– Ananya Chand
She woke up to a thud in an overgrowth of ghaneri shrubs.
“What is this place?” What happened to me?” … “How did I come here and why can’t I remember my name?” …fear struck her heart at first.
She sat half up and racked her brains to remember how she’d landed up here. All she could remember was the blow on her head; she touched herself everywhere to check for signs of violence, couldn’t find any bruise or feel pain.
She pinched herself and shook her head & legs vigorously. Slowly, she adjusted her eyes to the radiant sun piercing through the undergrowth. Oddly enough, she felt the need to soak-in the afternoon heat for a while, like it was a long-lost friend.
Her hands & legs which looked very different from the wrinkles she woke up to every morning, she also scorned in disdain at the cheap blue Anarkali-like two-piece she was draped in. with a pink dupatta; the pink that she preferred only in her roses, sherbets and make-up.
Her dishevelled hair brought back memories of her grandma’s chudail, who she claimed had haunted her as a child in Persia and since then, her grandma had always warned ladies of the household to oil and wash their hair well, smoke-dry them and then tie a tight knot. Lest the chudail steal all their hair!
“Did I visit Persia with grandma?”, she murmured as memories came back to her from the beautiful backyard of her parent’s home in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh.
Her mother’s magnificent garden had memories of her childhood stashed away, the Tapti river held in its depths reminiscences of the time she had spent with her sisters and friends, The city held close to its heart the secrets and dreams she had buried in them, never to be revealed to anyone.
“For heaven’s sake, someone get me a glass of sherbet to beat this blazing heat. I’m in the midst of nowhere, dressed like a pauper and yet, this is perhaps the first time that I’m all by myself, not worried about being seen by someone or in any rush to go back. I kind of…love this feeling!”, she exclaimed, to no one in particular.
She dusted herself grudgingly and walked out of the hedge, hoping against hope to meet a kind soul who would show her the way back home.
Walking endlessly, with a lone barbed wire stretching alongside the hedge, made her acutely aware of her feelings. From the highs of new-found freedom, she was entering the lows of hopelessness and the feeling of being trapped forever in this thicket of poisonous vegetation that didn’t even attract animals.
Aghast and clueless, she stared at the infinite stretch of the ghaneri plant that she had always asked her gardeners to weed out, at first sight.
“Don’t stop, your destination is not far off,” said a crow that cawed as loudly as it spoke.,
“….What’s going on?,” she exclaimed with a start! By now she was sure that she was losing her mind to the heat and having hallucinations about things that did not exist.
Nevertheless, she asked the crow, “Will you give me company till I reach my destination and … ahem, show me the way?”
Enthused, the crow cawed, “Yes ma’am, it’s an honour to serve you.” She was startled and laughed out loud, thinking about her pitiful state of mind. One that could remember nothing but imagine everything!
The crow turned out to be great company. It told her that they were in Agra, near a gigantic white marble palace, that was built over two decades by twenty thousand humans; and that in order to stop the human race from replicating this beauty it is said that the king had killed all the artisans. It narrated to her the bravery of the king and his beautiful queens who lived there half a millennium ago. It told her about Agra’s rich history and how it had changed over the years, except the gigantic monument built by Shah Jahan.
She was spellbound! “How does the crow know so much? Is my mind playing games again?”, she thought. She had so many questions to ask the crow, but it wouldn’t stop talking!
Soon enough, they came to a clearing where the crow bid her a hasty adieu; with the strange parting words: “Reminiscences of Shahenshah, an infinite loop.”
She was at her wits end now and understood nothing that was going on.
Her heart ached to go back home; it could not take any more surprises or shocks. She spotted a marble slab to rest on and gathered her thoughts while watching the twilight rays shine through the blades of grass in front of her, that had begun to slowly blur the barbed wire from her line of sight.
As she looked intently across the grass that was gently swaying with the wind, she was startled by the view of the magnificent palace that the crow had described to her. The white marble palace, nothing like she had ever seen before – shining crimson in parts in the brilliant twilight – tugged at the strings of her heart, like nothing before had. She felt she knew this place…
As nostalgia began to overpower Mumtaz, she remembered the beautiful life she had lived and her horrific death during childbirth. She didn’t know what flux of the universe she was trapped in, but bathed in moonlight, her heart ached for her Shahenshah,
“Malika-i-Jahan, Allah had granted your wish ages ago, I’m here,” said a familiar voice, radiant in his royal robes, standing tall like the Shehenshah he was.
Mumtaz stood speechless, reminded of how she had demanded that her love-struck husband build the most beautiful palace in the world for her.
“You have just arrived, but I have been waiting here forever, guarding your Taj Mahal, century after century,” said Shah Jahan as he lightly touched Mumtaz on her shoulders.
It felt like Mumtaz had waited eons for this moment, to meet him and feel his warmth. But when he touched her face, she felt nothing but a hollow chill that ran down her spine.
“Allah, reham karo, I don’t want whatever this is without my King, I never wanted this in my death, I never wanted to cause any death… what have we done, forgive us!
“…Had it been any different, my dear mallika and millions of lovers wouldn’t have found solace and inspiration from one iconic structure year after year…”, so he said and vanished.
Mumtaz and Shahjahan still visit the Taj Mahal in turns and every single time, they argue in infinite loop, on this very point.
This piece was written based on a prompt given after the Short Story workshop. It has been edited by Rashmi Bansal