It is stupid to think that Handi Sahab would not have anticipated this cruel fate. The fate decided by the King’s will. Had it not been Puru’s persuasion for days on end, I would not have ventured into this. Maybe a heap of curses aimed at everyone would be an outlet for the scream in my head and heart.  But I chose to be quiet.

The King’s words still echo in my ears - “Your family will be taken care of, for three generations. You can choose between prison and the gallows”. What an abundance of choices!

Yesterday was the one of the happiest days of my life – the Taj Mahal, hear they will call it by that name, the most exquisite and expensive construction ever, was officially declared completed; reminded me of the day when Khurram was born.  Incidentally, he is named after the King.   He will be 17 years old, this spring. It has been 16 years since I left home. All for the most beautiful tomb ever built - the immortal symbol of the King’s love!  I cannot clearly remember the words on the scroll which Puru presented to the King, his praise for the King’s love and adoration for Mumtaz. Where is Puru?

I woke up from my thoughts by the loud cry from Puru, himself. He had expected a valuable gift from the King when all the architects and supervisors were ordered to be at the Durbar.  Now, I understand the solemn silence of Chiranjilal and Handi Sahab; like every other time, they seemed to know a bit more than all of us. Chiranjial had even warned Puru “Happiness is like a rising tide, the higher the tide, the impending low is more destructive”. Puru came running to me and tried to drag me out of the court house. When I refused and freed myself from him, he ran like a madman to the door, only to be overpowered by the guards before fainting.


The unseen beauty of Mumtaz had always enchanted me. I had written a poem for her in my heart. I tore it apart. The eroticism in the poem had prevented me from writing it down. The King was known to slay anyone who hinted at the slightest desire for the queen. It does not make a difference anymore.

Why did I choose to come to Agra? It was not just Puru’s insistence. Not the 5000 gold coins – though I had not seen 50 of them together. It was not greed or need, but the charm of working for the King, to be build the most stunning piece of architecture man has ever produced. Puru could not conceal his excitement when he said “The King himself selects the main architects”. I remembered Baba saying “One day you will work for the King, if you apply yourself”. Baba was instrumental in helping me to understand what I wanted to do in life – build. It was when I visited Darga Shariff with Baba that I saw Shahjahangate, I mumbled to myself “Who would have constructed it?”   Baba had said “No one would know them. People will only talk about Shahjahan.” I did not understand it then, now I do.

His Excellency (he is addressed so, more out of habit than respect) had a team of courtiers who would present him as the most kind King, the greatest admirer of art and artists and the supreme connoisseur of beauty. In the beginning when I came to Agra, my thoughts were no different. But later I realised, all he is after is his name as the greatest King of the Mughal Empire - a grand position in history.  Whoever evoked his displeasure was probably not killed, but they somehow vanished forever.

I needed just one glance of Aurangazeb’s eyes to realise the true nature of his father. He was 14 years old then, and did not know to hide himself behind his handsome face, like his father did. Those eyes reminded me of the wolf which attacked me during one of my journeys to the forests with Baba. We were having our lunch when the beast jumped on me; it was Baba’s deft movements with his knife which saved me (I used to marvel at his agility even at his old age; I am sure if he were not a painter he would have been a warrior or a fantastic thief).  The wolf lay bleeding; I recovered my breath and looked at its terrifying eyes. They don’t lose the look in their eyes even while they lie awaiting their end. Aurangazeb had the same eyes even when he smiled. I had the first feeling of uneasiness after coming to Agra, when I met his eyes while entering the Durbar before the plans were finalized for the Mahal.


Once again, I was awakened from my thoughts by the continuous drumming, bringing to our notice that the choice needs to be made now. Imprisonment would not just mean confinement; it is very likely that you will be blinded before being sent to a dirty, dark room. Gallows would be easy, easier especially for those who believe in an afterlife, they are being killed for no fault of theirs, they have spent the most productive years of their life working, not indulging in adultery or intoxication, dutifully submitting themselves to God.

Not me. I had never given enough thought to the question of God, not because of fear of being accused of blasphemy, but I could find joy, the kind of spiritual transcendence that devotees talk about, in a lot of tiny things; tiny for others, significant for me - the shape of stones, the texture and colour of soil in different parts of the empire, the morning dew, the sharp end of a needle…

I could hear Handi Sahab nonchalantly saying that he chose the gallows over the perennial misery of blindness and prison. It appeared as if he knew it all before, much before anybody else, even before he started working on the Mahal. He might have been coerced into it, or probably needed the money. It is a mystery why he was not well known before; someone with his skills and character would be known only as one of the many architects of a single building, however magnificent it maybe!One-by-one everyone announced their decisions; I stopped caring to listen to them, not even Puru’s. My mind was growing numb; I looked at the sun through the carved window, while the wind carried the fragrance of the garden to the hall, drew a fresh breath of air and said “prison”. Chained, watched by the sentry, I took the long dreary walk to the jail. The vague image of the Mahal could be seen at a distance. The poem was lingering in the air:


When the stars sleep, in the night’s calmness

Mumtaz walks like a deer in wilderness

Walks very slowly in her veil

One can hear the King’s horses approaching with the day’s kill

For a thousand years, your sadness will fill

These marbles which adorn the sill

Mumtaz! Pale, beautiful like snow

When you bled to death, I cannot forget the glow

On your face, the sufferings of a thousand women

How could you endure, is beyond my ken

How could anyone make you bear fourteen1?

Your dreaming mind and body still verily pristine

How could he forgive himself

The one who never let you be yourself

Is twenty times thousand2 a number, or a sacrifice

Or the value of this magnificent edifice?


1.       Mumtaz died giving birth to her fourteenth child.

2.       20000 workers are rumoured to have been killed or mutilated by the orders of Shahjahan.