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The past is prologue to the present. The tragic events that occurred over three hundred years ago still reverberate in modern India. The continuing conflict between Hindu and Muslim - and the creation of Pakistan-can be attributed to the actions of Aurangzeb, the son of Shah Jahan and Arjumand.
All the characters in this novel-except for Murthi, Sita and their children-lived three centuries ago, but I am sure that a man like Murthi lived and died building the Taj Mahal, along with twenty-two thousand others.
There was a man named Isa who walked in the shadow of the great Mughal Shah Jahan. Other than his name, nothing else about him is recorded.
When it was built, the great tomb in Agra was called the Mumtaz Mahal, but over the centuries, with the erosion of time and memory, it has come to be known simply as the Taj Mahal. The jail (screen) which surrounds the sarcophagi of Arjumand and Shah Jahan is considered to be one of the finest works of sculpture in all India.
In my novel, the odd-numbered chapters cover the years 1607-30, and concern the lives of Shah Jahan and Arjumand: their love, their marriage, and Shah Jahan’s eventual accession to the throne. The even-humbered chapters take the story on from 1632-66 and describe the later years of Shah Jahan’s reign: the building of the Taj Mahal, Murthis story, and Aurangzeb’s rebellion against his father. Dates are also given according to the traditional Islamic system of dating from the Hegira.
Prologue 1150/AD 1740
The world was thick with rain and it was not possible to tell night from day; they came and went unmarked as if blindness had struck men and beasts. Nothing could be heard except the river, roaring and thrashing like Siva’s monstrous serpent. The earth broke under its might and gave up men, beasts, trees, homes almost gratefully, as if it could not bear their burden any more.
From under the great archway the ancient monkey stared out at the curtain of water that fell. He had never witnessed such rage in his life, and in his squeezed cynical face, there was a gleam of awe. His fur lay flat, streaks of dark rusty brown touched with grey, and where it had been torn away revealing black patches of skin; teeth marks, old and healed, puckered the flesh into a grimace. Huddled against the wall was his tribe of fifteen langours. He was not one of them. They were elegant, slim and silvery; he was squat and ugly, but he had killed their leader and now they worshipped him. He looked on them with contempt, and they accepted his authority submissively. On all fours, he stalked out. The rain broke on his back, as if angry at his defiance, but instead of retreating he moved down the steps into the neglected garden. His tribe, frightened of the storm, frightened too of being abandoned, screamed and then, miserably, followed him. the old monkey seemed unaware of the fury, examining the flooded fountains and the paving lying beneath the dense undergrowth; he tugged at a shattered piece and tossed it into the fountain. His companions were sullenly indifferent to their surroundings.
Under the wall, he sat back on his haunches and squinted up at the pure expanse of whiteness that he’d noticed through the darkness. It rose, cliff-like, in defiance of the all-veiling night. It seemed not merely to hold the blackness at bay, but to push it away so that there appeared an aura between the walls and the night. He did not mount the steps but circled around, wary from old habit. Reassured finally, he found a foothold in the marble and vaulted up onto the plinth.
There was an opening in the cliff, where the darkness had slipped in, and he followed it, stepping daintily over the shattered marble that littered the floor. The rain too had entered, leaving pools of water. He sniffed the damp and the desolation, caught too the sweet cloying of incense-he did not like that-and then the smell of man, sour, distasteful. He was curious and unafraid. He walked further, treading on crisp leaves and, seeing the carved screen convenient with holds, leapt nimbly to the top, avoiding the gaps ripped in the fabric of marble. ‘Who goes!’ a voice called.
The monkey stiffened, listening to the mad tapping of the cane. A man emerged from the lower chamber, emaciated, old, blind.
‘Ah, it is you. I can smell you. Come, you do not need to fear me.’ The tomb. The monkey watched the man, knowing him to be blind and harmless, and his companions scuttled around, shaking water from their soaked fur.
‘There is no food here. Only stone, and who can eat that? I have touched it all, and it is cold and smooth, like the surface of icy water. I do not know what this place is, or why it was built. Can you tell me, Hanuman?
The monkey scratched his chest and ignored the man. ‘You do not know yourself. For you, like me, it is only shelter from the rain.
‘Murari has fashioned a stylish novel that brings to life the politics and intrigues of Mughal court life.’-Outlook.
When his queen Arjumand Banu-Mumtaz-i-Mahal, the Chosen One of the Palace-died, Shah Jahan wanted to build a monument that was the image of his perfect love for her. For twenty-two years, twenty thousand men laboured day and night to fulfil the emperor’s obsession. The result was the Taj Mahal, a marble mausoleum lined with gold, silver and precious jewels.
This powerful novel narrates the story of the Taj on two parallel levels. The first one tells the passionate love story of Shah Jahan and Arjumand till her death through the voices of three main characters-Arjumand, Shah Jahan and Isa, Arjumand’s favourite eunuch. The second recounts the later years of Shah Jahan’s reign, the building of the Taj Mahal and the bloody pursuit of the fabulous peacock throne by his sons. Intertwined with the narrative about the building of the Taj is the story of Murthi, the Hindu master craftsman sent as a gift to the emperor to carve the famous marble jail around Arjumand’s sarcophagus.
In this complex and fascinating book, Murari has written much more than a historical romance. He has skillfully recreated the period against which the story is set: the sensual opulence of the palace and the grinding poverty of seventeenth-century India, the vicissitudes of Shah Jahan’s reign and the often bitter conflict between men of different faiths.