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Writing A Novel About Real People In Mughal India, by Timeri Murari

In my previous articles I discussed how my wife’s curiosity on a trip to see the Taj Mahal prompted me to research the palace and the Mughal era in which it was built. So why not turn my notes into a novel?

My previous works included two non-fiction works where I had spent months with the real people, detailing their lives. In my contemporary fiction, I drew on people I’d met – people I’d loved, hated or just characters I could use as fiction – and drew on my own experiences. It wasn’t easy. Every novel is difficult, but at least I was dealing with day-to-day reality. I could describe my characters, what they wore, the homes where they lived, the bars and restaurants they frequented, and describe in detail the streets of their cities. If I had problems with some details I could always go out and check the landmarks, the stores, the parks or whatever of my settings.

A historical novel about long-dead people was another matter. Where would I start? History had my characters hidden behind words and drawings. How would I make them talk and move on a blank page?

The biggest problem facing me was to re-create Arjumand, later called Mumtaj Mahal (which over the years became Mumtaz, and the name Taj Mahal derives from her earlier name). In all the literature on the Mughals, including the official biography of Mumtaz’s husband and the builder of her tomb, Shah Jahan Nama, all that described Arjumand was: “She was a kind and generous woman who performed many charity works.”

There is an official Mughal miniature portrait of her in profile but I had to doubt it’s authenticity as no man, apart from husband and close male family members, could look on her face. In the painting she’s staring out into the distance, dressed in finery, with a very fair complexion, arching eyebrows and a straight slim nose.

She is without any doubt in my mind the most crucial character in my story on the Taj Mahal, as that stunning tomb was built for her and she lies directly beneath the dome.  With this absolute lack of information on Mumtaj I didn’t just hit a road bump, I hit a wall with no way around it. There were sketches of other women’s lives during that period – around 1600 AD – especially on her aunt, Mehruinissa, who was virtually Empress of India as her husband Jehangir was too drunk or drugged to make any decisions and foreign Ambassadors, including the British one, had to negotiate with her. Of course, there was no lack of information of the Emperor, his father, his sons and other male figures of that time.

I had also found a theme for this Mughal dynasty in a proverb – Takhtya, Takhtyi. It was a stark and brutal warning to the sons of an Emperor – Throne or Coffin. There was no other choice, and the family was one of the most dysfunctional I’d ever come across. They were colourful, intelligent and artistic, but ruthless in protecting themselves from the grave. Brothers killed brothers and only the strongest, and the most cunning, survived to take the throne of the richest Empire of its time.


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