So far all the monuments we have seen have been Muslim. The impact of Islam on India has been huge to a degree I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand even that the Taj Mahal was Muslim. In the mental image I had of the Taj it was simply a metonym for India. It is, of course, much more specifically located in history than that. Islam often seems austere, but in India it feels looser, softened, extremists would say compromised. Which is how life actually is. A lot of trouble starts with people who want to make the crooked path of life straight. At most all they can create is the illusion of straightness, an illusion that pleases the eye of people who like straight things, and who benefit from it, but is in reality concealing only unhappiness. The only way to make a linear world, after all, is through fear.
Something happens to me more and more when I see the old palaces and tombs. I see the oppression as well as the grandeur. I see a metaphor for our modern life in the West. In the West we see the Taj Mahal; we buy a ticket and walk through the grounds with our camera and admire the shadows at dusk on the curve of the minarets. We forget the 22 years of labour by hand. The thousands of workers. The inevitable deaths and accidents. The pittance paid and haggled over. I think you must hold both things in your head. The beauty of the stone at dusk and the oppression. When you buy your organic filter coffee think of the coffee bean farmer.
Red Fort. The guide pointed across the arcade to a beautiful pavilion of marble, rows of columns supporting scalloped archways that mirrored each other, falling away like colonnades of lace.
“This is where Jahangir met Sir Thomas Roe, the British ambassador, and granted the British protection of their first base here at Surat in 1614.”
We study that very meeting at school. Extraordinary to be there. 400 years later. To see the space, the arcade where that moment in time occurred; a small exchange that presaged momentous shifts in the history of the world.
The men who sit alone. Dark, dark skin. Wild hair and beards all thick and matted. Clothes that have never been changed, that are close with dirt and sweat and hang off them: gaping. They sit or lie wherever they like. They walk like ghosts, they do not exist, they exist: on the barriers between lanes, on the boundaries of things.
A family group. Multiple generations of women in saris: green, yellow, blue, red, blocks of bright colours fringed with gold. They are chattering to each other like birds, ruffling, pecking, grooming each other.
A young married couple. She bosses him about. He holds his point. She asserts hers. He gives an exasperated tut which means “you’re right” and “pah!”.
The guides are plumper than the driver and his helper. They wear nicer clothes, stay in the bus with us, stay in the hotel. I don’t know where the driver and his helper go at night, what they eat or where they stay. Everyone understands the importance of a job when everyone can see everyday what happens to those without one.
I downplayed the Taj Mahal to myself, and told myself that it wouldn’t probably be that good. It was stunning.
What does it tell you, the Taj Mahal?
Death is the hardest thing. “Just Want U Back”. Written in marble not in spray paint but the same thing: an articulation of love and pain. A cry against the finality of death for the living.
The beauty of labour. We went to a marble factory tour before we went to the Taj Mahal. Usually these are tedious, but this one wasn’t. It was about the process of marble inlay. We watched a group of men spinning their grinding stones with one hand, and holding a fragment of rock or shell against the other end to shape each fragment of rock into a tiny piece that would be inlaid in marble later. Extraordinary. It was a moment of seeing. I’m not taken with marble inlay, but I see it now for what it is: a sort of mandala in pieces of stone instead of grains of sand. They took us into the display room to see their most priceless pieces: large slabs of marble, coffee table size, covered in patterns of flowers, foliage and birds, each leaf, petal and feather one of those hand ground stones set in place. And then you see it on the Taj Mahal. The flowers and stems, the Arabic script around the great door into the tomb. It made me see the Taj Mahal more clearly; not just the men who cut, hauled and placed the stones, but the men who put all that inlay into it so that it was as beautiful up close as it was from a distance.
Man’s vanity. It may be that on either side of the Taj Mahal there is a mosque and a madrasa, but the tomb is what it’s all about. What are the messages in that? That this one person was important to one man, and that one man being important wanted everyone to know. I also believe in the importance of people to each other. About the pain of death I have some understanding. But to put so much resource, so many other lives into the memory of just one person. Aren’t we all important? Whether we have lived good lives is about our character, our choices, our circumstances and opportunities, what is and isn’t done to us by life. None of us deserve a Taj Mahal. We deserve only to be remembered by the ones we loved and who loved us. Isn’t that enough?
Just Want U Back.