Well educated, once prosperous Ghias Beg finds himself fleeing from his native Persia to escape his creditors and the hostile new regime in the country he so loved. As things seem they could get no worse, another child is born into his family. With no way to feed the newborn, Ghias reluctantly places her on the roadside hoping someone will take her in. Fortunately tiny Mehrunnisa is discovered by Masud, a kind merchant, and taken to his home. Soon Masud discovers who the baby belongs to and reunites the family. Seeing the poor circumstances in which they are living, he befriends them and so begins the exciting life of Mehrunnisa Beg who will one day be known as Nur Jahan wife of Jahangir, ruler of the Mughal Imperial Family in India.
Mehrunnisa enjoys a comfortable childhood thanks to Masud's help and to being noticed by the mother of Jahangir. Mehrunnisa grows up visiting the harem of the Imperial palace in Lahore as a companion to the Emporess. She sees Jahangir for the first time when he marries another woman, but Mehrunnisa knows at this first sight of him that this is the man she will love forever; however, her father betroths her to another man. Mehrunnisa and Jahangir have one private meeting in the palace garden and share a kiss and although it breaks her heart Mehrunnisa tells Jahangir that she must keep her word to her father and marry Ali Quli.
The marriage is one that takes her to Bengal where her husband is serving in the Imperial army. Here she is very much alone and at the mercy of an abusive husband. Not able to conceive a child, she is often beaten by Ali for not producing an heir. The marriage continues for a number of years with Mehrunnisa longing for home and for Jahangir. Ali is reassigned to duty in Lahore and Mehrunnisa is back home where the glimpses of Jahangir only intensify her feelings for him.
The Twentieth Wife tells the story of India's controversial Empress, Mehrunissa, who later became known as Empress Nur Jahan of the Mughal Empire. She was the daughter of refugees fleeing Persia for India. She grew up in Emperor Akbar's palace grounds because of her father's position in the royal court. At the age of eight she sees Prince Salim and decides she will one day marry him.
Salim and Mehrunnisa fall in love over the years, but are unable to marry because of Mehrunnisa's bethrothal to a soldier. Despite time and distance their passion for one another does not die.
Intertwined with this love story are the accounts of the politics of the Mughal Empire, not only in relation to who will succeed Emperor Akbar, but also politics within the women's quarters.
This report prepared by Jenna Evans