Ever since my childhood, I have been hearing lofty praises of Taj Mahal – a beautiful monument in Agra, India.
Built by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in memory of his beloved Queen Mumtaz Mahal. An eternal symbol of love, standing tall for centuries, proclaimed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
But, despite listening to grand stories about this emblem of love and undying affection for years, somehow, I always felt a slight distance from the Tajmahal.
Despite living just 300 km from this celebrated mausoleum, I never had the inclination to visit it. All the talks about its eternal beauty and expensive efforts at preservation seemed gibberish to me.
However, a few days ago, I read a fictional story that changed my entire perspective. An imaginary tale that challenged me to look beyond boundaries to imbibe reality in a totally different way!
I am talking about Taj:A Novel by Timeri N. Murai, a historical romance that opened my eyes to a hitherto unknown world of guilt and regret.
This complex story of Mughal India, founded on the turf of love and politics, changed my life long ignorance of Taj Mahal. Ironically, I was won over by a fictional tale about a living legend.
After reading Taj, I realized the true significance of Taj Mahal. It is hardly a symbol of love, but a great reminder of that unforgettable regret that affects a man who has lost his dear ones. Often, we take things for granted, ignoring our loved ones. But, once they are gone, we realize their true worth. The significance of neglect, that ignorance, which forces us to overlook our most precious possessions, often strike us only after the treasure is lost.
And, it is perhaps this guilt that prompted Shahjahan to build a grand memorial in reverence to his deceased wife, Mumtaz aka Arjumand.
And, a good three centuries later, I rediscovered Shahjahan’s passion to make up for his mistakes, his rash decisions and his indifferent approach towards love, death and politics in a beautiful work of fiction!
The story begins with Arjumand, a young girl of twelve, grand daughter of Ghiyas Beg and niece of Mehrunnissa. She is about to attend Meena Bazaar, an open market held within the Mughal Red Fort, where the wives of Emperor and Nobles sell their wares to a select group of men.
It is a sort of fair, organized once a year, to provide some entertainment to the women, who are otherwise forced to remain in purdah, in the Royal Haram. It struck me as a sort of dating carnival, where men and women can freely interact, indulge in some light hearted banter, and possibly fall in love.
I always believed Mughals to be a very close society, so this openness came as a slight shock, and I must say gave a very romantic setting to the novel. I found the beginning addictive and anxiously waited for Arjumand’s lover.
And, then entered Shahjahan, a living paradox, who is as romantic as is rebellious, as cruel as is sensitive; a great lover and a formidable hater almost simultaneously. He makes his first entry as a teenager, falling in love with Arjumand at the very first sight.
Broadly speaking, the novel is structurally divided into two parts. First part, aptly titled Love Story, traces the era from 1607-1627 and the second part, The Taj Mahal pertains to 1632-1659. Both the stories run parallel and after a time, appeared as mirror images of one another, superbly balanced with smart narration.
The novel is structurally perfect, running two parallel plots. The first plot revolves around Shahjahan and Mumtaz, the eternal love story, where romance is at its peak celebrating the first rushes of youth, the first kiss, the first night and is interspersed with the lusty affair of Jahangir and Mehrunnissa.
Here, the narrators are Shahjahan, Arjumand and Isa. Isa is an eunuch, a loyal servant, and a trusted confidante of Mumtaz Mahal aka Arjumand. The story is told by each character in first person, and whatever gaps were left in the story of one, were covered by the other.
In a Historical Fiction, the biggest challenge for any writer is to maintain a strict balance between fact and fiction. As is inevitable, the characters are well known to readers, and are probably etched in marble. To change perceptions about them, and to present the historical facts from the perspective of a narrator becomes quite unmanageable.
While reading Wolf Hall, I missed this essential connection with characters, as the narrative voice seemed too impersonal, making the characters appear wooden and distant. But, in Taj, Timeri has done a wonderful job. He has written the story from the perspective of main characters themselves, giving us readers a sneak peek into the attitude and thinking of the historical personnel, and merging them with a few fictional characters to add chutzpah to the story.
The novel is quite strong in its characters. And, Shahjahan comes out on top as the most clever character. As the novel progressed, his different facets were revealed. He is portrayed as the ultimate man, who believes in molding the truth to suit himself. He broke every Mughal tradition, wreaked havoc on the Empire, made use of every trick in history to usurp both crown and love, and yet is remembered as a great lover, a builder of creative imagination. And, it is this contradiction in his personality, that made Taj, a memorable novel for me!
Then, there is Mumtaz, expressed as the most selfless woman, who denies every comfort for the sake of her lover. She pines for him for almost five years. And later suffers the lustful nights with Shahjahan. To avoid yet another pregnancy, she wants to spurn her husband, but is never able to do so, out of her deep love and devotion.
Fourteen pregnancies in 20 years of wedlock was sure to break her body and spirit, but the way she asserted herself, won my heart. Her selfless love towered over Shahjahan’s puny carnal pleasures. And, perhaps, that’s what finally motivated him to create a magnificent monument that could surpass the grandeur of all the tombs and memorials. His creation has stood the test of time, immortalizing his love on the surface, while Mumtaz remains buried deep inside!
Timeri is wondrous with his words and I found his technique of telling the story by the perspective of main characters Arjumand, Shahjahan and Isa superb. The first person narrative connected me to the characters in a sublime way. I could see through their eyes, understand their logic, and yet had the benefit of knowing what they did not know about each other, as I became privy to their innermost thoughts and could readily envision their love story as if it was unfolding in front of my own eyes.
And, this romantic mood was intermittent with political intrigues, which are an essential part of any historical fiction. Mehrunissa’s treachery with her husband and Jahangir’s possible poisoning of his own wife exposed the darker side of love. Lust of Jahangir and Mehrunnissa’s hunger for power lay exposed in front of me, by the strategic story telling by Arjumand and Isa.
The story got even more interesting during Shahjahan’s exile. As he ran through the Southern plateaus and Rajasthan Deserts, begging for help, the oft neglected part of his life came to fore, where I could feel his anguish, his fear for safety of his wife and children, his struggle to live decently. And, here Shahjahan redeemed himself. I fell in love with his smart thinking and practical logic, while Mumtaz receded into her philosophical outlook.
The second plot is equally strong. It is aptly called The Taj Mahal, pertains to 1632 to 1659, and gives a sneak peek into the lives of laborers who built Taj Mahal, interspersed with the political games and treachery indulged in by the fanatic Aurangzeb, contradicted with the heart warming story of Murthi.
Here, the main characters are Murthi, a carver of Gods, Shahjahan himself as a builder of Tajmahal and Isa (as a memory, a symbol of Mumtaz). The narration is in third person and the story is told by a ghost narrator, who can peep into their lives and tell me what happened on the stage.
As the story opened, a giant monument is in progress. Thousands of stone cutters are ceaselessly laboring to achieve one man’s dream. Initially, I found the second plot a little slack, possibly due to the absence of that personal touch, which comes naturally through first person narration.
The historical facts were given much more weight-age, the persons and their backgrounds discussed, techniques of architecture divulged and an aura of masonry was created. But, in contrast to the first plot’s romance, I found it quite dull.
But, slowly the plot found its foothold. Murthi, an illiterate stone carver got transformed into an almost mirror image of Shahjahan. He evolved into a perfectionist, who tries to find solace in marble, as he could not rekindle true love in his wife’s heart. He was her second choice, a compromise. And, he could never accept Sita wholeheartedly. He expected too much loyalty and devotion from his wife, like Shahjahan. And his wife also at last succumbs to physical exertion.
Just like Shahjahan, he remains discontented till his very death. He could not savor his own labors, just like Shahjahan, who lost everything to love – his wife, his sons Dara and Aurangzeb and even his crown.
Isa’s stature also grew in the second plot. He became the absent soul of Arjumand, whom Shahjahan revered and feared at the same time. His obscure beginning, culminated into ostentatious end, as Taj Mahal was transformed from a dead stone to a living legend.
And, as the story progressed, slowly the two plots became similar. If on one side Shahjahan was delivering a fatal blow to his brother and rebelling against his own father, in the second plot, Aurangzeb prominently rose to thwart Shahjahan, indulging in those political games that were once played by his father a few years ago.
They say, History repeats itself, and here Timeri has actually shown this happen within a period of 50 odd years and 370 pages.
I loved the details in the novel. Be it the grandeur of Red Fort, the scenic beauty of Deccan, the description of fine Nakkashi of Taj Mahal or the movement of Royal caravan on a hunting expedition, everything was explained so lucidly that I could not help but admire the fine taste of author.
Though, I really wish that Timeri had exerted some restraint on the vivid description of Shahjahan’s nuptial bed. He is carried away with the lustful extravagances of the Emperor and leaves nothing to imagination. A bit too much invasion on the privacy of Mughal Emperor and his wife, for a sensitive reader.
Similarly, the utter disrespect shown to the bodies of slave women, was too bitter an experience. If this was how they were actually treated by Royals, hats off to social reformers for abolishing slavery.
While reading, I kept on comparing Taj to Wolf Hall again and again. As both the novels are historical fictions and tell the stories of amorous kings, a comparison is but inevitable. And, the winner is, of course Timeri N. Murari and Shahjahan. While, Murari won my heart by his fluid narrative, Shahjahan appeared almost innocent in front of Henry VIII who did not flinch from killing his own wives. Perhaps, that’s why one is celebrated as an eternal lover, while the other is a roguish king who usurped even religion.
In the end, though I can’t help but reiterate Paulo Coelho – a man does destroy what he loves the most. Shahjahan destroyed not just Arjumand but also his sons Dara and Aurangzeb, by lavishing extra love on one while ignoring the other. And, ultimately, it is this contradiction of love and loss, that won my heart.
In a nut shell ‘Taj:A Story of Mughal India’ is an awesome novel, a fantastic read that has moved me enough to wish to look at least once at Taj Mahal, if only to see that celebrated jaali carved by Murthi or some other real carver or that small window from where Shahjahan continued to look at his creation in his final days. A powerful story complete with political intrigues and love games, a must read indeed!
Title : Taj:A Novel(A Story of Mughal India)
Written by : Timeri N. Murari
Published by : Penguin Books India
Edition : 2004 (Paperback)
Price : Rs. 275
No. of Pages : 371