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Moods and monuments

Timeri N. Murari doesn't think that his book on the Taj is built on the West's exotic image of the Orient

Timeri N. Murari: `Taj wasn't an obsession or anything.' — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

I HAD heard a million tales about the Taj Mahal before I actually saw it — in mid afternoon, at the height of summer. With scorching sunrays bouncing off the white marble, it was a blinding, dwarfing experience. I felt the way Murthy does at the first sight of the city of Agra in Timeri N. Murari's Taj: A Story of Mughal India, re-launched now to mark the monument's 350th anniversary. Murari's sculptor from South India, one among the nameless thousands deputed to build the Taj, says on his first glimpse of the city: "I will be lost here... I wish I had never come..." What an interesting coincidence that real-life archaeologists have now found names etched in stealth on the monument by those who worked on the Taj, perhaps with the faint hope of not remaining anonymous entities in the pages of history.

Ask the author of the exotic novel what his own experience of seeing the Taj for the first time was like, and he surprises you with a totally unemotional account. His father was in the army, posted in the North, and the family often went to the Taj for picnics on moonlit nights. Years later, he went there with his wife Maureen. "She asked me the story behind the monument, and I felt ashamed of not knowing enough," he says, on the sultry afternoon I met him. He then started researching in the New York Public Library and found enough material to write a novel that offers the most colourful concoction of love, lust (and how!), violence, treachery, corruption, opulence, dire poverty... A concoction that was eagerly lapped up when Taj... was first published in 1985, and has since been translated into nine languages. But Murari has revisited the Taj after writing the novel. Why, you wonder. "It's probably the been there, done that feeling," he says. "Taj wasn't an obsession or anything."

Murari wouldn't admit, though, that the novel fits the classical Orientalist fantasy of the West. "In fact, as I researched, I realised that not too much has changed in the last 400 years." The kings and queens have been replaced by politicians with similar ambition and greed," he argues. "We have a Lalu Prasad who behaves like a nawab!"

Murari takes pride in the fact that he has been complimented for his accuracy on factual details by historians themselves. Even the story of a fleeing Shah Jahan seeking help from the worshippers of Mother Mary (which we haven't heard before), he says, is recorded history. But for reasons of fleshing out the story and providing varied perspectives, he has introduced fictional characters. Murthy and Isa, for instance, provide a counterfoil for the stories of intrigues and degenerate lifestyles of the kings and queens. As Isa, the trusted eunuch who closely watches all the goings on in the palace and yet remains an eternal outsider, sits in stealth on the Peacock Throne for which wars have been fought and kith and kin murdered, the omniscient narrator says: "Isa sat down on it, attempting to feel the power of the Great Mughal, but only found it uncomfortable. As he sat, a strange emotion entered him, rising from the throne itself — a chill, terrible feeling of loneliness..."

But wouldn't a good number of historians pick a quarrel over this sweeping statement in the introduction: "This continuing conflict between Hindus and Muslims — and the creation of Pakistan — can be attributed to the actions of Aurangzeb, the son of Shah Jahan and Arjumand..." Murari does a bit of psychoanalysis of Aurangzeb, and attributes his later zealotry to the fact that he was not loved as a child — a man who took to religion as a "cold substitute for love". But historians have said that the construction of Aurangzeb as the epitome of intolerance is largely spin-doctoring done by the British to underplay their own contribution to the communal divide of India.

Murari admits that the British were masters at the divide-and-rule game and added their bit to the tensions. But he does believe that it was indeed Aurangzeb who sowed the first seeds of communal divide. People down south hardly ever understand what it is to be constantly invaded, he says. But how come Murari talks about Aurangzeb's temple destructions and not about his donations to temples and other non-Islamic religious institutions, also a fact of history? Murari has never come across accounts of these donations. At least not in the New York Public Library. That's a library which has the best documents on the Mughal empire, he insists. And there's a hint of irritation in his answer when I ask him why the Hindu characters in the novel are uniformly "good". He lists out Muslim character who are good too, and says: "I think I have balanced it out nicely..."

What was a hint begins to show more pronouncedly with my next question: would a modern-day reader be impressed with all the mushy romance in the novel? "Love doesn't go out of fashion, does it?" he snaps, and follows it up with another rhetorical question. "Why, haven't you seen enough Hindi and Tamil movies?"

The same evening at the formal book launch at the Taj West End, Murari comes across as an altogether different person. His attire has a touch of the Mughlai era, and he is laughing quite a bit. He is even cracking jokes about how the Taj is the story of a dysfunctional family that often opted for an out-of-court settlement guided by a simple rule: Takt ya Takhta (throne or coffin). I'm convinced that weather and time of the day greatly determine moods and perceptions.


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