I adore the pair of swans, dwelling in the mind of the Great, subsisting entirely on the nectar of the blooming lotus of knowledge — Saundarya Lahari, Verse 38

 

 

The physicians had confirmed that his wife was dying. The tumor was swelling, and her life was burning out like a cube of camphor offered in an aarti, leaving no trace of earthly residue. He sat beside her bamboo cot, looking down at her face bleached of color in the soft, subdued glow of a kerosene lamp; he removed the delicate strands of her hair that were matted against her forehead with his hardened fingers, twirling and tucking them behind her ear. He had consulted with surgeons and specialists and when that had failed, had prostrated himself at every sacred shrine and hallowed masjid, hoping against hope that his fervent orisons would resonate with some prophet or priest, a demigod or deity in this realm or another.

Her face was pallid like the potatoes he’d blanched for supper, and yet her kohl-lined ​eyes were dark and alive, as he always remembered them, as he’d always remember them. Maybe this was the lot of men like him—who’d spend their afternoons toiling in the blistering heat in fields below burnished skies, returning home hoping to savor a sliver of joy but finding, in its place, greater suffering to swallow like a bitter gourd. He had spent every rupee on her care, and all he had to offer her now were his words, gestures, and tears that soaked her saree as he slept sobbing silently beside her every night, hoping she wouldn’t notice how helpless he felt, how resigned he was to fate’s whorish whims.

The bland light from the kerosene lamp played daintily on her face, illuminating the contours of her hollow cheeks. Her nose stud glinted like the polestar that guides the weary wanderer to the shore. Oh, how beautiful she was, he thought to himself. How beautiful, and how fragile. Wasn’t that the way of the world? “Amish,” she whispered to him as he folded his threadbare loincloth and, knees popping, went to stoke the fire that crackled in the corner; “I don’t know how much longer I have, but I don’t feel cheated . . . of years, of minutes, of moments . . . For I have lived them, experienced them with you, and that is enough.” Her voice seemed as though it wafted to him from a faraway place, echoing from some crevice of a far-off cave. He returned with a rough-hewn stone mortar and sat cross-legged beside her, grinding a moss-green poultice with a blunt pestle. A despondent stillness weighed heavy over them both, a stillness that seemed to seep in from the mud walls, from the thatched roof overhead, interspersed only occasionally by the shrill and intermittent prattle of a cricket and the plaintive ​cries of a forest owlet. ​He wanted to tell her that she would get better, but how could he lie? He, a man who had tried his utmost best never to utter a falsity in his entire life, a man whose very name—Amish—stood for honesty.

“Did you know that the swan, Ma Saraswati’s vahana, swallows pearls, Amish? It will swallow only real pearls, but never one that is fake.” These were the words that she had said to him after they had lost their second child to a miscarriage eleven years ago, after she had asked him whether the loss of his daughter had caused him to love her less. And he had said no, despite the grief that seemed to be clawing at his insides; he had said no, without faltering, without having to linger on the thought, not as mere consolation, but because that was the truth. “You’re like the swan, Amish,” she had said to him then. “You would much rather die, than utter anything but the truth.”

Outside, the sparse huddle of hutments was cloaked by a chador of darkness. The night was melancholy, and the crescent moon was clothed in misty vapors sent up from the Godavari river. Just as Amish put out the kitchen fire and lowered the flame of the cot-side lamp, believing his wife to have fallen into slumber, she stirred and reached out her feeble, shaking hand to remove a piece of cloth from under the frayed mattress. “I stitched this for you,” she said, holding it out to him, gingerly, almost reverentially, like a devotional offering of ambrosia made to the gods. It was a handkerchief patterned with lotus flowers and a pair of swans, their necks laced in a delicate embrace. “It’s all I could leave you, to remember me.” He unfolded the crumpled cloth and traced his calloused fingers over the fabric, over the necks of the swans, arching and graceful as they were. Memories with his wife glided gracefully on the lake of his mind, thoughts pure and unsullied, leaving ripples along his mind’s eye like a skipping stone. “We are all born with wings,” she had said to him at the village hospital, the day they had told him of her cancer, “but they are too large for this cage that holds us.”

“This is precious, Mahi,” he whispered to her now, caressing the flowers on the fabric, fiery red like the color of kumkum. “I wish I had something to give to you as well, as a symbol of my love. Is there anything your heart yearns for?” he asked, knowing fully well what it was that his wife had always wanted to experience—the place that had, for years, conjured itself up in all her waking dreams, that mausoleum rising over the river of remembrance, that memorial built to sublime love. His question made her lotus eyes twinkle like a festive, auspicious morning; she didn’t need to dwell on it before answering: “I want to see the Taj Mahal.”

 

***

 

Agra was a long way off, a distance of almost a thousand miles from the closest town of Paithan. Amish could have afforded to take a train, had he saved up for it in advance, but every last paisa had been spent on Mahi’s needs; he was, after all, only a poor farmer trying to eke out his living from the sweeping plains of black basaltic Deccan soil. He spent the morning immersed in thought by the banks of the Godavari, lulled by the river’s languorous, persistent lapping. Beside him, under the leathery leaves of a sal tree, his oxen, tethered and restless, tail-swished flies off their hides. He considered, for a while, riding his cart to northern Uttar Pradesh, but that would take him two weeks, and Mahi was too weak to make the arduous journey.

Above, wisps of curlicued clouds wafted low on the horizon. A myna hopped along a mud wall, its plume frowzled, its calls irate and staccato. The dilemma now pressed itself heavy on Amish—he could tell Mahi the truth, that it was impossible to make this journey and the Taj Mahal would only occupy the land of legends and fables, a realm that she had no means to enter; or, there was, of course, the other route… but was he willing to take it? Was he willing to lie, for what he believed to be the very first time in his life, for the sake of a larger good? For his wife’s happiness—and he grappled with that word in his head, with everything that it stood for. Was it contentment, the kind we try and foster in souls departing, to help them in their quest for salvation? No, it was more than mere contentment, of course; happiness meant, to him, an effervescent, an exuberant joy that, over time, stills into a pooling pond of bliss. And that was what he hoped to provide Mahi in her last days, so she could carry it over with her on her journey onward.

Back in the hut, Amish squatted beside her on a coir mat, pouring sherbet flavored with ginger and crushed vetiver roots from an earthen pot, watching the color return to her sallow face as she drank. Her sleek, oiled hair was braided and adorned with sweet-smelling jasmines, their pristine petals unfurling delicately. Wouldn’t death stumble, hesitate at least once, before approaching a woman who appeared so graceful, so placid, even in her last moments, despite a sickness that was eating away inside of her like a colony of white ants? Once outside, he yoked the oxen to the two-wheeled cart, piled a hemp bag full of food, and helped his wife lay her gaunt, limp body on the hay spread over the back of the cart, where she drew in deep breaths, taking in the fragrance of the morning. As he steered the oxen down the rutted track that meandered its way out of the village, Amish tried to summon the image of the Taj Mahal, an impression of the mausoleum of the Mughal empress rising before his inner eye. His wife had never seen the palatial tomb, but he had visited the grounds as a young boy, with his brother and his mother, just a year before his mother passed away. His mind now lingered on its marble walls, its stone plinth, its cusped arched balconies and towering spires. He recalled gazing in boyish wonder upon the spandrels decorated by floral parchinkari arabesques, the interlacing stems and curling tendrils and sunburst rosettes of jasper and cornelian mirroring the fecund gardens of jannat reflected here, in this world.

The road ahead was checkered by honey sunrays filtering in through the latticed boughs of drooping trees. Motes of dust hung suspended in shafts of light, floating free. Out in the fields, white oxen with backward-sweeping horns trudged along in resignation, dragging rude wooden ploughs through neatly-lined furrows. The gently-rolling plateau that sprawled on either side was strewn with boulders. Soon, the undulating Sahyadri hills came into view, lined with the crenellations of austere Hindu fortresses. As Amish prodded his dilatory oxen on, his eyes travelled across a yawning ravine and came to rest on a rock-cut shrine in the distance, its façade carved into a formidable basalt escarpment. He remembered how, when Mahi was younger, she would visit this monolith tucked away in the cavernous columned inner sanctum—the deep belly—of the windswept cliff, how she would circumambulate the base of the relic stupa with its lotus carvings and its depictions of scenes from the jatakas.

“Who built the Taj Mahal? Was it Akbar” Mahi asked, her voice barely over a hushed whisper.

“It was his grandson, Shah Jahan,” Amish replied, tugging at the oxens’ nose-ropes.

“For his beloved, they say?”

“Yes. When Mumtaz Mahal was on her deathbed, he promised her that he would never remarry, and would erect the richest maqbara over her grave to honor her memory.” In this way, the prince had trapped and held onto Mumtaz’s memory in the amber of his mind; it is as if she lived on, in him. ​And yet this great edifice, like everything that must, inevitably, be swept to rubble by the winds of time, was sinking, sinking at this very moment, as they rode on; the river that the mahal’s foundation drew its life-force from, was drying out. Just as all life eventually does…

 

***

 

They had been riding in silence for hours. Now, they came upon the ruins of a Mughal barbican, and made their way through a fortified west-facing gateway flanked by towers. Amish imagined how, back in the day, elephants and battering rams might have shattered their collective strength against its spike-laced doors. Every city, just like this one, had witnessed bloodshed and betrayal, feuds and rebellions; sacked and ravaged, each had risen from its charred ruins like a phoenix, walls of rubble surviving to tell the tales, their battle scars proof of the power of endurance. They say time heals all wounds, but does it, really, Amish wondered to himself. The wounds remain, like the cracks in these stone walls, but over time, the mind applies a coating of lime and clay, and the pain dulls.

“Can we stop for some water, please?” Mahi asked, and so Amish brought their bullock cart to rest beside a baradari with colonnaded cloisters of red sandstone. Beyond was an edenic charbagh reminiscent of the lush pairidaezas of Fars. A marble fountain at the center of this pavilion bore a raised calligraphic Qur’anic inscription in Nasta’liq—by water, everything lives. He watched Mahi lowered herself by a gilded lotus-shaped basin fed by a cascade of rose-scented water, as she cupped her hands and savored the nectar. The garden was intersected into a series of parterres by shallow, rippling rills that met at a pond. In the pellucid waters of one of the canals were two snowy swans, their silver necks straining to touch the heavens, their sweet and mirthful warbles rising above the water’s languishing murmur.

Amish took Mahi’s arms, her fingers entwined in his, and they walked along a wall with arched recesses and bastions. In the distance, the sun dipped lower, suffusing the crepuscular sky with a vermilion flush. These pastel hues, reflected, danced across the water’s surface. And it was then they saw it rise up before them like a mirage hovering over clouds—the pristine marble gumbad shaped like a colossal onion, the four tapering minarets standing tall like solemn sentries wearing chhatris for helmets, their brass lotus finials piercing the mist-veiled skies.

“Oh Amish, do you see?” Mahi gasped with rapture, amazed by the symmetry, by the chaste grandeur of this imposing monument silhouetted against the sanguine skies. “It is no wonder that men and women come from far-flung corners of the world, just to witness this poetry in stone!” She shuffled up the walkway, toward the stucco mihrabs awash in evening light, her feet bare against the cool, sacred stone. Mosambis hung lazily like harvest moons from fruit-laden trees. The scent of jasmines lingered behind her like the loose, trailing anchal of her saree.

Amish stood in the shade of a cypress, his mind tranquil like the river that had, in the past, run its course beside this mausoleum before changing course. There was something about the crown of ethereal minarets—from which resounded the muezzin’s azan, calling the faithful to prayer—that led him to believe they were constructed not in marble, but in spirit. One of the swans from the pond spread its glorious wings and soared over the earth. First, it blotted out the sun, and then emerged in a proud sweep, dazzling like white alabaster. Amish watched it glide with the elegance of a stringed paper kite, watched the divine play of feathers against silver-lined clouds.

In the voluptuousness of the silence, a thought seemed to be pressing and chafing against his conscience—was this what he wanted to leave his wife with? A lie? An illusion, flimsy and gossamer? This wasn’t the Taj Mahal. This was the Bibi ka Maqbara, built by Shah Jahan’s son for his dead wife. In this sepulcher lay interred the mortal remains of not Mumtaz, but Dilras Banu Begum, her sleeping face presumably turned westward, her unseeing eyes looking out toward the qiblah. The clear waters of his conscience now turned turbid, the guilt churning inside him like sediment. He watched his wife sitting by the ablution pool, her reflection trembling in its liquid emerald depths. She looked happy, halo-limned by the subdued golden glow of the sun’s waning light. Oh, how her frail, drooping shoulders draped the mist about her like the robe of a saint, a mystic, a paramhansa—the supreme swan floating in the cosmic ocean!

Here was this woman, with only a handful of days left to live, days slipping through her fingers like ashes, and her husband was building palaces for her in the sky. He tried calling out to her, but his voice caught in his throat; “Mahi,” he finally managed to say. “Mahi, I need to confess something…”

She turned toward him, her expression serene.

He approached her and continued: “Mahi, this is not the memorial that you believe it is.”

He cringed inwardly as he said this, expecting, tremulously, to be met with anger, with disappointment, at this betrayal. But she remained unfazed, the wind stirring her dark-brown hair.

There was a long silence, after which she replied: “Yes, I know that it is not,”

“You what?” Amish stuttered, unsure whether he’d heard her correctly.

“Yes. There is a photograph of this maqbara in a calendar at the village STD booth, and one day, when I confused it with the Taj Mahal, Sharma ji pointed out, scolding—no Mahi, don’t speak like an illiterate who has never seen the world, can’t you tell the difference in scale and precision, did no one ever . . .?” she trailed off as she looked at her husband’s face turned groundward, his eyes unable to meet hers. Had he failed his wife, for having been unable to lift her from this grueling life, unable to open the doors to the wider world that lay outside their humble doorstep? He unfolded the handkerchief that she had stitched for him and held it to his eyes. The pine trees in the distance swayed and swooned, flirting with death.

“But what does it matter?” she continued. “It is what you choose to believe it is, what you make of it.”

As she said these words, he felt his worldview shifting like clouds, bringing into sight a clearer vision of the truth. Bibi ka Maqbara was no different from the Taj, for it was also proof of someone’s undying love, a preservation of someone’s most cherished memory. And in that everlasting instant, he felt the world around him soften and dissolve and merge with the sky’s formless ether . . .

Shahenshah Alamgir Aurangzeb, too, had loved and lost. He, too, had come to terms with this passing by creating something beautiful in its place.

And it dawned on Amish that someday, maybe, he could learn to do the same.

 

 

About the Author

Bhavika Sicka is an emerging writer from Kolkata, West Bengal, and is currently pursuing an MFA at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She is a fiction reader for Barely South Review. She has been a finalist for the Write India contest, and her work has appeared in Arkana, Crab Fat Magazine, and Jabberwock (the literary journal of the Department of English, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University).