Taj by T N Murari (New English Library, £9.95).
'FHE Taj Mahal is probably the most generally familiar of all the world's great buildings and monuments; perhaps only the pyramids of Egypt are as unmistakeable. Most of us know that it was built by a Moghul emperor as a tomb for his wife. T N Murari's novel Taj tells how it was built and why.
It is divided into paralled narratives (confusingly, at first, I found), one called the "Love Story", the other the "Taj Mahal". The love story of course takes place at an earlier date than the other, which describes the building of the extraordinary tomb, on which 20,000 worked day and night for 22 years. Murthi, a Hindu carver, spends his entire life making a marble screen round the sarcophagus. Watching over him and his work is Int, the Empress's servant, who loved her and spent a devoted lifetime caring for her, The love story was strange, in particular for its period, the 17th century, when marriages were arranged for political and financial reasons, and a royal heir was expected to advance his family by marrying the child of a great ally. Shah Jahan, later to become Sovereign of the World, the Scourge of God, the Shadow of Allah, the Conqueror, at 15 saw a 12-year-old nobleman's daughter, Arjumand, spoke briefly with her, and knew no other woman would ever be his wife. Arjumand fell in love as deeply as he did.
His father, the Emperor, refused to allow the marriage, suggesting that Arjumand should become his second wife, but Jahan refused: his heirs were to be her children, no other woman's. So for years they were separated, Arjumand refusing her parents' demands that she marry the man they chose. Jahan actually going through a marriage ceremony with the Shah of Persia's niece, but refusing to consummate the union so that, after some years, she was called barren and packed off home again.
At last, when the Emperor married Arjumand's aunt, the young pair were allowed to marry, and for 20 years they lived in perfect love. Their life was unsettled, for Jahan was often at war and Arjumand refused to be parted from him while he led his armies. Though increasingly exhausted by her pregnancies, she followed him everywhere; after fourteen of them, at the age of 35, she died.
T N Murari is an Indian, educated in India, who came to Britain after university and worked as a free-lance journalist, contributing, to the Guardian, 'the Sunday Times and the Observer. He has written novels, plays, television documentaries, a study of Liverpool street children, and is now writing a travel book about India. His background allows him to give the story of Taj an intensity which a non-Indian could probably not achieve; an insider's view of the tragic history of the last Moghuls, tragic because the sons of Jahan and Arjumand destroyed one another, and the Empire, in the next generation, Taj describes a life of exotic excess, in which the singleminded love of the central pair shone steadily, passionately, and lastingly. Around it, political and military events seem peripheral, because power struggles pass, dynasties change, India's history shifts massively, but the love of the Moghul emperor enshrined in the Taj Mahal is commemorated and remembered for ever.