and pursue her passion for writing and poetry.
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- The writing, especially at the beginning, needs editing. There are needless repetitions, some grammatical mistakes, and a lot of flip-flopping between present and past tense, several times, mid sentence. While a few grammatical mistakes are not a big deal, it does take away from the charm of a period piece, where language can be evocative. It is worth being patient with the first few chapters, because it does get better.
- Some of the transitions are too abrupt.
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- Spoiler alert:The ending served the story well, and it almost gave Nilofer’s death meaning, in that, at least she was spared seeing Jagat deprived of his hands. For a passionate sculptor, losing his hands is lot more than a physical handicap. But on googling the incident of Shahjahan cutting hands of Taj Mahal workers, I found that, it is considered a popular myth because of lack of evidence.
A modern marriage in an ancient setting.
A copy of this book was given me by the publishers, Manjul Publishing House in return for an honest review. Thanks Manjul.