Historian Ruby Lal reframes the historical narrative about a Muslim woman who co-ruled an empire with her husband, Jahangir of India, deconstructing her reputation as a haughty temptress and revealing her to be “a devoted wife, a wise and just queen, a shrewd politician.”
Empress succeeds in its mission to impress upon the reader the remarkable character and achievements of Nur Jahan ... According to Lal, Nur has been unfairly blamed for the civil strife that accompanied the latter part of her rule with Jahangir and given little of the credit she deserves. Empress remedies these slanders and oversights while telling an engrossing tale of female power.
Despite the spare record she has to work with, Lal paints richly detailed scenes from Nur’s life ... Lal ably guides the reader through the rich drama and intrigue of Nur’s later life with Jahangir ... While filled with particulars, Empress can, at times, feel disjointed as Lal breezes over some of the larger developments and changes in Nur’s life. While she dwells extensively on the milieu of the harem, she spends little time explaining what led Jahangir to elevate Nur above his other wives ... Lal is clearly constrained by the paucity of the material she has to work with. But she seems too reluctant to draw inferences and make analytical deductions. She might not be able to say definitely what transpired between Nur and Jahangir or Nur and Shah Jahan, but she could tell readers what she thinks is the most credible and plausible account. Still, Lal has done a service to readers interested in the Mughal period and the many forgotten or poorly remembered women of Indian history. She has helped shine a little light on an enigmatic character many think they know but few actually understand.
Right away, Lal takes on previous commentators, both from Nur’s day and those of subsequent eras, who seemingly could not handle the prowess of a strong woman ... As a feminist historian, Lal writes that her goal is to foreground the stories of women and girls largely missing from the histories of pre-colonial South Asia ... Refreshingly, there is no linear 'first this, then this' narrative. Lal instead paints rich multisensory tapestries, beginning with the story of Nur’s birth and her caravan as a baby to the lands of the Mughal court, and then the pluralistic milieus into which Nur married ... Big chunks of Empress come to us in the form of contextualized history, mingled with speculation ... we get the impression that this is Lal’s mission...to illuminate and serve Nur Jahan’s life, to place her in the light rather than chart every known detail in a linear fashion. In other words, Lal releases Nur from the condescending ways in which previous commentators have trivialized, belittled, and diminished her accomplishments.