Some years ago, when the son was still young enough to condescend to travel with us, we visited the Taj Mahal en famille. I was enchanted with the notion of it. What could be more romantic than visiting the world’s best known memorial to love with the person I loved best in the world?
The person I loved best in the world seemed quite as excited about the monument. ‘It’s just two days away from full moon. We must go and see it tonight,’ he said as we skirted close to the dense growth of trees that now surrounds the Taj Mahal. I was touched and decided the hunger pangs that were becoming distinctly audible could wait. It was not often that the husband was so romantic – or cooperative.
But moonlight rhapsodies in the Taj were not for us that night. The Taj is closed down once dusk falls, and not even for the President do they make an exception. ‘$*@$(!,’ said the husband. ‘Now we’ll have to come here in the morning, through all the markets, when it is so crowded! Can’t we catch a glimpse of it from a rooftop or something and finish with it?’ This time, I decided to listen to my stomach. The heart could wait.
Next morning, we set off again, my parents also in tow. The romantic in me, well-fed on aloo parathas and masala chai, had revived once again. For once, the son too was curiously interested in all my stories about the Taj.
Impressed by his ardour, I blindfolded his eyes as we reached the Taj Mahal itself, lest occasional glimpses caught beforehand spoil the view in full. The husband snickered openly. But when I lifted my hands off the son’s face, I could swear his spectacles twitched. ‘It’s beautiful,’ he breathed. I felt tears pricking my eyes. He was my son after all. ‘Mum,’ he continued, ‘can I get one of those pictures of me holding that thingummy on top of the Taj?’
The husband rushed to the rescue, and we spent the next fifteen minutes waiting for our own special edition of the Indian peacock to strike the requisite poses before the Taj Mahal. Never mind, I consoled myself, he’s too young.
By now, we were taking off our shoes to climb into the interior chambers. Stepping in, I heard a snort of disgust behind me. ‘Look at this horrible grouting!’ This from the husband, proud house owner to be. ‘For god’s sake, Shah Jahan was supposed to have been the architect emperor, how could he have passed this?’
The son piped up from the other side, ‘Where are all those rooms the papers said were found under this? You know the ones where they found all those skeletons and all?’ The son’s ideas of ‘int’resting’ history are all uniformly gruesome.
‘That’s not open to the public,’ said Amma. The son was openly contemptuous. ‘Not open to the public, ha? Well, that’s what I came to see. I’m sure thousands of people come here to see all those dungeons and skeletons. I’m sure all these people have come to see them. And they cheat them like this. I’m sure I can find a way by myself.’
We entered the makbara. ‘This is nice,’ said the husband and the really exquisite inlay work made even the son pause for a closer look. I allowed myself to hope.
‘Hey! How come she gets central place?’ Well, dodos, obviously because the Taj was designed to be a mausoleum only for ‘her’. The emperor had planned a Taj all for himself, but in black, on the other side of the Yamuna. But history in the form of Aurangzeb overtook him, and he ended up with second best place in the white Taj,
The two looked at me disbelievingly. ‘Oh well,’ said the son, ever the chauvinist, ‘he got the bigger personal dome. Can we go down and see the actual tombs? Then maybe I can look for those rooms?’
But no, the way to the tombs was also cordoned off, maybe because of curious investigators just like the son, who was spitting fire at the discovery. ‘I call this a waste of ten bucks,’ he sputtered. ‘All that money and you get to see only two crummy tombs!’ Amma gently reminded him he’d got in for free anyway. There are times when I love my mother very much.
We came out and I suggested we sit near the railing for some time. The Yamuna flowed on just beneath, and I found myself wondering what all the waters had seen in the years gone by. It was a wonderful moment. ‘Now this is what I call grouting,’ exclaimed the husband suddenly, from where he’d been examining the base of one of the Taj’s four pillars. ‘Come, take a look at this. Maybe we could try black grouting too.’ The son burped loudly in the background. The aloo parathas were working.
I decided to come back to earth and the family. After all, what was the Taj Mahal but a mausoleum? And to a woman who’d spent nineteen of her thirty-eight years bearing fourteen children, even dying in childbirth. Surely, if Shah Jahan had loved Mumtaz Mahal so much, he would have decided that seven or eight was enough, and let her live longer.
There are times when I think practicality is a family weakness.
First published in The Financial Express.