# Format: Paperback, pp. 368
# Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
#Genre: Historical Fiction/Royalty
History has given us some extraordinary love stories: there's Anthony and Cleopatra, Victoria (Queen of England) and Albert, Abigail and John Adams and a favorite of the literary world, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. While all these stories are endearing and I will read them over and over again, my favorite is that of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. As a child, when we spoke of the Taj Mahal, our voices would drip with awe, not just because of the alluring splendor of the marble mausoleum but because the thought of a grieving king building this beautiful monument to his dead wife who was not royal (he met her in the marketplace where she was selling trinkets to passerbys) was at once so romantic and tragic.
So imagine my pleasure and delight when I came across a book that delves into the history of the Taj Mahal and the love story that sparked its creation. The book I refer to is "Beneath the Marble Sky" and its author John Shors was inspired to write it after a visit to the Taj Mahal in 1999.
The story is told by Jahanara, the Emperor's favorite daughter, (perhaps because she resembled Mumtaz Mahal the most). Jahanara's is a sweeping tale that takes us from the time she was a little child in the imperial harem located in the Red Fort, to the death of her mother (Mumtaz Mahal) at child birth, to the building of the Taj Mahal and her (Jahanara's) romance with the architect Isa, to the turbulent last days of Shah Jahan when he was usurped from his throne by his cruel, second-born son Aurangzeb and made to languish in a room where he could only see, never step into, his beloved Taj Mahal.
The author is a wonderfully descriptive writer and although he uses language and descriptions meant to evoke 17th century Mughal India, the lust and lavish period detail never overwhelms. He fills the pages with descriptions of opulent palaces, decadent harems, court intrigue, public beheadings and so on, but always at the heart of his novel is the simple, passionate human story of Shah Jahan, Jahanara and the people they loved.
In case you're wondering, there is no need to know anything about Indian history before you read this novel, but I will admit that it was a wonderful experience to see figures from my school history books, like the fiercely Muslim Aurangzeb, the chivalrous Shivaji and the Sultan of Bijapur come alive under Shors' lively pen. If our history books in school had been just half as engaging I would have scored much better grades!
In closing, I will have to say the author did a great job narrating the story through a 17th century Mughal princess. As one reads the story one really does feel for the Emperor( who lost his beloved wife and is betrayed by his own son) and his brave daughter Jahanara. It was a very engrossing read and as I neared the end I realized it was going to be hard for me to say goodbye to the characters - and isn't that a surefire way of knowing you have just read a very good book?