I remember getting out of the van, seeing the Red Fort over there, across that muddy moat with the little trickle of muddy water meandering in the muddy streambed. The Red Fort looked like some sandcastle that thousands of little sunbathers, sometime, way back in the long dream of this timeless land, had dug out of the river basin, with thousands of little sand shovels and sand pails. And time and the sun had hardened it, compacted it, made it dense and strong.
And, then, maybe that’s when the Muslims came and used their skills, the skills that came from watching the stars and the moon, and from learning about the magic of numbers, to carve those palaces and mosques, and dungeons from those mounds of sand. And the thousands of dark, strangely serene people sprang up from the sandy soil all around it, and lived out their lives, and then laid down and melted back into the sand, and then rose back up again, like the tide of an impotent sea: impotent because the walls of the Red Fort withstood the ceaseless ebb and flow all around it.
…thousands of dark, strangely serene people sprang up from the sandy soil all around it, and lived out their lives, and then laid down and melted back into the sand, and then rose back up again…
The men wore loose cotton shirts, and sandals, and baggy cotton trousers tied close around their waists. And the women wore brightly colored shifts and saris. And they were all so dark that when they smiled you were taken by how white their teeth were. Or when their eyes widened, you saw only the whites, and the dark features around them were obscured, and you were startled by the limpid whiteness, and you stroked your chin and turned your thoughts inward.
But I just couldn’t take my eyes from across that bridge that spanned the muddy moat with the little trickle of muddy water meandering in the muddy stream bed. Beyond it was the Gate. The vast arch that led into the opulent fortress the Muslim kings used to guard their marbled jewel that lay across the river. The Gate, with its iron-wrought portcullis that could drop right down, like a set of jagged incisors, slicing through everything, shutting off the view of the soft parts of the throat, shutting that glimpse of pillowed bedrooms, and innately carved walls with semi-precious stones set into the depictions of peacocks and flowers. And it was strange to think that these were the same people, through some convoluted lineage, through some infinitely complex maze of genealogy, that had built the Alhambra, half a world away, in the dry and friendly hills of Iberia.
And then, just a glance across the river, across the vista, past the women threshing clothes in the muddy, meandering river with children running about their feet, to that white marble jewel with four domed towers set about a domed building, and… no, it can’t be marble. It can’t all be marble, and, surely, if I look closer I’ll see the ruse. No, it can’t be the way it seems from here, standing on the bridge that spans the muddy moat with the little trickle of muddy water. It’s something else, some vision, something someone dreamed about somewhere. And it shines, or shimmers, or somehow defies you to accept it, because, well, we’ve all heard the name, we all know about the mosque that Emperor Shah Jahan had built for his wife, for the mother of his fourteen children, because he loved her and he could afford it. But the photos and the name, Taj Mahal…that’s not it. Those couldn’t possibly be representations of this thing, this vision that I’m seeing over there, across the muddy, meandering river with the women threshing their clothes and the children running around their feet.
But then, just as I was squinting, trying to discern clearly whether or not it was real, or some ethereal phantasm, there was scraping and scratching, down near my feet, where I was standing on the bridge that spanned the muddy streambed with the trickle of muddy water.
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