"January 30, 1971: Saturday was THE DAY! We left [New Delhi] for Agra about 8:15, arriving there shortly after 12. Stopped first at the great Akbar's Tomb, then checked into the Clark's Shiraz and had lunch. Dev and our Agra guide picked us up at 2 and we headed for the Red Fort. Winding down the road, we saw the fort, then, to the right the TAJ MAHAL over a mile away. Even at that distance it was breathtakingly beautiful! Although we went into the Fort first I begrudged every moment I could not look at the Taj. The Fort was fascinating, but the Taj…. I could have been there an hour or hours.
"I was so spellbound by its charm. As you enter walking rapidly through the center of the gateway, the Taj seems to recede as if trying to draw you closer. As you walk rapidly out it grows larger and comes toward you as if enticing you to stay. It is too much for my feeble vocabulary. It touches all five senses for you can almost taste the tears of unhappiness which compelled the building of this marvelous mausoleum."
So I felt 34 years ago when we visited the Taj Mahal. It is still the one place I want to revisit on a night of the full moon to watch the play of light across its great dome of pure white marble, which dominates the sky.
John Shor's descriptions of the building of the Taj in Beneath a Marble Sky perfectly describe that sense of boundless wonder I felt all those years ago. He captures the difficulty of creating such a beautiful monument, including the physical effort required. The Taj Mahal is such a perfect piece of architecture, both as a building and a paean to love. He brings to life the Moghul court of the Emperor Shah Jehan in 17th Century Hindustan. The wealth of historical characters who populate this novel create a sense of reality and make the context of this beautifully written novel so compelling.
The overriding story of love is that of Jahanara's all-encompassing love for her father. It is her love and loyalty to him and his ideals which drive the plot of Beneath a Marble Sky. The secondary love story woven throughout the novel is that of Shah Jehan for his favorite wife Arjumand who came to be known as Mumtaz Mahal, Chosen of the Palace. By all accounts it was a deeply affectionate and loving relationship, unusual in that day. When she died bearing her 14th child, Shah Jehan went into deep mourning. He finally recovered to the point that he directed the building of the greatest monument to love the world has ever seen.
There is enough swashbuckling adventure in the manner of Wilbur Smith to keep the most unromantic soul engaged. Battles with soldiers and elephants figure prominently, for it was a time of almost constant warfare. It was this warfare which almost brought the Moghul Dynasty to its knees. Emperor Shah Jehan, a Muslim, shows love and respect for all his people, including the Hindu majority. Their daughter, Jahanara has been married to a pig of a man, but finds love with Isa, the architect of the Taj.
"In the early days, when I was still an innocent girl, my father still believed in perfection." This first sentence sets us on a journey of discovery and draws us into the story. Who was this girl? Why is she no longer innocent? Who was her father and why does he no longer believe in perfection? Shors gives us a story that compels the reader to keep moving to the next page, seeking the answers.
Jahanara travels back to Agra to tell her secret to her two granddaughters. The story she tells is one of love, fratricide, cruelty, and great beauty, a story of good versus evil. Jahanara is clearly good; her brother Aurengzeb personifies evil in its vilest form. He was a cruel bully as a child. He became vicious and murderous as an adult. This propels the conflict endured by Jahanara from the very first page. In reality, he was an ungrateful son who usurped his father's throne and imprisoned him in the red Fort for nearly a decade. History tells us that he made many bad decisions as a ruler, but he was not so irretrievably bad as the novel shows.
Within Beneath a Marble Sky
, Shors creates a fictional world and draws the reader into its framework of reality. We suffer with Jahanara and rejoice in her ability to overcome the longest of odds. She is a smart woman who uses her brain to gain a measure of triumph over her evil brother.
John Shor's first novel rises above the mundane genre of romance novel to achieve literary and artistic merit. And, it is a good story told well.
If you want more information about the Taj, visit www.taj-mahal.net
for a virtual tour of the site. It is astounding.