The Taj Mahal is so familiar because it is the most beautiful of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, these wonders are ancient and sublime, large architectural marvels that inspire us with mankind’s grandiosity. But the Taj Mahal is so special not because of it scale, but because of the passion that inspired it. The real wonder is the artistry found in the details.
The entire building is made of Rajasthan white marble, which on the facade is chiseled in bas relief into flowers and intricate filigrees. Inlaid stones, pietra dura, vines of green and red and yellow surround these marble plaques and inside the mausoleum, surrounding the tomb of the Shah and his beloved, for whom he built this temple, is a gate of marble with even finer tracery. He brought in artisans from Persia to finish the building, and the architect’s genius was in raising the dome above the minarets, which lean slightly away from the Taj so they won’t topple onto it in an earthquake. It took 30 years to create and almost emptied the Shah’s empire of its funds. But you have to sacrifice to create something of such beauty.
And so when I was sitting on the east sandstone and marble prayer hall, admiring the oblong shadows in the recesses of the facade, I thought of how nice it would be to wake in the morning and see this sight, in the same way I woke to the beauty of say, Joanna, in Poland when I saw her refilling the coffee pot in the hostel. Then I said, They’re going to get offended or cite cliche if you compare the Taj Mahal to a beautiful woman.
Is that the kind of writer you’re becoming? The kind who cares about what your readers think, who works with results in mind?
Well, no. But it is important to consider– I mean they’re the ones reading. And if my work is to be exceptional, as best as it can be, you must put yourself in the audience’s place.
You’re not comparing the Taj Mahal to a beautiful woman– that would be too easy; you’re comparing the feeling it gives you, the desire to see beauty on a continual basis, the deep human, soul-stirring quivering desire to somehow own that beauty, and the deep pleasure and dare I say, inspiration, it affords in a glimpse to the man easily influenced, the one down on his luck, etc., to see something in perfect symmetry and in exact accordance with how we would want to see it. You’re drawing a comparison in how the desire to own beauty, though base in a Buddhist sense, and our craving for beauty, comes into being.
This logic I found infallible. I kept thinking about the details that make a piece of work endure, how if you want to build something as spectacular as this, it is possible, although it comes with great sacrifice, and how if you succeed, if every word is just right, then the renown of that book will spread across the world because they will be unable to ignore its greatness. I considered the passion that moves a man to take upon this kind of project and aligned it with my own.
And in the middle of the night, as I lay in the Delhi airport after dropping off Dad, after being woken by a mosquito bite on my arm, and rubbing on DEET cream instead of covering myself in my sleeping bag, sweating, behind the large pillar that blocked the airport noise, I thought about how I would write this. Because now I realize that the best thing about artistic beauty is its permanence; it will long outlast you. And the desire to own beauty is silly, no more than a carnal urge; you cannot possess beauty; the best you can do is let it free in the world, and let it come back to you, as love, memory, or in the knowledge that your sacrifice and attention to the slightest details was for its sake.