Book Review – Empress by Ruby Lal

Over a decade ago, living alone in a city that wasn’t ‘home’, a city I couldn’t find a library in, I spent most of my weekends in a mall. The mall had two bookshops and most importantly one of them had a cafe within. I didn’t need to leave the place at all. I took my time wandering, looking, browsing, reading and buying. It was on one such trip that I bought a book because I was first, interested in its cover, and second its title. That is how I bought my copy of Nur Jahan’s Daughter by Tanushree Poddar, a historical fiction.

Nur Jahan is known to us all as a historical figure. But in present-day India, I am not sure if there are many out there who would admit their knowledge or admiration. As textbooks obliterate or elucidate their content based on who forms the government, history becomes a subject that is putty – conveniently moulded to suit political needs. And it is a pity that figures like Nur Jahan are not inspiring little girls like Ruby Lal any more.

Empress by Ruby Lal | Book Review by Frost At Midnite

Empress by Ruby Lal is a wonderfully researched and well-written book on Nur Jahan. It is perhaps not for all to read. There are those biographies that are more empathetic, but not Empress. Lal has managed to give us a clean and clear picture of the times Nur Jahan lived. Nur’s life and her impact on those who came after her time are documented with aplomb. Painting a picture as close to reality as could be is a daunting task. Ruby Lal has done her best and has also included some notes for the reader. If this book reads like an academic paper, I figure it was meant to be so. Lal really did not cross the line when it comes to romanticising the subject of her research.

Although, for a moment, I couldn’t help but draw the similarity between a fragment of Game Of Thrones and Empress. Nur Jahan was born Mihr un-Nisa in 1577. It was also when a comet was seen in the skies, glowing bright. And in ASOIAF, Khaleesi becomes The Mother of Dragons, as the red comet blazes in the sky. Another instance of fiction from fact. Either way, I am happy for two strong female characters. Historic and otherwise.

Ruby Lal‘s Empresss gives us a vivid insight into the goings-on of the Mughal empire during that time. Governance, finance, warfare, art and education – all of it find a mention in the Empress. Sequestered from the world because of their gender, women were treated differently. Yet somehow, Empress shows, they did not quietly sit around in the shadows. The women in the harem, queen mothers, queens and confidantes, could be trusted upon with matters of state and relied on for advice. But they were in the background, always.

As Nur entered Jahangir’s harem, became his twentieth wife, she was the first to come to the forefront. She didn’t just advice or listen, she ordered and ruled. She would hunt, mount a war campaign, design palaces and gardens – all of it from where the world could see her. And she made sure the world would know of her contributions. Nur Jahan would have been called a feminist in today’s times, not content remaining in the shadows. Throughout the book, Ruby Lal has included snippets of various accounts from that time. Here’s one –

“Jahangir’s course is directed by a woeman and is now, as it were, shut up by her so that all justice or care of anything or publique affayres either sleeps or depends on her, who is most unaccesible than any goddesse or mistery of heathen impietye.”

Thomas Roe wrote in 1617, then British ambassador to the Mughal court. How ironic, that this was written by a person who would have been ruled over by a female monarch during a part of his lifetime.

It is a pity that Nur’s influence in shaping history was deliberately modified. Like I wrote in the beginning, history is shaped to suit needs. It happens now as it happened then. Time may have carried on, but human tendencies remain unchanged. While Empress is mostly about Nur, it is also Jahangir’s book. And one must appreciate the insight into his history that this book gives. One must also appreciate Jahangir for bringing to the fore his beloved queen and not being daunted by her gender.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Empress is definitely a very interesting book. Definitely recommend!

You can find a copy of Empress here – Amazon, Flipkart, Kobo.


Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur JahanEmpress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews


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