By Shaun Nanavati
For my grandmother, who asks that the story of the worker be told.
She drinks her chai like a meditation. She takes the clay cup to her thin lips with both hands, surveys the landscape, and tilts the cup to her mouth. She breathes in deeply, closes her eyes, and sips slowly.
She takes the cup away, still holding it with two hands, and breathes out. She is lost in thought.
It is the last Friday of the month. Every month, on the last Friday, her husband brings home flowers: fresh jasmine she puts in her hair and a single rose she puts in water. Always, the gentle fragrance of jasmine reminds her of him. They never talk about it. Their relationship is nonchalant yet hides a deep passion.
Every month, for twenty-one years. Had it been twenty-one years? She cannot believe it. She sits outside her calm, clean home, looking over the wide river plain along the Jamuna River. They live outside Agra, in a simple, rural community. The oxen, with their yolk and plow, seed the fields and the bells around their neck make a familiar local sound. The women carry water in cisterns placed on rings on their heads. The Taj Mahal rests in the near distance.
She is waiting for him to come home. He sometimes tells her little stories about the day’s work. He always tells her that he is building it for her. Of course he is; after all, his hands lay the emeralds into the cleanly-cut slabs of marble.
Today is a special day. The dedication of the Taj Mahal. She remembers the day her husband decided to come to Agra. Shah Jahan, the king, was heartbroken and affection-drunk. The queen had died in childbirth. The king was known in the countryside as a strong leader, acting quickly, justifying the means by the ends.
Her husband had approached her quietly and asked her to join him. She recalls how his face shone as he told her the story of Akbar, who in his devotion to his guru, had inspired an architectural movement. And how, when she maintained her resistance to the move, he waxed poetically as he tried to explain the gentle interplay of the jali latticework and shadow of Sheik Salim’s tomb, giving the sensation of rhythm against the clean, white marble halls. She could not resist, though it was not for these reasons. She simply adored the great romance of the king and his wife.
She snaps out of her reverie and looks directly ahead. Look at this structure. It defies her sense of the real. The austere, solid marble. The perfect symmetry. The walls, inlaid with emeralds from the sack of Vijaynagar and rubies imported from Persia. The detail of the interior and intricacy of the inlay are stunning. And the dome! Is there a comparison in the whole world? Her heart leaps. All for love. All his sins are absolved. Shah Jahan offers his empire’s wealth like an obeisance to the memory of his lover, the charming Mumtaz. The walls of the tomb are so smooth you cannot help but run your hand across the surface every chance you have. Inlaid rubies the size of four mangoes.
The Taj Mahal had finally been completed. Shah Jahan had called upon one of his most loyal and hard-working foremen. Today the king had called for her husband. The king had only stated that he wanted to ensure that there would never exist a comparable structure. He had summoned all the major participants.
She wonders what the king will provide.
Her mind wanders for a moment to Iskander, the handsome and charismatic architect. She remembers meeting him for the first time twenty years ago. His eyes glowed, then, with a sort of holy vision that was matched only by his fine perception of space. Her husband would often tell her that Iskander would oversee the placement of each block of stone. During these rants, he would often complain that the architect’s attention to detail was overly obsessive.
She feels blessed to be a character in the sacred story of the magical landscapes of the Mughals. It is a history more impressive than their meager military conquests. The Taj Mahal’s grounds are broken into the four squares of earth, the char bagh, favored by the dynasty’s patriarch, Babur. The dome is an extension of the principles first articulated in the dome of the tomb of Humayan. She had once encircled that tomb as a remembrance of her friend, just as she had encircled the tombs of Sufi saints as a child. What she loved the most was what could not be totally seen. How the fountains stream along the length of the land, recede under the central structure and re-appear on the other side as the Gardens of Paradise described in the Holy Qu’ran. The thin panels inlaid with the design of wispy roses curling around perfectly clear green emeralds is a nod to the tender details which so pleased the anguished Jahangir. Shah Jahan would now take his place amongst his kin who have given stone form to these processes of earth.
All the elements of this tradition are now united. The play of light with the building changes subtly throughout the day. The marble screen surrounding the tomb is a respectful invocation of Sheik Salim’s tomb. The lattice is a unique invention of the Mughal artists. It is a religious teaching handed down the chosen lineage of Stone Masons, the lessons and methods of Fathepuhr Sikri refined to allow the soul of the deceased and the sun of the universe to mingle in this liminal ground.
Her mind races. Surely, the king’s blessing would be enough. Will he provide them with a bar of gold? Maybe a single ruby that had been chipped, to sustain them for the next few years? Emeralds, land, a princely title? She can hardly hold her excitement. She feels warm inside.
She doesn’t care though. Because it is Friday and he will bring her white jasmine and she will put it her hair and they won’t mention it.
They had come, like the white marble, from Rajasthan twenty-one years ago. She remembers when they left the northern province in which they had grown-up. It was hard for her to leave her mother but this is a familiar tale, she had told herself. She was apprehensive at first. The trip to a new land was bewildering. But he was supportive. Never a complaint. Always tending to her most minute whim with the greatest care and tenderness. He loves her. She thanks Allah daily for the blessing of this husband. Their life is simple but content. She is grateful.
She hears her husband’s cart approaching their home. She scurries inside, sits down, picks up her Qu’ran and opens carelessly to surah 101. She acts as if her husband’s arrival is an ordinary event and that she has been reading for hours. She carries the poise of a young woman who is coy and nonchalant.
Today is Friday and he will bring white jasmine.
The door creaks open. He walks in and she cannot speak. She shakes. Her mind cannot sustain what it sees.
His hands are gone.
Shaun Nanavati has been telling stories all his life. He was formerly editor of The Catalyst while an undergraduate at Bucknell, where he was influenced profoundly by the beats Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Paul Bowles. Chasing the ghost of Jack Kerouac, he spent five psychonautically-inspired years in Boulder where he was a journalist for The Boulder Weekly. He is now a graduate student in Psychology at the New School and can be occasionally found sharing adventures from his youth at coffee shops and pubs throughout the West Village.