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 With Love From Taj

(By Sajita Nair)

   ‘Taj Mahal’ it read. It looked like a travellers information book. I picked one and casually browsed through. It had been my long time desire to see that monument of love described by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore as ‘a tear drop in the cheek of time’. Taj Mahal perhaps is the most well known symbol of love all over the world. For the same reason, the Indian city of Agra is a dream destination of many.  

I turned the pages. The book had pictures of the splendid Taj Mahal taken from various angles. It talked at length about the eternal love story of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Arjumand Banu Begum, popularly known as Mumtaz Mahal. After her death in 1630, Shah Jahan had ordered the construction of the most beautiful mausoleum on Earth, the Taj Mahal. In the next few pages, the book described the story of its construction. Sculptors, masons, craftsmen, and calligraphers were called from Persia, Ottoman Empire and Europe to work on the construction of the Taj. I was interested in every aspect, as I had just seen the Taj Mahal. To me, that overwhelming piece of architectural beauty was symbolic of a rare blend of math and poetry, crafted to perfection. I decided to take the book as a souvenir.

‘Kith-neh Ka? (How much?)’ I asked the man behind the books. A feeble voice replied ‘Assi Rupi-ye (Eighty Rupees).’ He was among the many booksellers dotting the path just beside the majestic entrance to the Taj. All of them looked deeply tanned, weak and poor. The contrast was stark. On the one hand was the exuberant Taj, and on the other were these men to whom Taj probably meant nothing. It was the people who flocked from every corner of the world to see it that mattered. I wondered how many of them had actually seen the Taj in a manner to admire its grandeur. Poverty, I realized then, does not leave anyone with thoughts other than those of getting three square meals a day, sometimes less.

I extended a hundred-Rupee note and placed it on his palm. He unfolded it, paused for a few seconds as though assimilating something and then, quickly picked up a book and extended it to me. He looked old, probably more by poverty and a turbulent life than old age. He sat cross-legged on the sun-baked mud with the books arranged neatly before him on a crude wooden stand. I also noticed that he wore thick ebony-black glasses and had separately arranged currency notes of various denominations. His salt-n-pepper moustache glided to both corners of his wrinkled face. On his head, he wore an unkempt turban, which he kept adjusting every few minutes. Adjacent to where I stood, was a couple admiring a miniature white marble replica of the Taj Mahal, displayed in a shop. The man whispered something in the woman’s ears and squeezed her hand in his. They smiled and looked radiant. I smiled for no particular reason.

The Indian mid-day summer sun came drumming down and I was getting baked. ‘Thoh-da Jal-dee Kee-ji-yeh (Please make it a little fast),’ I said impatiently. He was searching for the balance he owed me while I stood there looking at the way he went about it. I somehow felt sure that he didn’t know what was written in the books he sold. I presumed that it was due to his illiteracy that he took so long to give me the balance money, until I saw the real reason. I looked carefully. His hands were actually groping. I realized that the man was blind! In that one second, I was deaf to the general air of cacophony while it sank in that he was a blind bookseller.

Something stirred in me. He could easily have joined the beggar bandwagon right across. But he wasn’t there. I knew it was wrong, but even without my knowledge sympathy seeped in. Twenty Rupees would not make much difference to my life I thought, but to him it probably would. So while he was busy searching for the balance money, I told him ‘Theek hai, reh-ne dee-ji-yeh (It’s OK; forget it).’ I expected him to smile happily and keep the extra money. But he said ‘Nah-hee, yeh lee-ji-yeh bees Rupi-yeh (No, please take these twenty Rupees).’ I tried to walk away, ignoring what he said. I walked a few steps but he called me aloud ‘Soo-ni-yeh, Madam, pai-seh leh jayi-yeh (Listen Madam, please take the money).’ Mesmerized, I walked towards him, took the money and walked away.

I did not know what or how to feel about it. Here was a man who refused to accept my sympathy or my money. I had never come across anyone quite like him. He was poor but he had values. He was blind, but made me see a point. A blind man, I thought again. Probably he hadn’t seen the Taj Mahal then. Or had he? I don’t know. I wanted to ask him, talk to him but I did not. He carried on with his business of earning a livelihood. That image of the blind man against the backdrop of the Taj was beautiful and perfect just as the two separate entities in the image were. I no longer wondered how he lived his life without those organs I so often took for granted. He lived with dignity and self-respect just the way God created him or destiny played with him. He begged no ones sympathy, let alone money.

Nameless to me he was, just a fellow Indian. But I felt proud of him like I never felt for any other. On that sunny afternoon when the sun shone above me, there was also a little sun shining within me and the light came from a blind man. I looked at the Taj Mahal and then at the blind bookseller. My minds eye had clicked a perfect picture and I knew it would stay. A small incident near a magnificent monument and a big lesson from a simple man - that’s what I took home as souvenir.