Jahanara, Princess of Princesses
by Kathryn Lasky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Jahanara, Princess of Princesses / 0-439-22350-4
This is a fascinating look at another culture. Jahanara is "Princess of Princesses" because she is the favorite daughter of her father. As such, and unlike the princesses of Europe, she will never marry, remaining unwed and under her family's roof all her life, serving as a counselor and entertainer for her father and brothers. As such, she is a beloved and famous princess, but there are no portraits or pictures of her, for she was only ever seen by the women of her father's harem! This life is one of ease and leisure, but she is saddened by a life of isolation that stretches before her, sheltered as she is from all men who are not her immediate family. I found myself torn in two by this idea - on the one hand, she is protected from the political marriages and intrigues that, say, poor Katherine of Spain or Marie Antoinette were forced to endure, but on the other hand, how lonely would it be to never marry or have children?
There is an issue here at stake of freedom. The women are not free - they cannot leave the harem, they cannot be seen by men, nor can they interact with them in any meaningful way. They are, in some ways, complete slaves under the whim of their ruler. However, under a wise and intelligent ruler such as her father, the women are solicited for their opinions on politics, and relied upon heavily for their intelligence and wit. In this manner, they are trusted courtiers, and they take pride in their work. This is a razor-edge, though, subject to the whim of the ruler, and their fortunes change when the younger son stages a successful rebellion and cloisters the women even further than before.
This idea is explored in detail, along with a theme of religious freedom and tolerance that radiates throughout the book. Though her father is Muslim, she has "mothers" who are Christian, Hindu, and many other religions. Jahanara believes that what truly matters is the state of your heart, and all else will follow - causing her to clash with her younger brother who torments people who fail to be the same religion as he.
Some parents may be concerned about introducing the issue of polygamy and multiple wives and concubines to young children. There is some small discussion of torture as punishments for spies and enemies of the kingdom which may unsettle small children. Not being very familiar with Indian culture, I cannot speak to the historical or cultural accuracy here. I believe that Lasky's efforts here are very polite and respectful, but I do not feel that I can speak with authority, so it would be reasonable to pair this book with, say, another book on Indian culture written by someone with more authority on the matter.
~ Ana Mardoll
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