Friday, January 12, 2007

Taj Mahal


I am Sadiq Ali. And I built the Taj Mahal – in a manner of speaking. All those highly-nuanced inlaid ornamental work, meticulous inscription of the Holy Koran verses on the marble tiles from Jaipur, all the jasper and onyx and carbuncle artistry, the gold and silver embroidery that so awe you when you visit the Taj Mahal – all were done by me or under my supervision, by my faithful workers.

Even as a young man, I had met Khurram – that’s what emperor Shah Jahan was known as before he became the great emperor he was. My father, who had emigrated from Persia, introduced me as the most promising stone and jade artist he had ever trained, with such a gift of calligraphy and stone sense.

“He has God’s hands.” He described me. ”Diamonds and rubies actually speak to him.”

Little did I know then that I was going to be involved in the construction of the Taj. A few days later I went along with my father to a royal wedding of king’s relatives near the palace and that was where I first met Rehena. She was the dancing girl – only for royal functions, as she emphasized later – not any nautch girl. She floated in the air, glided through the upraised stage in a nifty movement, sang the highest notes and intoxicated us with her eyes. She was at once flamboyant and lily-in-the-pond quiet. I began to see her more and more.

“I may not be the most handsome man on the land, Rehena” I told her.” But I have the largest heart and …the filthiest mind.”

She would laugh and pour some more old wine into my tazza. Oh, how many days I have spent like that! Oh, how many years can I spend like that!! I was in Love – so hopelessly in love that my entire life was defined by it. My every waking moment was shaped by it. And should I die, my history would be written by it.

And when like her, oh, Saki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!
------- x ------- x ------- x -----

Then it all happened so suddenly. The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan – to be the greatest edifice to celebrate Love. I could endorse it. After all, I had my Rehena. But then, cruel are the ways of fate. I still remember her pulling me to a corner and telling me.

“Dear, I have something bad to tell you.” She started “That big soldier-commander, Rayan Khan wants me to marry him. And I said yes.”


“I thought about it all night and all day. I think this is my final answer and a correct decision.”

“Is it because he is better than me? Is it because he is a mansabdar also and therefore can collect taxes and pocket a part of it and afford you gifts? I am noble too!! My ancestors had palaces in Persia.”

“It is not that. You are a nice man, too. And you will find a nice woman for yourself. It is just that I have to choose a good life for myself. Who knows, with all his bravery, Rayan might even become a governor of a province…”

“Rehena, you are mad.”

“Since I am going to be another man’s wife, I should not even be entertaining you like this. Please leave!!”

I walked out, hopping mad. I vowed never to see her again or think about her. But she was right there in front of me – when I closed my eyes and also when I opened my eyes. This concept called love is a double-edged sword. It can elate you and thrill you and it can also send you on a flight down the misery lane. I turned up at her house many, many times and even talked to her mother. But to no avail. I became another bitter, lonely man afflicted by rejection. Rehena and Rayan married in a spectacular ceremony. And this was one royal wedding in which she did not dance.

I hated this Taj Mahal thing, as we were getting more and more into the project. How can anybody glorify such an awful thing called Love?

Indeed the Idols I have loved so long
Have done my credit in this World much wrong:
Have drown'd my Glory in a shallow Cup
And sold my Reputation for a Song
-------- X -------- X --------- X -------

Slowly and slowly, the Taj Mahal took shape – slab by marble slab. Nearly twenty years in the making and with nearly twenty thousand artisans and other workers. From Persia, Baghdad and Csonstantinople even. Mosques were built on either side of the mausoleum. The four spires in the corners were mangnificent. You could read the Koran verses from thirty feet away. The neatly laid out gardens lent a counterpoint to the structure. The emperor’s sense of symmetry and aesthetics of reflection in water were marvelous. Taj Mahal - a joy to behold and a symbol of the most romantic human emotion, namely Love.

How wrong!! Love is an emotion you can neither abstract nor approximate nor articulate. It vitiates your entire body, mind and soul like a fine poison. It is filth, it is evil. It is the low point of human existence. It is… It is….

Oh, the great Emperor Shah Jahan, the world is not going to remember you for building this huge edifice for this raw and naiive emotion called Love!! The world will only remember the hundreds of hapless workers who died trying to give shape to your delusion of grandeur. You think the onion dome in the center just dropped from heaven one day? No. It consumed several people’s sweat, blood and lives. Future generations will only talk about how you bankrupted your entire coffer because you were so obsessed building this marble behemoth. What a waste of over four crore silver rupees!! How you taxed the poor peasants to death and how your unscrupulous tax collectors swindled everyone including yourself. If you are so sincere about Love, why didn’t you build even a small monument for your first wife, Quandari Begum? Why only build it for Arjumand Bano – your Mumtaz Mahal - after she dies during the birth of her fourteenth child at the age of over forty? Is it a way to flaunt your rich arrogance? Is it a way to reveal the shallowness of your thought?

“Emperor, Sir. A question has been nagging me for a long time.”

“Ask, Sadiq.”

“In my humble opinion, don’t you think that love is more of an infatuation than a mature sentiment? “ I submitted. “You have built Madrasas and hospitals and the Moti Masjid. Did you really have to build this colossus called Taj Mahal?”

“What???? Such temerity in front of Our Royal Self?” he shouted in anger “Thou shalt learn to keep your flea-infested mouth shut. I decree that nobody shall question this wonderful human feeling called Love. My beloved Mumtaz Mahal – even the moon would hide in shame in front of her beauty.”

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one
----- X ------ X ------ X ----

It has been several years since we finished constructing the Taj Mahal. Times have changed – the emperor’s son Aurangzeb has deposed his father, got rid of his own brothers and crowned himself the new emperor. The old emperor is now imprisoned behind the great walls of the Fort, a shadow of himself. I hear that he barely talks or walks, attended to only by his faithful daughter Jahanara.

A little shantytown has cropped up around the Taj Mahal, filled with drunks and derelicts and people talking in the new language, Hindi. They even call the place Mumtazabad. I too started going there in search of small pleasures in life.

And then one day, who did I see, but Rehana!!!

“Rhena, stop. This is Sadiq Ali.” I yelled “How has god’s grace been on you?”

She recognized me at once. “What are you doing in these parts?”

I told her about myself.

“Rehena, my jewel. After all these years, I still cannot forget you.”

“You should not be talking like this.”

“But my feelings are true. True as god’s words.” I continued. “In the last so many years, there has never been a day when I did not think about you. You are my love, my life and my paradise.”

“Go away.”

“Please come with me. I have enormous wealth and I can pull you out of this squalor you are in now.”

“I am doing very well thank you.”

“It has been over a year since your husband Rayan Khan got killed in the Battle of Khajwa against Shuja, Aurangzeb’s own brother – Rayan was hopelessly cut by a charging elephant and a cannonball. “ I persisted. “It is time to forget him and your old life. Come to me and be mine. I hear he did not leave you with much money…”

“Go away, you monster.”

“I will do anything for you. I will send away my wife Faiza and my children to my ancestral village in Persia. We will live out the rest of our lives in peace and solitude.”

“Go away, you dog.” She screamed at me. “Or stay here and lick my feet.”

Here I was – the greatest artisan of the Mughal empire – who has personally embedded emeralds and garnets into the Peacock throne – going on his knees to woo a lowly, aging dancing girl for her hand – all because of the potency of this emotion called Love! Love is sicker than the satan.

And those who husbanded the Golden grain,
And those who flung it to the winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.
------ X ------- x ------- x ----

And one day, when I was strolling through Mumtazabad, I heard the news – that Rehena was dead! From a disease that attacked first her stomach. Just like that! She is gone! Such a graceful form of femine beauty can never die.

In spite of her fame as a danseuse and as Rayan Khan’s wife, very few people had come for the funeral. These days, of course, the emperor has banned dancing in the weddings and the present generation may never know what it is like to have dances in weddings. Apparently she had few relatives and it was a pity tht she saw a lot of penury and strife in her last days. If she were not that silly and stubborn, she could have lived in the laps of luxury with me. ..

It was raining. At the funeral somebody asked me if I was related to her. I said yes, without explaining. Prayers were said and she was thrust into the ground. Farewell, my love.

Too bad that Emperor Shah Jahan was not able to build his Black Taj Mahal across the river from the present Taj – supposedly with granites from the Rajput kingdoms. Or I would have been the first one to work on it. That would be such a great monument for all the negative aspects of Love.

It rained some more.

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain--This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies
----- X ------- X ------- X ------

I was walking aimlessly in the town. This is the end of my love story. Unrequitted and unfulfilled. Forever to remain a grim reminder that love is painful and gory. Let this be a lesson for others. I kept wandering some more. Because of Alamgir’s (Aurangzeb’s) new laws against drinking and gambling, Mumtazabad even looked pleasing.

Suddenly, there was a rush inside me. I had to do it!!

I grabbed a couple of people smoking ganja and lured them with promise of one gold Mohar coin each.

“Bring me the best mule cart there is.” I ordered. “And four able-bodied men”

I gathered them and went straight to the place where we had just laid Rehena to the ground.

“Dig up that coffin and carry it in the cart to where I am going to lead you.”

“Sir, the laws against desecrating graves are very severe” one of them protested. “Besides, it is proscribed in God’s book too.”

“Do what I tell you. I am a friend of the emperor.”

In a few hard strokes to the ground, the coffin was dug out. We hurriedly placed it in the cart and rushed out of the cemetery – toward the Taj Mahal complex! We stopped right at the entrance by the gardens.

“Bury her here.” I ordered “Hurry up and be done with it quickly.”

As she was lowered into the ground, against the backdrop of Taj Mahal, it filled my heart with a straange sensation of having conquered something. Now if anybody stood at this spot and gazed at the Taj Mahal, they would only sense that Love is such a folly. Bury her deep!! Bury Love deep!!! Oh, I feel so liberated.

The last of the urchins was paid. I stood there by myself. I simply had to drop a fistful of dirt on the grave and I would have done my duty. Then I can take her off my mind forever. I dug into the ground to scoop out dirt – and came up only with a few grains of dirt – because, where there once used to be hands and fingers, are now simply blunt stubs, thanks to Shah Jahan chopping away my hands so I will not build another Taj Mahal.

But, Shahbuddin Mohammad Shah Jahan, I have just finished building my Taj Mahal.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under
Dust to lie Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End!

(All verses from Omar Khayyam’s Rubayyat)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Law and Justice

It has been more than a week since Saddam Hussain was killed and put away. Video footage of his last moments was an assault on one’s senses and sensibilities. It was probably just another day’s work in the office for the executioners, but as somebody said, it was they who looked like terrorists, while the ex-dictator seemed like a dignified martyr waiting to be enshrined. President Bush called the hanging a ‘milestone in Iraq’s democracy’ – either he is lying or he doesn’t know the first thing about democracy or milestones.

In that fleeting moment when the noose went around Saddam’s neck, some primeval feeling inside me erupted – and proclaimed yet again that there is something absolutely abhorrent about death penalty – especially in this evolved and enlightened stage of human civilization. It is amazing that the same human being who dissects stem cells in order to prop up life can sink into a moral abyss and sniff out the lives of people, based on his own self-justified formulation of legal order.

Put these criminals and murderers away for life, please. But don’t lower your moral barometer and become equal to the sick criminals. The idea of retributive justice is to reform the criminals, not criminalize ordinary populace. (Any opposing viewpoints? Please send them)

Public opinion in India was overwhelmingly against the manner in which Saddam was tried and killed. As a nation, India seems against death penalty. There are already social outfits which routinely protest executions. I think it is only a matter of time before India outlaws death penalty, to join some of the more humane nations in the world. Call me a wimp. Call me Kumbayah-singing-naïve. But to hell with death penalty.

Indian foreign minister has expressed his ‘disappointment’ over Saddam Hussain’s execution. I certainly hope that he has the same sense of leniency when it comes to sparing the life of Afsal who stands to be executed in the Parliament attack case.

------ X ------ X ------ X ---

There is a rash of high profile murder cases prosecuted in India recently. Maybe the lifting of legal impunity against Members of Parliament has something to do with it. Well known names like Manu Sharma and Shibu Soren are now behind bars – for murder, no less.

By the way, it is claimed that more than one hundred out of the present five hundred odd MPs in India have criminal cases against them. (Out of the remaining MPs, over a hundred must be ex-Bollywood stars.) On the flip side, Tihar jail looks like a veritable Country Club with all kinds of celebrities. We are probably the ultimate crossover society.

Mr. Shibu Soren’s case is interesting. He is in jail for killing his personal assistant. Mr. Sashi Nath Jha. It is alleged that Mr. Soren was given a bribe to support the erstwhile Narasimha Rao government and Mr. Jha came to know about it and demanded a cut in it. Later it is said that he started blackmailing Mr. Soren, which in turn resulted in his gruesome murder. A typical dirt-on-dirt crime.

Mr. Jha’s daughter came on TV and said that they should have hanged Mr. Soren, to achieve a closure. Again, although I empathize with a woman who lost her father in this manner, I do not share her enthusiasm for death sentence. Who knows? Maybe one day in prison, Mr. Soren will come up with the sordid details of the bribe he was given to support the Rao government and name names. Maybe he would express remorse at the killing. THAT might bring about a closure to the whole episode.

---- X ------ X ------- X -----

I also think there is a ‘dumbing down’ of crime and criminals – especially in India. Most crime in India are the old Feudal-era variety and very few of the criminals have adapted the modern, high tech way of committing crime. Our best and the brightest don’t even seem to consider crime as a career. For all our IT savvy, we cannot boast of a single internet-destroying virus that originated in India or any modern computer crime worthy of a Hollywood movie. My family poojari, (whose first cell phone fell into the sacred fire) had his latest cell phone stolen and the police found it in a matter of hours because the idiot who stole it didn’t realize that he was leaving a trail of clues behind. ATMs, Cell phones, video cameras, modern computerized banking, RF-id etc. seem to have completely crippled the crime industry.

What kind of superpower will we be, if we don’t have the world’s most sophisticated cyber-criminals? Right?

----- X ------- X ------- X -----

Being an engineer/scientist/professor, I hardly come across people from orthogonal professions such as Lawyers. My first encounter with a lawyer was way back when I had just arrived in the USA. A friend’s wife introduced herself to me in a party thus “I am a lawyer and I work for the IRS”. Then she let go a little self-mocking laugh and continued “No wonder people avoid me in parties.” I laughed dumbly, not knowing what she meant.

Later, I obtained a lawyer’s services when I was processing my Green Card in Pittsburgh. Through the entire proceeding, I had never physically met him, although he would consult (and charge) on the phone. I finally got to see him on the day of my visa interview at the INS. It was a short walk from his office to the INS and on the way I kept giving him stock tips, suggestions on vacation spots, my ranking of Indian restaurants in town and so on. As we stepped into the INS office he told me (and here I am paraphrasing) that I talked too much and that I should not open my mouth unless he instructed!!! “Don’t volunteer information, for heaven’s sake!” he begged me.

Too bad the INS officer missed out on Oracle stock’s huge run-up those days.

----- X ------ X ---- X ------

When I was in Denver, a friend called me up one day and told me about this Sri Lankan asylum seeker who was in jail in Denver and who only spoke Tamil. Could I be his interpreter?

So, off I went to the jail with my friend. At the entrance I was joined by a lawyer – who was actually volunteering his services for free for this case. This was a private jail and one of the eight or so Immigration jails in the country. It seems that if you are illegal in the USA and somehow managed to step on the US soil, and then have the misfortune of getting caught, you have a whole slew of ‘rights, than if an immigration guy catches you in an airport or at the border. This Sri Lankan guy was nabbed at the airport.

After a rather long wait – during which the lawyer made several trips to the prison administrator’s office to request that we be let in – we were finally led toward the visitor’s room.

First we were given an elaborate body search – my first ever. (Those were the pre 9/11 days, of course. These days I get a similar search in every airport. In fact, during my last trip via Japan, a female security personnel in Narita gave me such a sensuous and intense body search that we might as well have had sex) Then we were taken to a room with three stools and guards all around. The Sri Lankan was brought in. I thought that he might be glad to see a guy who could talk his language. (He didn’t have even the bare minimum of English language skills) But the guy was pretty indifferent and barely answered our questions. From what I gathered, he was attacked by both the army and the LTTE and so he escaped from Sri Lanka.

Although I gave up soon, the lawyer kept pressing him on for details. After nearly an hour, the guards came in abruptly and asked us to leave. Later, I had lunch with the lawyer (and he didn’t charge me for this ‘service’) where he enthralled me with various immigration stories.

“I have seen people from all countries” he said somewhat exaggeratingly. “Except New Zealond.”

I never saw him or the Sri Lankan guy again – apparently, the Sri Lankan guy did not want anyone to represent or help him. But his ‘girl friend’ and her brother kept phoning me up every once in a while from Toronto to get their family-to-be, out of jail.

After nearly a year and a half, the girl friend phoned me up to tell me that he was deported to her town in Canada. End of story.

----- X ------ X ------ X -----

While I was in the heat of the battle at my company, just before a new product launch, I got an official letter calling me for Jury duty. Even though I consider trial by jury to be archaic and anachronistic, I had no choice but to go. There, a huge congregation of fifty of us, potential jurors, was seated and I was counting on the laws of probability to bail me out. But, you guessed it. I was selected as a member of the jury of six and had to spend that entire day at court.

It was an interesting mix of people in the jury. Boulder County, which is where I used to reside, is one of the most educated counties in the country and perhaps that is why three of the six of us happened to be Ph. Ds. There was a VP of Sun Microsystems and the basketball Head Coach of the University of Colorado, Mr. Riccardo Patton was another juror. (quite an interesting man and he talked more than me!!) The lone remaining juror was a student.

This was my very first visit to a court in session – my opportunity to observe the judge, lawyers, witnesses and the dynamics between them. Every once in a while, the lawyers would have a ‘side-bar’ discussion with the judge - in whispers, so that we, the jury, could not hear.

At one point, the defense lawyer was cross-examining the plaintiff’s mother, who was a witness. She put on quite a show, crying and play-acting for the jury.

“Mrs. Brown, you have lived in the Boulder County for the past five years, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Before that you used to live in Lafayette County for three years, right?”

“Yes, sir”

“So, let’s see. You have lived in Colorado for eight years – five years at your present residence and before your demotion at work, you were in Lafayette County…..”

As soon as he mentioned ‘demotion on the job’, the Prosecutor jumped and raised objection. The judge agreed and told us, the jurors, to expunge the defense lawyer’s comment. But, heck, the damage was already done. We had already put a negative mark against the woman. The lawyer was brilliant and every bit like those emotional movie lawyers, making dramatic statements and gesticulating animatedly.

“Look at my client there, members of the jury” he beseeched us “Could he have committed a crime?”

The accused was looking so silly that I barely resisted laughing. At any rate, it took us less than a minute to arrive at a unanimous ‘not guilty’ judgment to acquit the accused. That spared us nearly four hours to chit-chat and get to know each other.

So, what was the case about?

John Silly and Mary Silly married as teenagers and split a couple of years later with a child as a by-product. John had the custody of the kid on the weekends and Mary, the rest of the time. (The kid was about three years old at the time of the trial) The child-exchange took place in a parking lot of a shopping center. One Sunday, John had to go somewhere early in the afternoon and so, wanted to drop off the child earlier than usual. So, he called his ex-wife on the phone. Since she did not answer, he rang her up several times more – seven times to be precise. This was seen on the caller ID of her phone and so Mary and her mommie dearest decided to file a harassment case against John and wanted him ‘restrained’.

No wonder Mary and the public prosecutor lost their case. Such a case wouldn’t even be taken up in these days of pervasive cell phone use.

------ X ------ X ------ X ----

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Two Silly Poems on Lalu and Missus

Poem 1

If Brazil’s Lula meets Lalu
It’ll be a Bubba meeting a Babu
But if Chairman Mao had met Thurman Uma
Or had a rappo’ with Oprah
Or Buta, he’d’ve been breaking a taboo.

Poem 2

Once there was a Devi called Rabri
Everybody who was anybody thought she was a nobri
But Bihar crashed and burnt
Nary a lesson learnt
Did we witness a great daylight robbery?