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Combining Research And Imagination When Writing My Novel ‘Taj’, by Timeri Murari

Once I had formed the main characters in my mind for my novel Taj, I decided then to return to India and follow the routes my two main characters, Shah Jahan and Mumtaj Mahal, took while they lived – at least to the best of my knowledge. They met for the first time at a Royal Bazaar held annually in the Red Fort, so I started my journey there. I spent a whole day imagining the splendour of the imperial lifestyle and the excitement of two young people falling in love. The two wandered across northern India. He had wars to fight and she, instead of remaining at home (the palace), went with him everywhere. They travelled on elephants, horseback and palanquins over land without roads and it must have been brutal under the Indian sun.

I travelled by car, stopping to note the geography at places where they had stopped. I was fortunate – the ancient palaces, some in ruins, still remained and I could imagine them there. The Empress died in central India, Burhanpur, in 1630.  Much of the ruined palace still stood by the banks of the Tapti River. I looked across to the other side and saw a simple tomb – just a brick wall about ten feet high and twenty across. I hitched a ride on a boat and went over to look at the ‘tomb’ wondering who lay beneath. A villager was passing by and I asked him who was in this simple tomb. He replied quite simply, “It’s the tomb of an empress,” and went on.

My heroine had first been buried here and then her remains were moved to Agra to await her final resting place in the Taj Mahal, that took 20 years to build. I found that, through this geography and landscape, the characters came alive for me.

I had my real historical characters and their geography in place but, as a novelist, I wanted to add in an entirely fictional person to connect them and to stand back from the action and tell the reader and comment on  what was happening to the other characters and share his thoughts about his place in society. It would be important that this fictional character be an integral part of the society, and be someone who knows the gossip and the truth, not a stranger observing from afar. It would also be important that the real characters, meaning the historical ones, trust him and confide their thoughts and feelings to him.

While researching the novel, I came across a line in the biography of Shah Jahan: “There was a man named Isa who walked in the shadow of the Great Mughal Shah Jahan.” That was it. There was no further description of him and no other record of his role as ‘the shadow’. I decided then to create him out of this one line and have him play the observer, the confidant for my two major characters.


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