Book: Beneath a Marble Sky: A Love Story
Author: John Shors
Publisher: NAL Trade
Genre: Historical Fiction / Royalty
“You know, Shah Jahan, life and youth, wealth and glory, they all drift away in the current of time. You strove, therefore, to perpetuate only the sorrow of your heart. Let the splendour of diamond, pearl and ruby vanish. Only let this one teardrop, this Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever.” — Rabindranath Tagore.
Undoubtedly, the Taj Mahal is one of the most celebrated architectural wonders of the world. However, it is surprising that not many in the West know anything about why it was built and the passion this majestic edifice symbolises. In his debut novel Beneath a Marble Sky, author John Shors takes this opportunity to recount the tale of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s legendary love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj Mahal was built as a mausoleum. Shors quite effectively transports the modern reader into seventeenth century India, thereby displaying a unique mastery of the historical fiction genre. Merging keen historical details with fable, Shors explores every nook and corner of Mughal Hindustan; from court intrigue and wars of succession to architecture, poetry and the enormous wealth of the royal family.
Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter Princess Jahanara, an ambitious and courageous yet highly conniving woman, tells the story of her parents’ love and at the same time, recounts her clandestine love affair with the architect of the Taj Mahal, Ustad Isa.
While Shah Jahan and his wife symbolise the passion of love, Jahanara’s tale also explores the passions of jealousy and greed. Beneath a Marble Sky is not only the story of the building of a historic monument but also a tale of the very annihilation of an imperial family owing to deadly sibling rivalry. The liberal and compassionate Prince Dara Shikoh, the Heir Apparent, is challenged to the Peacock Throne by his intolerant and highly orthodox brother Aurangzeb. This fight between the forces of moderation and extremism within Islam still exists in our midst, and so, this novel bears remarkable relevance to our times despite being set four hundred years in the past.
John Shors gives all his characters distinct voices and his style of writing is extremely lyrical — almost poetic. It is remarkable how he attempts to tell the tale from the perspective of an imperial princess and succeeds at it. While most would argue that the novel does nothing more than help the modern reader escape into an unfamiliar realm, I believe that this work deals with issues that are very pertinent to our troubled times — such as the ridge between moderation and extremism, as well as the universal and eternal passions of forbidden love, envy and the lust for power.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2011.