The Taj houses a big secret

The silent monument
Shobha Nihalani
Tara Press
2011, pp 303
Rs. 250

Shah Jahan was believed to have interred his lady love Mumtaz along with a lot of precious stuff. Historians and treasure hunters have speculated on that.

But, Shobha goes beyond. It is something that “is going to rock the very foundation of our heritage”.

One of the characters speaks of the Hindu influence on ancient architecture. The love angle to the Taj which carried a lot of emotional baggage, in his view, was part of a fairytale.

An intrepid reporter, Parag Saxena, is killed after he finds a scroll inside one of the 22 chambers in the Taj.

The scroll is attributed to a letter written from the Sawai of Jaipur, Jai Singh, to Shah Jahan.

This sparks off a chain of bloody roller-coaster incidents in which the journo’s wife Manzil is in the thick of things.

The deep throat is an archaeologist who wants to avenge the killing of his parents in Mumbai in a communal flare up.

After the death of the reporter, the guy sees a classical dancer as the vehicle to let out the deadly secret which he says has been suppressed by the government, as it feared large scale violence and also shatter a 400-year-old belief about the monument of love. “Shah Jahan may not have built it from ground up”.

The archaeologist goes to the extent of saying that the Taj may not be an ode to love at all. “Does it make sense that an emperor who had so many wives and many consorts and dancing girls would waste 22 years of his life building a monument for one of his women...the mother of 14 of his 16 children?” he asks.

According to him, what is known about the Taj is from what was written by Shah Jahan’s court historians.

Thrown into this boiling cauldron are also rightwing elements and a shadowy organisation called the Onyx which is out to preserve the country’s secular fabric and integrity at any cost: desi free masons?

Parag himself was a member of this outfit, as he wanted a united India not riven by religious bigotry. Financed by tycoons, it even has its own private army.

But there are elements that want the lid blown off the contents of the scroll. One character calls it a “time bomb”.

Shobha, who was once a journalist and a Bangalorean (there’s even a Cox Town angle to the story), does conjure up a compelling tale. The only rub is the execution. It reads more like a cub reporter’s crime copy and a sloppily edited piece. You have “pedalled” for “peddled” washing one’s hands “off” instead of “of”; “he noticed one car”; “leather sofas and velvet seats was located”; “not used to see anyone”, instead of “seeing”.

Far too many monumental bloomers like these. Besides, the characters and episodes are not fleshed out.

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