India as seen by Mumtaz, the queen who inspired the Taj Mahal

Victorian poet Rudyard Kipling called the Taj Mahal “the embodiment of all things pure, all things holy, and all things unhappy”. For the millions who visit India’s famed monument at Agra, the first sight of it is almost always one of pure theatre. It stays as a residual part of your heart, emblematic of the love that built it, the culture that nourished it and the geography it finds itself in — a Persian charbagh desiccated with water that mirrors its many moods.

Chennai-based Timeri N Murari has been a prolific writer — of novels, young adult books, non-fiction, plays, films and television scripts — especially of things past. In Empress of the Taj (published by Speaking Tiger), Murari once again looks through the prism of love, the life of Mumtaz Mahal whose death inspired the building of the mausoleum. Constructed from research notes jotted down while writing Taj, A Novel on Mughal India in the 1980s, the recent book, a blend of travel and history waited 30 years to be published. It sketches Mumtaz as she followed the drum, moving across the expanse of central and western India accompanying her husband Shah Jahan on his conquests.

When we meet at Murari’s 1910-built ancestral bungalow, its cool halls lined with curios and books, it is easy to see why the writer is always in hot pursuit of history. “When you research something you look in the present and try to imagine the past,” says Murari, whose childhood was spent on the move thanks to his Army officer-father. An old boy of Bishop Cotton’s, Bangalore, Murari’s academic and career arc took him to Canada, the UK (where he was among the first Indian journalists on Fleet Street) and the US (the New York Public Library is where he discovered a treasure trove of information on the Mughals).

When he stumbled upon the notes, Murari decided to publish them, keeping the tenor of the time. “When Maureen and I visited the Taj after our wedding, I was keen to explain the nuances of Mughal culture but found I knew little. For my book Field of Honor, the publisher used an image of the Taj on the jacket although it had no connection with the story. His stand was that the Taj best represented India. It spurred me to write a book following the trail of the Mughals.”

Murari boarded trains, buses, autos, the odd taxi and boat in the company of Maureen and, sometimes, his sisters to reconstruct the story of Mumtaz, the woman who captured an emperor’s heart. From their first meeting at Meena Bazaar when Shah Jahan was still a prince to Mumtaz’s tragic death at Burhanpur in the badlands of Central India, Murari brushes aside the mothballs of legend to construct the story of a “brave woman who could’ve lived a comfortable life at Agra but journeyed everywhere leaving touches of her influence.”

Extraordinary journey

Murari says you need to travel, spend time in a place, to get the landscape. Some of the experiences are now the stuff of lore — filling out forms in multiplicate to buy train tickets, drinking smoky tea on small-town platforms, taking the two-lane highway to Agra and walking through the labyrinthine library of Aligarh Muslim University. Murari meets a cross-section of people — young-old, rich-poor, royal-commoner as he traverses through Delhi, Ajmer, Jaipur, Udaipur and Ratlam. In between, he researches at the British Library and New York where he fills in the gaps by reading the Akbarnama, Shahjahanama and the accounts of Mughal India by European travellers like Manucci.

A changed world

“You are not thinking of the fiction you are about to write — you need to get the history and locations right. It took me over a year to figure out how to tell the story. I wanted to tell it in her voice and it came to me one early morning when I was home, listening to the sweep of the broom in my courtyard,” says Murari. “I finished the book in four months, writing on a typewriter. The manuscript was forgotten till I found it and Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger decided to publish it as a record of ‘an India of the past’.”

Murari vividly describes Mughal India in beautiful prose without reducing the novel to mere hagiography at a time when the dynasty has been getting bad press. “It depends on who is giving them the bad press,” he laughs. “It is not an attempt to defend the Mughals, it is about how I saw them. You cannot deny history. It’s a record of a disappearing India, a book for people who want to understand who we were even a short while ago.”

The book is also an example of how to research a historical novel. “I’m not a very good tourist. I go to a place for a reason, looking for someone. London is a favourite place,” says Murari, some of whose books are now being turned into web/television series and films.

“There are more Britons writing on India than Indians themselves. It helps to have the voice of an insider tell the story. Journeys come to you; for this book, I didn’t mean to take one at all.”

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