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THE TAJ MAHAL AT 300
September 27, 2004
 
Today is the 300th birthday of the Taj Mahal. A release of doves is planned at sunrise, and a classical music concert. I wish I were there to see.

The Taj Mahal glows against an impossibly blue sky. We return to it several times, to see it in different lights. Its beauty has not been over-reported. We stand in the window of the palace in which Shah Jahan, its creator, watched its construction for thirty years -- under house arrest all that time, imprisoned by his own son. The Taj is a tomb, as everyone knows: Shah Jahan sleeps in it along with his beloved wife, for whom he built it.

"Why did his son imprison him?" I ask the guide.

"Oh, he wanted to be king," he says with a smile.

I run through my mental store of historical patterns: I can;t remember too many sons who overthrew fathers. I'm not sure I can place any, in fact. Brothers and sisters, oh yes, and many cousins and in-laws, but a son? What s bitter thing that must have been for the aging ruler. But what a redeeming thing to watch through the window as the beautiful marble tomb took shape against the sky!

Redemption. Maybe that is what is palpable here, more so than at home. I was something just this side of a cadaver when I left New York, exhausted, discouraged, spent. For the first week I said little, slept heavily and often -- on buses, on planes, as well as in bed at night. It was really my husband's idea to come here: India was a distant enough place to override even my addiction to work. But I have regained more of my hostage self each day, claiming it from its awful prison of unmet deadlines and the disappointed expectations of others. So much in my life should be other than it is, I think, as we rumble through the countryside in our rickety bus. I imagine that things at home continue much as they were when I left, but they manage to do so without my presence. Whatever is there will still be there when I return, and I suppose I will be able to make some of it better. And some of it will stay the same. And some of it will get worse.

Poor Shah Jahan, looking out the window at his life's work, unable ever to see it up close, to touch the marble or see the precisely shaped flecks of semiprecious stones glinting in the sun. His plan was to make the tomb a sublime eternal monument to his dead love. Her body would rest in the absolute center of an absolutely symmetrical building. All would be perfectly balanced. He had intended to build a corresponding tomb for himself across the lake from the Taj. It would have been of marble as black as the marble of the Taj is white. The two of them would have faced each other forever, symmetrical, cool. Perfect.

But that was before things went wrong for him. Things always go wrong, I think as I began to doze in my seat.

So he never built his beautiful black tomb. That particular symmetry was not to be. Now his body lies near hers in the Taj. It is off center, in relation to hers. The plan is spoiled. And yet that is the very thing that brfeathes life into the monument. It is that very flaw which most moves me.

In poetry, my husband has told me, you find God most present in the place where the meter breaks. Here God has a chance to shine unexpectedly. If all goes according to plan, nothing will make us marvel. God, in the disturbing of the symmetry upon which we insist.

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This eMo is an excerpt from my essay "Lifting India," in Yes! We'll Gather at the River (Church Publishing:2001)
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