[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Taj Mahal – Short Story by Sreya Sarkar” main_heading_color=”#1e73be” sub_heading_color=”#8224e3″ spacer=”line_with_icon” spacer_position=”bottom” line_style=”dotted” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#1e73be” icon_type=”custom” icon_img=”id^48|url^http://ashvamegh.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Ashvamegh-ICO.jpg|caption^null|alt^Ashvamegh Journal Icon|title^Ashvamegh ICO|description^null” img_width=”48″ main_heading_style=”font-weight:bold;” main_heading_font_size=”desktop:34px;” line_width=”3″ margin_design_tab_text=””]experienced narrative…[/ultimate_heading]

published – Volume IV, Issue, XXXVI, January 2018

Taj Mahal


Richard stretched his long limbs as he swept his eyes over the luscious garden visible through the wide ITC Mughal hotel windows. It’s luxurious layout with charming fountains and creeper laden canopies reminded one of a bygone era charm. A tender breeze ruffled the well-trimmed hedges outside, sluggishly swung the ornate hanging brass lamps and tousled Richard’s already disheveled hair. He leaned against the reception counter waiting to check in, making some guests’ heads turn. It happened to him often. Having a white American father and an Indian mother gave him striking mixed features. People were intrigued by the uncommon combination—blue eyes, fair skin, jet black hair and a towering height.

As Richard stepped out of the elevator and took a flight of stairs to the roof, he saw the white majestic Taj through the haze of city smog. There it stood displayed to the World like a jeweled crown waiting for an emperor to claim it lovingly. His shaking hands involuntarily reached out for the gemlike symmetric perfection. He closed his eyes and saw her silky black curls bouncing on her chiseled jaw, her expressive brown eyes twinkling with delight. He could imagine her humming excitedly as she lay her eyes on her favorite Taj. How much she had wished to see Taj Mahal with her beloved.

They had planned to meet in Delhi a day before their first anniversary. “I want to celebrate it with style in the land of love and warmth”, she had told him. Richard had not been particularly interested. “You have seen Taj Mahal plenty of times. Why can’t we go to Greece? It would be delightful to soak in the crystal blue waters on the islands. But no, you want to go back to dusty Agra.” He had pouted, twisting the Visit Greece travel brochures into a gnarled mess. Humera had cupped his sulking face with her slender hands and looked deeply into Richard’s blue eyes, “But you have not seen Taj. I want to see you when you see Taj.” Richard shook away the tears crowding his eyes, breathed in the sunny dry air and tried exhaling out his misery. He was not ready to open up those nasty memory wounds  and bleed again.

As he settled down in his hotel room Richard’s thoughts moved to his mother. His mother was fond of Taj as well, just like Humera. He never understood their obsession with the monument. As a boy, he had come to Delhi several times with his mother but they had never had the time to venture out to Agra. His mother had Punjabi parents but had grown up in Delhi mostly. Her father was an engineer, had a transferable job and had to shift base and travel to many parts of the country including Uttar Pradesh. That is how she had got to spend some years in Agra and grew fond of the monument. His mother did not want him to travel alone to Agra. She wanted to come with him but Richard knew that he had to come alone.

Hey baby, I caught a glimpse of your favorite Taj. It looks grand from here. I hope I won’t be disappointed when I get near it he whispered. Humera looked at him with a coy smile. You are going to love it baby. I know it. I love you! she whispered back. Humera was a researcher of Mughal Empire, and had travelled to several Mughal monuments in the Indian subcontinent, but she had fallen in love with Taj the moment she saw it.


Humera and Richard had met at the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick. Richard was a junior in Computer Science and Humera had just joined as a freshman in History. Richard was drawn towards her chocolate brown eyes and glowing porcelain skin. Her slim frame gave her a doll like fragile appearance. But she was such a strong soul. Hard to sway, harder to break. Quite the charmer otherwise, Richard couldn’t dream of flirting with Humera. She could be politely scary when she wanted to be. Humera had admitted to Richard years later right that she was impressed by his “striking aquamarine eyes and black hair” right away but, had insisted on getting to know him first.

“Oh, so shallow of you, my eyes and hair appealed to you more than my good soul!” he had teased her.

She had quoted Shakespeare with a sparkle in her eyes. “The eyes are the window to your soul.” He had dramatically rolled his eyes to that and she had giggled. Shakespeare was a part of their daily life.

He had said with theatric precision, “Hear my soul speak. For the very instant that I saw you, Did my heart fly to your service.” He then took her in his arms and overwhelmed her with deep kisses.

They had bonded over their love for classical English literature, especially Shakespeare back in their undergraduate days. That is where they had met—at the Shakespeare Club in Rutgers.

“Oh, by the way I should correct myself. Striking aquamarine eyes, black hair and passion for Shakespeare”, she had said returning his kisses.

“We are such ancient souls!” Richard had said and Humera had nodded her head with an indulgent grin pulling up the corners of her mouth.

Richard had gone on to work for Microsoft after college. Humera went backpacking with a friend for a year to India and Pakistan much against her parents’ wish. The young and vagabond heart in Humera had enjoyed exploring historical monuments. She went back to the U.S. and told her father that she was interested in the history of Mughal architecture. Her father, born in Hyderabad, and a professor in History himself, was thrilled to hear that. She soon enrolled in the History PhD program at Columbia.

Richard bumped into Humera again after he came back to New York City, following his stint at Microsoft. Their friendship bloomed into love this time and they decided to get married. By then she was in the last phase of data collection for her PhD thesis and had to travel one more time to Pakistan before she could sit down to finish her dissertation. Richard had joined a financial firm post-MBA and was working seventy hours a week. Both were busy with their work and could hardly spend much time together but they were going to make it up to each other on their first anniversary. And then suddenly their whole World fell apart.

Humera wanted to cover Lahore one last time to collect data on Lahore fort and Badshahi Mosque before she joined Richard in Delhi. The night before she was supposed to leave for Delhi and meet Richard for their anniversary vacation, she had requested the local family hosting her in Lahore to take her to the famous Anarkali Food Street. Their youngest daughter Fatima had enthusiastically assembled her brothers and sisters for a trip to the Food Street. They had ordered food in one of the popular roadside eateries there. Humera had just taken her first bite of the sheikh kabab when she heard a deafening loud blast. She had felt molten pain erupt in different parts of her body and tried to reach out to the remains of her cell phone desperately.


Richard had heard enough about Agra to have an idea of the places he wanted to visit but he was not in a frame of mind to plan anything. In the last year, he had drifted aimlessly and often wondered how he was alive when Humera was not. Life is greedy. It fights for survival even when it does not wish to survive. So, Richard had survived. He shook hands with his tourist guide, a middle-aged, portly man with a head full of neatly combed hair and a toothy grin.

“Welcome to Agra Richard Sir!”

“Thank you. Call me Richard. What should I call you?” said Richard.

“Sir you can call me Manu or Kumar, which ever you prefer”, said Mahendra.

“Call me Richard, please. Okay, I prefer Manu. I need some coffee before we talk. My head is pounding.” said Richard.

“Sir…sorry Richard…can I call you Richard ji?”

Richard stared blank faced and said, “Yup, okay”.

“If you want to feel fresh I will take you to a wonderful rooftop café that serves the best coffee in the city. It is in the midst of a lot of hustle bustle, a good place to feel the pulse of the city and start a discussion on what you would like to do in Agra. It’s not a long ride from here. We will reach soon.”

Richard sat sipping masala tea and staring at Taj. They were close to its West Gate. Manu had persuaded Richard to try the local masala tea instead of coffee and experience the “tea with the view of Taj”.

Richard found the taste a bit too strong for his liking but it was effectively curing his headache. Manu drew up a list of places they would visit in the coming four days. He asked, “Are you interested in the monuments mainly or do you want to get a taste of the culture and people of Agra as well?”

 Richard moved his gaze away from Taj reluctantly and focused on Manu.

Manu said with a big smile. “If you want to see the heart of Agra, I can take you to Kinari Bazaar in the Old City”, he said.


A riot of colors and smells bombarded Richard as they reached Kinari Bazaar, a tangle of narrow lanes housing colorful merchandise—spices, clothes, shoes and food stalls. Handcrafted leather items, marble inlayed tables and boxes, trinkets and souvenirs were stuffed in every corner. He could envision Humera bargaining with the shopkeepers happily, ogling at the artefacts appreciatively. She would have looked beautiful in colorful clothes. He took in a sharp breath. Pain followed him everywhere he went.

“Do you want to take some souvenir like this back home, Richard ji?” said Manu holding a tiny marble replica of Taj. said. Richard remembered the dozen of replicas sitting on his living room shelf in his house in New York City. In their home. “I don’t need to take this home”, he said quickly and started walking away from the stalls.

Manu caught up with him. “You are right! What is it compared to the real Taj. But you can carry back inlay work or leather belt or shoes.”

“No, I don’t want anything from here. Can we go from here?” he asked grimly.

Manu blinked his eyes and tried to think quickly. “Maybe you are jetlagged. A good night’s rest will make you feel much better tomorrow.” Richard did not respond and Manu added, “I can suggest a nice place for dinner”. Richard looked undecided. “What time is it?” he asked.

“It is eight.”

“Is there a place I could get some beer before I wind down for the day?”

“I will take you to an air-conditioned place, not like the terrace café I took you to earlier. Maybe all this pollution is making you unhappy”, said Manu.

“Maybe I am not used to so many sensations. I feel overwhelmed. It would be nice if we could go somewhere comfortable.” On their way to the restaurant, Richard mentioned that he wanted to see Taj at night on a full moon. He knew that it would be full moon only in two days. Manu thought that to be an excellent idea. They decided to visit Fatehpur Sikri the following morning.

Richard guzzled down two-three beers one after another a bit too fast. Coming to Agra was a horrible idea he decided. His hands were shaking. He hated sitting at the beautiful poolside bar surrounded by smiling couples. He went back to his hotel room and threw himself on the bed as tears streamed down his cheeks. He had not been able to see Humera’s body after the blast. There was nothing to see. She was close to the epicenter of the powerful bomb.

Richard was not particularly religious but he had often sat in a church near his condominium for hours in the last few months. He would ask the same questions again and again and again. Why Humera? Why us? What did we do? His parents, his friends–tried to reach out to him but he had become obscure, inaccessible. He went back to reading Shakespeare and burying himself in work. He worked like an automaton, day and night, not pausing to reflect on his situation.

One late evening, Richard’s company head plucked him out of his office cabin and sat him down for advice. For a brief moment, Richard thought he was getting fired. David Campbell, his company head, an English by birth, was one of the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the financier community of New York. He understood his craft well and was a slave driver of the worst kind. Yet, he had the undivided loyalty of the employees in his skinny boutique firm. David knew how to win people over with his honesty and forthrightness. He bulldozed into Richard’s disturbed mind and stole his attention for the first time since Humera’s death.

“You look like shit!” That was so David. Richard was embarrassed. He ran his long fingers through his messy hair. “I am sorry. I can quickly clean up. Is there a meeting later today?”

David glared at Richard. “I am pretty sure you feel like shit as well.” David was a large intimidating man. He put his big fleshy palms on Richard’s shoulders and spoke directly. “Look, son, I am scared for you. I know what happened. That was cruel. But you are clearly not helping yourself.”

Richard coughed nervously. “I don’t think I am messing up my work. Is this what this is about? Are you firing me?” Richard asked hesitantly.

David’s eyes softened. “No, no, no!” He took a deep breath and continued, “I am concerned about you. You need to take some time off and go find yourself. I know you are tough but you are not being fair to yourself right now.”

Richard sat motionlessly. “You have lost your soul, son. You need to go look for it. Otherwise, you are going to get killed”, said David. “I mean it Richard. Take a few weeks off. Travel or rest or spend it with your family and friends, whatever helps you steal yourself back. You cannot let fate decide everything for you. You have got to fight back.”

David was making a gesture he didn’t really need to. Richard looked up at David with respect. David awkwardly strode forward and gave him a tight hug. “Promise me you will not let yourself go! Life is a marathon. You have to jog on.” He almost barked into Richard’s ears.

They talked some more and then Richard was allowed to escape from David’s hawk-like eyes. It had stirred something in him. He had gone to his parent’s house after work that night. His mother had wept like many other times. His tough father had also looked shaken. They did not know how to comfort him. He had visited Humera’s parents the next day and the scene had repeated. Amidst their own grief, they did not know how to console Richard.

Richard was sick of feeling like this–living without hope or happiness. One night after returning home from a long day at work, his eyes fell on Humera’s collection of little Taj Mahals. That weekend Richard decided to go to Agra. Perhaps what he sought was hidden in one of Humera’s favorite places.


Manu woke up early next morning in Kanchhpura, the shantytown near Taj. Most tourists in Agra were not aware that fifty percent of the city’s population lived in these slums. Hidden beneath the glorious veneer of the Taj, lay the squalor of slums and poverty. Thousands of foreign tourists brought in a hefty amount of revenue to the Taj alone yet poverty was a way of life for most in Agra.

Manu had big dreams once. His grandfather and his father, worked with leather. His younger brother was continuing this tradition but Manu was never interested in the craft. Manu wanted to pursue higher education after completing Bachelors in English Honors. But his father had fallen into difficult economic times and required his assistance. He was not as skillful as his brother, so Manu ended up trying to manage the commercial side of his family business instead. He had tried to inject new life into his family business but there was too much competition. Modern shoe factories had cannibalized their market and customers, leaving a tiny space for family shoemaking businesses to prosper in. Manu spent most of his early mornings helping his brother with shoe deliveries to their contractor.

He had his fingers dipped in several income-generating pots to sustain his big extended family. His fluency in English and knowledge of history had helped him to register as a tour guide. Manu tried to get the foreign tourists as much as possible because they were better tippers. He had also tried to set up a marble inlay business with a friend but that had not prospered. The endeavor had racked up a big amount of debt instead. Not sure how to manage all these different strings together, Manu often felt overwhelmed. He was forty-two years old, with a wife and two children to care of. He had been trying to keep it all together for a while but lately he felt like he was stretching himself a bit too thin.

Manu was generally good in understanding tourists but Richard seemed a mystery to him. He looked so sad. Manu was not sure if he was at all interested in site seeing. The Khan Brothers had seen him at Kinari Bazaar with Richard. His mind took a jerky turn towards disturbing thoughts. They had been asking him for the money he owed them for a long time. Before long they would reach his home and start harassing his family. His friends had warned him about the Khan Brothers but he did not have much choice. Now they were suggesting sinister schemes that were making him uncomfortable. He had to figure something out soon to tide over this prickly situation. Pushing his worries away behind his neatly combed hair, Manu reached ITC Mughal hotel to find Richard waiting for him. The beer and the night’s sleep had done him good, Manu noted. He looked more cheerful than last night.

“Richard ji, you ready for Fatehpur Sikri?”

Richard smiled, his blue eyes lighting up brilliantly. “Yes, I am ready Manu. How long would it take us to reach our destination today?”

“It’s an hour from here”, said Manu as he climbed into the rented car. As Richard settled down in the car Manu started, “Emperor Akbar decided to construct Fatehpur in the second half of the 16th Century on the same site where the birth of his son Jahangir, was predicted by the wise Shaikh Salim Chisti. Sikri is one of the finest examples of Mughal architectural splendor. You will notice the culmination of Hindu and Muslim influence creating something rather magical. But however much I try to describe, the visual effect can only be felt when you see it with your own eyes. It’s… what is that word? Inexplicable!”

Richard noticed how good Manu’s English was. In spite of the heavy Hindi accent, he spoke very clearly. “Tell me Manu, why is it called a ghost city?”

“It was the capital of Mughal Empire for only a decade or so. After that it had to be abandoned because of lack of adequate water supply. So, it has remained unused but well preserved for hundreds of years. That’s why the name”, explained Manu.

Richard stared wide-eyed at the 15 stories high gateway, the Buland Darwaza. Manu let him linger there for a while. He showed Richard how to cover his head with his handkerchief and walked towards the pristine Salim Chisti. Enclosed with delicate marble screens on all sides, the beautiful marble carving gave it an exquisite ivory-like appearance. “You see these strings tied to the marble screen?” Manu pointed to the innumerable red strings tied to the delicate canopy. “People of all religion come to pray at the shrine. They tie threads in the belief that their wishes would be fulfilled and they would be blessed with an offspring. Would you like to tie one?” Manu was expecting to surprise Richard but his face looked cloudier than before.

“No, I don’t want to”, he said quickly.

Manu would not let go that easily. He said, “You should at least tie one on behalf of your wife or fiancé…or girl friend?”

His smile faltered as Richard gripped his shoulders firmly and told him slowly in wanted sounded like a growl, “My wife is dead.”

Now Manu understood why he was so sad. Richard was grieving for his wife. “I am so sorry to hear that”, he said in a squeaky voice.

Richard took his hands off of Manu and sat down heavily on the steps. Manu sat beside him. It was still early in the day and not very crowded. They could sit there for a while without being disturbed. Richard took a deep breath after a while and said, “Let’s go from here. Show me the rest of the place.”

After spending some time in the Jama Masjid complex, Manu took Richard to the part with the public buildings. Manu told Richard about Akbar’s religious councils that led to the creation of his new faith, Din-i-ilahi. “Akbar encouraged debate on philosophical and religious issues. From all those discussions, he concluded that no one religion could claim the monopoly of truth. This inspired him to create Din-i-ilahi in 1852. Not that it had many adherents but it made Akbar famous for his broadmindedness and humanity.”

Richard found the concept modern and humane. If only people thought about religion so openly today there would not be so much bloodshed and misery he thought bitterly. And young innocent lives would not be snatched up so cruelly. He shook his head to disperse the thoughts, he could not allow the darkness to claim him again today. He owed this much to Humera.

Richard had noticed a dip in Manu’s enthusiasm as the day passed. Perhaps he shouldn’t have blurted out about Humera. But he couldn’t help not mentioning it. Humera would have enjoyed this visit. She would have skipped along, not just walked. She would have told him stories about the place, about the kind of people that lived in the city hundreds of years ago. He thought of those times when Humera would pester him with details from the Mughal era amidst a completely unrelated discussion. He could now understand why she was so deeply interested. After another hour of drifting in and out of memories, Richard told Manu that he was ready to go back to Agra.

On their way back, Manu was unusually quiet.

“Is there something that we can do this evening in Agra?” said Richard trying to strike up a conversation. Manu seemed a bit distracted.

“We can go to Mahtab Bagh. It is quite nice for an evening stroll. Later we can go to the Agra Fort Light and Sound Show. It’s quite impressive. The English show starts around seven in the evening.”

Richard thought this over and asked, “When are we doing the Taj night show?”

“That is the night after tomorrow. It’s a full moon night. I will book our tickets today”, said Manu.

Richard said slowly, “I… apologize for being distracted sometimes.”

Manu looked at Richard with a gentleness. “That is fine Richard ji. I understand”.

Manu’s mood had soured over the day. Last evening, he had spotted the Khan Brothers staring at him at Kinari Bazar near one of the spice stalls. Today he had found one of them lurking in the stables at Fatehpur. What were the brothers up to?

Earlier while Richard sat down for a short break, Manu had excused himself for a few minutes. He had hastily pulled Ismail to a corner. “Why are you following me around? I saw you two at Kinari yesterday as well. I have told your brother that I need some additional time to arrange for the money but you still keep pestering me.”

Ismail’s mouth was always full of beetle leaves and added a menacing lisp to his speech. “I told Dara that he is being a fool trusting you. You said you need extra time two months ago. Do you still have a plan or do we suggest something?”

Manu snapped at him. “This is neither the place nor the time to discuss such things. I am with a client. Go away now. I will call you later this evening.”

Ismail scratched his unshaven chin with sinewy hands and looked at Manu ominously through his kohl-lined eyes. “Your foreigner client looks rich, he said.

Manu put up his hands to warn him. “Shut your dirty mouth and go from here.”

Ismail grabbed at Manu’s windcheater collar and said through gritted teeth, “You didn’t mind taking money from our dirty hands when you needed it and now you talk to us like this!”

A group of tourists was startled to witness their scuffle. Ismail let go of Manu but held up a threatening finger. “You need to hear about this plan we are making. It will benefit you as well”, he said before leaving.

On his way back to Agra, Manu could not stop thinking of the mess he had landed himself in. In his teenage and more reckless days he was close to Ismail. He did not mind participating in petty crimes to make some extra bucks back then. But as he matured, he started looking down on them. But when he wanted to invest in the marble inlay venture and the banks turned him down, he had to borrow a lump sum from the Khan Brothers. In spite of his initial optimism, market reality struck hard and crumpled his hope. He was left with pieces of his broken dream and a hefty debt in the end.

He had been working two jobs to gather the full amount of money he owed Dara and Ismail but it was taking him longer than he had anticipated. He had to pull off something big to make the full and final payment to them. But how? He needed a new idea. Something fast and big.

After leaving Richard at Mahtab Bagh Manu rushed off to meet Dara. “This foreigner you are working for these days, he is loaded.” Manu was not surprised. He knew Dara had sources everywhere, even in ITC Mughal. How else would he know about Richard?

“He seems unmindful as well”, Dara added.

Manu grunted in response. “Hmm…he is grieving his wife’s death. I think we should leave him alone”, he said in a low voice.

Dara looked at him with a cunning smile. “I have not called you here for your counseling. You do your part, we do ours and we both get richer and happier”, said Dara.

A bitter taste was cooking up inside Manu’s dry mouth. He knew Dara had sources that profiled tourists coming into Agra, especially foreigners checking into expensive hotels. “He has two Credit Cards and is carrying Traveler’s Checks. He also has a bundle of Indian currency”, said Dara matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t happen too often that you get such a fat and distracted client, right? He emitted a mean chuckle that sent shivers down Manu’s spine.

He coughed uneasily and said, “What do I need to do?”


Richard had found his way back to the Rooftop Café and ordered the masala chai he had not quite liked the day before. It had the power to get rid of his constant headaches. He had been gulping down too many pills lately.

He had to think right in order to plan precisely. The next two days were crucial. He was onto his second cup when Manu arrived. “You want some?” Richard asked Manu.

Manu refused politely. He wished he did not have to accompany Richard to the Light and Sound show at Agra Fort but he did not have an excuse to wiggle out of it this late. He was also supposed to keep an eye on Richard’s movements from now on.

Richard enjoyed the Light and Sound show. He felt relaxed as he started walking back to the car after the show. While getting into the car he touched his waist and realized that his fanny pack was not tied around it. All his valuables—his passport, money, credit cards, everything was in it. He looked at Manu with panic-stricken eyes. Richard now remembered that he had taken off the belt bag while watching the show to feel more comfortable. How could he be so unmindful? There was no way he was going to get it back now. Not in Agra. Manu gave him an indulgent smile and dangled his bag in front of him. After half hugging and half wrestling him for a few seconds out of sheer relief, Richard invited Manu to have dinner with him.

An hour later, they sat munching on their gigantic masala dosas at Dasaprakash restaurant. Richard was savoring the taste of bold flavors as the fermented rice and lentil crepe melted into his mouth.

Manu had to talk to all his clients and answer their questions politely but none of them had actually taken much interest in him. Richard was different. Richard asked him about his life. Manu opened up a bit. He gradually realized that he enjoyed talking to Richard. He wanted to know more about Richard as well. He wanted to ask him about his wife, about his struggle and how he was dealing with it but he knew he couldn’t probe too deep. That could trigger another spell of bad mood and an abrupt end to their advancing rapport.

He couldn’t risk that. He required Richard’s full trust to pull off the plan.

Richard asked Manu, “I know we were thinking of going back to Agra Fort tomorrow morning but can we go to Taj Mahal instead?”

Manu was taken aback. His heart started fluttering unevenly. “Don’t you want to visit Taj at night anymore? It is an experience one can only dream of having once in their lifetime. You have come at such a perfect time. Just a day away from full moon…” he said trying to mask his anxiety with reasonableness.

“I am still interested in the night visit but, I would like to see Taj during the day, as well. It meant a lot to someone close to me”, said Richard. Manu did not dare to breathe. Richard continued, “Why don’t we go to Taj early in the morning tomorrow? Could we do that?”

“Of course, we could do that. I can meet you outside Taj’s east gate early in the morning if you don’t mind getting up a bit early tomorrow.”

Richard sensed her presence as he was getting ready to go to bed. She was running her slender fingers through her glossy curls the way she always did when she was delighted about something. Are you ready to visit our Taj tomorrow? she whispered.

“Yes darling, will you be next to me?”

 I will be there she spoke so softly. She draped her delicate arms around his neck and melted into him. With her fragrance and touch seeping into his soul, Richard drifted off to a peaceful sleep.


The Sun’s soft rays on a misty morning lent Taj a pinkish hue. It looked like a dream, it looked like a shy young bride waiting patiently for her companion on the banks of river Yamuna.  The stormiest of gusts, the wildest of beasts, and the unkindest of hearts could be tamed and conquered here with just its breathtaking beauty. Richard’s mind was full of mixed emotions.

Manu said gently, “Can you imagine the love with which a king builds something like this for his queen?” Richard was quiet as well.

“The archives state that the royal couple were especially close for those times. That what makes it even more special. You know it is said that the concept of romantic love is a European concept. In the Eastern World the emotion of love is impersonal. Love for religion, love for parents, love for country, love for God—all kinds of love are discussed but not romantic love. But Shahjahan’s memorial to his queen Mumtaz Mahal is the World’s most exquisite symbol of romantic love.”

Richard nodded his head silently to that.

“Shahjahan was a cruel and cunning emperor… but he loved his queen dearly”, said Manu lost in his thoughts. Richard could easily envision Humera wearing her loose salwar kameez and jhumkas leading the way with her tinkling laughter and non-stop chatter.

Manu observed Richard shivering under his thin black sweater. He felt a wave of sympathy towards the man.

They started exploring the inner chamber of the tomb, walking around the huge balcony and elaborate garden, staring at the intricate inlay work all over the fantastic architectural splendor that had taken thousands of craftsmen twenty-two years to complete. Richard grew distant after an hour of Manu’s chatter. Manu took this as a sign of his declining interest. “Richard ji, I know a great breakfast place nearby. Do you want to make a stop there before we move on to Agra Fort?”

Richard narrowed his eyes and turned around to face Manu, as if he thought Manu had lost his mind. “What? That is it? You said you know everything about Taj. Show me every nook and cranny, will you? I want to go where only bats have gone in the last few years”, he said with a peculiar alertness and walked back towards the main tomb. Manu let out a tired sigh. There was no point trying to figure out his client. Though recent developments had forced him to observe Richard well, along with his sympathies for him, he also had a really creepy feeling about this man.

They spent the next two hours looking inside the Taj complex. Manu found Richard obsessed with the monument. When they were almost done touring it, Richard said to Manu appreciatively, “You should start writing all this down. These stories, these details—you say it so well!” Manu bit his lips bitterly. That is exactly what he desired to do when he was young. But he couldn’t. He did not belong to a rich family that could afford such luxuries. He had to kill his dream of studying Mughal history and settle down to a more mundane life. And that made him bitter. Very bitter.

Why did he come to Agra? To look for Humera? Why should she be here? But why not? Humera’s father had once mentioned over hot cocoa on a Thanksgiving weekend that they were descendants of the Mughals, and he had laughed hard till he had happy tears streaking his cheeks. But later Humera had traced their family tree back to the days of the empire and actually found a credible link. No wonder I have feel a deep connection with their architecture she had said in a lofty serious voice. Richard had called her begum Humera and teased her for a full week after that. The fleeting memory brought a lump up his throat.

They deserved to live together for a long time. They deserved to cook and clean, argue and fight, make and raise children together. They deserved to die in each other’s arms when they were old and spent. But fate had snatched that away from them. With all these thoughts tumbling around in his head Richard eyed his roller suitcase again. He touched a pouch inside. He didn’t have the heart to bring it out. No, he was not ready to think about it yet. His heart did a crazy leap to his throat and started hammering in his chest. He dumped his roller with a thud beside the bed and crawled into a scrunched fetal position. He didn’t know for how long he lay there like that until Manu came for him later that night.

“Are you up to doing something different?” Manu asked Richard.

Richard was confused. “Were we supposed to go out tonight?”

“No Richard ji. But if you don’t have any plans for tonight I will take you to a place that you will truly enjoy”, said Manu.

Richard scratched his head and asked Manu, “What do you have in mind?” “What Richard ji last two days you spent looking at monuments and museums full of ghosts…I thought you might enjoy visiting a place where the folks in Agra live and work”, said Manu with a teasing smile.

They spent the next few hours loitering the streets of Agra and talking. Manu found Richard warm and personable, not at all like the cold and removed person he had found him initially.

After a few beers, Manu got chatty. “You foreigners come to India and see only the shining part. There are so many of us who have got left behind. We are neither young and savvy nor old and useless yet we struggle with an antique set of skills that is of no use in small cities like Agra. Nobody is interested in us Richard ji, neither the politicians nor the Press. We are too old to change, too young to die and too embarrassing to discuss!”  Richard raised his eyebrows. He looked on as Manu continued spewing bitterness and hauling out his contempt without reservation.


Manu and Richard lined up for the night tour. The moon rays lit up the entire monument and gave it a silvery glow. It was one thing to see the Taj bathed in shades of pink during sunrise, but seeing it gleaming like a polished diamond under the moonlit sky was entirely different.

Richard’s eyes teared up. Humera, I am here at last. Come to me, come to me. Where are you? He saw a shimmery shadow float over the tomb. It called towards him. Humera is calling me. Yes darling I am here for you. I knew I would find you here. He was not sure if he was mumbling this aloud because everyone was staring at him. Manu, trapped in his mission related anxiety decided not to pay heed to it. They went up the garden near the monument and stopped at a nearby sandstone platform. Somebody was repeatedly announcing that no one should try to get too near. That was the rule. It was unusually crowded, which was natural for full moon nights.

Perspiration trickled down Manu’s face as he spotted Dara’s brother, Ismail, standing near one of the four towers. The plan was to nab Richard after casting a shallow blow on Manu’s head once they came near the tower. They would drug him to sleep and snatch all his money and credit cards. They would leave him near the gate afterwards and Manu would pretend to look for him nursing his fresh wound. He would make a big show of his concern for Richard and take him to his hotel. They would make sure not to take his passport so that he could eventually go back to where he came from.

But as they approached the tower Richard took off on his own in another direction. He turned abruptly towards the main tomb and disappeared out of sight. Manu had no idea that a tipsy and disoriented Richard could take off on his own so fast. Ismail started towards Richard but lost him as well. Manu ran towards the main tomb and back again towards Ismail who stood looking bewildered. “You can’t take care of a simple task. Move and let us look for him!” said Ismail shoving Manu out of his way. He turned abruptly. “Wait for me here!” he said in a menace laced voice.

Richard hauled his bag up a flight of stairs and set it down on the marble platform next to him. He looked up at the moon. When Love speaks, the voice of all the gods. Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony. He could hear Humera’s sweet voice in his ears. He caught himself mumbling. Love is merely a madness…deserves as well a dark house and a whip, as madmen do: and the reason why they are not so punished and cured, is, that the lunacy is so ordinary, that the whippers are in love too. Only Shakespeare understood him and his Humera. He had uttered these lines several times before but now he truly felt them. He started gulping down the sleeping pills quickly before he could change his mind. He had tried in the last year to find a way out of his despair and he had not succeeded. He had spoken to his mother earlier tonight. It was a long and emotional conversation. He felt bad for her. He felt knew that he was being selfish but he couldn’t drag on like this anymore. The moon started looking ominous. The river glittered in the moonlight and turned into a slithering snake. Richard caught a shadow looming up from the river near him. Or was it an apparition? Or was it Humera? The shadow was trying to tell him something. The difference between reality and imagination was slipping away as Richard’s vision started swimming.

Manu had not waited for Ismail’s return. He thought of the places he had taken Richard inside the Taj. He ran to some of the spots he remembered but did not find Richard. Then he remembered a side entrance that had taken them to an abandoned balcony. Richard had spent some time up there and mentioned with a how secluded it was. Manu tasted bile in the back of his mouth as he rushed to that balcony. What if Ismail found him and hurt him? He spotted a woman-like shadow drifting above a flight of stairs visible through the side entrance. His anxiety was making him imagine all sorts of things perhaps. He ran up the stairs and froze. A chill ran down his spine. He was not imagining it. A floating vision was beckoning him towards it. It was pointing him towards the end of the balcony. Without thinking further Manu raced towards that direction.

He found Richard crumpled in a dark heap in the corner. Instinct told Manu to check if he was breathing. Fortunately, he was, but it was strained. Manu found an empty bottle of pills and something shiny in Richard’s hand. It looked like a thin blade sticking out of a pen. Richard’s hands were shaking badly. Manu kicked away the blade and shook Richard hard. He whispered urgently, “Richard ji what were you trying to do to yourself? Have you lost your mind?” Richard’s eyes were closed. He was slurring his words. “Take me with you Humera, please take me with you”. “No Richard ji I will not let you end your life like this”, said Manu in a determined voice.


Manu spent the whole night worrying about Richard while the doctor flushed out the remains of his stomach. The doctor told him early next morning that Richard was out of danger but he needed to be watched over for a few days. After two days in the hospital, Manu helped Richard move to a home-based guest house.

Ismail and Dara had followed Manu to the hospital a day after the incident. Manu had told Ismail and Dara how the incident unfolded that night. He also told them with a steely determination that they would have to find another way. That he would not let them harm Richard in any way. He had expected the brothers to get belligerent and violent but they mellowed down after hearing about Richard’s intention of ending his life.

Richard looked sad but he did not try to end his life again. Manu spent a lot of time hanging around him. Richard started talking about Humera, about all the details and choked up feelings that had not come out of him till now. Manu would just nod his head and listen. As he healed Manu booked Richard’s ticket back to New York from Delhi. The night before Richard was leaving for Delhi Manu told him everything. He had expected Richard to get angry with him, perhaps even ask him to leave, but he did nothing of that sort. Instead, he slowly took a step towards him, and then another till Manu could almost feel his breath on him. His aquamarine eyes held an unreadable expression. He threw his arms around Manu’s stout frame and hugged him fiercely. They started weeping together.

The next morning Richard gave Manu a brown envelope with all the money he had on himself and a lot more that he had withdrawn from the ATM. Manu refused to take it but Richard would not take no for an answer. He said in a choking voice, “This is from Humera, my angel who sent you to save my life.”

Manu looked at him wide-eyed.

“You saw her as well!” Richard said in a gravelly voice,


About the author: 

After spending seven years immersed in public policy analysis, writing non-fiction articles for newspapers and policy blogs in the U.S.A., Sreya broke free from the World of policy and stepped into the World of fiction. She has penned several short stories that have been published in U.S. and Indian magazines.