Jahanara has lived one crazy life, and now that she's all old and stuff, it's time for her granddaughters to know about it. So she summons them to her old stomping grounds to reveal their amazing family history.
Even when they're little kids Jahanara, Dara, and Aurangzeb—the kids of the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, and his beloved wife Arjumand—have developed quite the circle of enemies and allies.
Jahanara is closest with Dara, her gentle-hearted older brother and the presumed heir to the Peacock Throne. Unfortunately, she is not so close with another brother, Aurangzeb, a spiteful, jealous boy right from the get-go. Once, when Jahanara finds herself in trouble after trying to rescue a drowning child from the river, she is hurt and shocked that her brother just seemed to watch her struggle without trying to help, even though her life was at risk.
After that eye-opening experience, Jahanara decides it's time to grow up and learn how to be like her mother, who has mastered the art of statecraft and subtle manipulation. Jahanara is an apt pupil, and she blossoms into a wise young woman. Unfortunately, with maturity comes obligation, and when she reaches the ripe old age of 16, she is married to Khondamir, a wealthy silver merchant. He's a nasty, abusive brute, but we're thinking her parents didn't really know that at the time.
So things aren't looking great for Jahanara—and then they get a lot worse. Her mother dies giving birth to her fourteenth child, and her father is so consumed by his grief that he basically forgets he's the Emperor. So Dara starts dealing with the nobles, and Aurangzeb takes the opportunity to become even more entrenched within the upper military ranks.
Jahanara, meanwhile, is tasked with trying to help her father as she promised to do at her mother's deathbed. When he emerges from his grief a broken man, the Emperor has one plan: to build the most beautiful mausoleum ever, in which his wife can be laid to rest. He hires Ustad Isa, the most accomplished architect around, and tasks Jahanara with assisting him to build his version of Paradise.
But we digress. This book is about building the Taj Mahal, but it's also about Jahanara and the family drama.
So, while things have remained tense but salvageable between the conflicted siblings throughout the years, their relationship begins to disastrously dissolve. During a public execution of a father and son that Aurangzeb was presiding over, Jahanara begs for mercy for the young child unfairly placed on the chopping block (literally…), and by winning her case, she publicly shames her insensitive brother. Ohhh ho, it's on now. Aurangzeb starts gunning for Jahanara, so she has to come up with something, and quick.
The best plan she can come up with was to make it look like she's tried to steal a golden ring from her husband to squirrel away for a rainy day. Ladli (her best friend) "discovers" her treachery and "betrays" her to Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb tells on Jahanara to Khondamir, and in that way, he can feel like he got his revenge—even though Jahanara herself orchestrated the whole thing. And, as a side-bonus, now Aurangzeb thinks Ladli is on his team, so Jahanara has a trusted spy in the enemy's camp.
Meanwhile, construction on what will be known as the Taj Mahal continues, and Isa and Jahanara find themselves falling in love. Whoops. Although they think they're doing a good job of keeping their feelings secret, good old Pops is onto them. But it's no biggie: he's a romantic to the bone, so he arranges things to make it easier for Jahanara and Isa to conduct their affair in secret. Eventually, their late-night visits bear fruit, and their daughter Arjumand is born.
But things are not all hearts and googly-eyes. Aurangzeb is still the worst, and he concocts a plot to assassinate Dara. Thankfully, Ladli warns Jahanara, and she thwarts the plan using quick thinking—and some contaminated soup. Knowing that she needs more spies, Jahanara asks her trusted friend and slave Nizam to go off to war to keep an eye on her treacherous bro.
Oh, yeah, did we not mention war? That's because it's kind of always happening. There's always some conflict or another being fought on the borders of Hindustan now that Aurangzeb's in charge.
Things go on like this for a while, with various attempts at fratricide being thwarted one way or another. (Hey, this is just a brief summary. Read the book for the full scoop.)
The Taj Mahal, which is glorious, is completed, but then Father falls ill, and it all hits the proverbial fan. Aurangzeb, now called Alamgir because bad guys always need new names, betrays his brothers and comes for the Peacock Throne. Jahanara sends Isa and Arjumand away for their safety, but then her plans go awry, and she is imprisoned with her father for years.
She manages to escape, to find her family who've been enslaved by the Sultan of Bijapur, and to arrange for their path to freedom…but then she gets imprisoned again. Khondamir captures her and brutally rapes her before he locks her up with her ailing father.
We know, we know. This book has some seriously terrible people in it. Bear with us, though; we're almost through, and we swear there's a happy ending here somewhere…
In what is one of the most cathartic moments of the book, Khondamir and Aurangzeb show up to torment Jahanara, but she twists them around deviously. She manages to make Aurangzeb think that Khondamir was her spy all along (instead of the ever-loyal Ladli), and in his anger, Aurangzeb beheads his nefarious subordinate. Nice…kind of.
Jahanara remains in prison until her father finally succumbs to his illness. On the day of her father's funeral, Jahanara is aided by the women of the royal harem and with their help escapes once more. She flees to Calcutta, and thanks to a plan agreed upon years earlier, she is able to reunite with Isa, Arjumand, Ladli, and Nizam. They all move to a small village by the sea and live out their days in peace and happiness.
Nothing like a happy ending.