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Sabu Francis

Taj Mahal

“Shift it to the left,” the old man shouted. I muttered to myself under my breath, “the old man has not changed a bit … even when he has half a leg in the grave”

He wanted an air-conditioner fitted into his bedroom. I had got the call after so many years, I was taken aback. I thought the tyrant had forgotten me. The way he treated me after that old project … but never mind, I told myself. I took the call anyway and here I was trying to decide where the air-conditioner should go.

“How on earth can you think of blocking that window?,” he screamed at me. “You MUST make a new opening for the air-conditioner. Don’t you have any sense?”

“No, I don’t… and I probably shouldn’t be here. Not after what you had done to me,” I thought to myself. If I had said that aloud, he may have crucified me. I remember that project very well. In fact, it was spread out just outside his bedroom window. A magnificent piece of work. Or so they say. People still come to the city to see that work.

The old man was known as the “emperor” those days. Nothing could be built in the city without his consent. He had that kind of power.

I was distracted by old memories. Wisps of sadness came back onto me from my past, and I brushed them off. I needed to focus on the small errand at hand. I don’t know what made me drop all my work for the day; to spend my time in this old tyrant’s bedroom. That too, to do something as trivial as deciding where the air-conditioner had to go.

There was so much work to be done back at the office.. After the set-back I received after that project I did for the “emperor”; I almost did not recover my career. I eventually did limp back but it had taken many years. Nowadays, I was more content earning for my family. Nobody knew I was the architect for that project. But I am beyond care. I am no longer worried whether I was known. I know that there is one project of mine has been recognized; and that is a good enough satisfaction for any architect. India is still a developing place with much to be done. Sometime; I am hoping, my story would be told instead of just that of the project.

It is quaint how coincidences happen in one’s lives. Here we are; two of us, the old emperor who was responsible for a very notable project and the architect who carried out the commission. Two of us, together in this lovely bedroom…and that project …that project … that project which took me onto a different road; just outside the window.

I again tried to brush off my memories, but I couldn’t. I was now marking out the new opening on the wall, which will be broken open to receive the air-conditioner. It wasn’t much of a problem for me. I can detect whether a line has gone off plumb a mile off.

I remember that project being made… when I used to walk into the construction site with the emperor, there used to be this hushed awe behind me. There were many rumours too… on how I could draw a straight line without using a rule, and how I could create optical illusions… Some of them were based on reality: I did have a good grasp of architecture, and I had used that whole heartedly in that project.

The view of the project from the window was specially magnificent. The memories of the project came all rushing back in a flood. Everything in full clarity and sadness: After the project was commissioned, the quarrels over fees, the litigations over the copyrights for various techniques that I had specifically invented for the project, the finger-pointing. And mostly, the lack of acknowledgement. At one moment, I was the central to the project. And the moment it was over, I was a nobody.

My colleagues mocked me: “Oh, the ‘emperor‘ has cut off your thumb”. Surely, that was the right analogy. He was so very riled with me, for reasons unknown. He went out of his way to ensure that I didn’t get any similar commissions. It hurt. It really hurt. The money was not the issue. I’ve always considered money to be a bye-product of one’s hard work. But my soul hurt and I was inconsolable for many years. Till the callouses of life covered them all.

I forced myself to stop my train of thoughts. I told him, “Fine. I am done for now. I’ll send in some people to break open the wall, finish it and put in your air-conditioner. Don’t worry. I’ll be there to ensure it all gets done right”

Suddenly, it struck me…

That house was not his original place. After all, why would the emperor want an air-conditioner fitted now? He was influential enough to take an air-conditioned bedroom for granted. Though his career also took a big plunge, he was still wealthy as hell. I was puzzled, and I started looking around the spacious room, not knowing what to find.

He was reclining on his bed. Frail and a quarter of the imposing personality he used to be. The servant who had ushered me in had told me, “Saheb is mostly bed-ridden. He does not move about much”. Even the bed was placed in an unusual position in the room. I soaked in the details… and next to his bed was a side-table where I found a picture frame, in an odd-position. It was kept face down.

He saw me look at it and spoke to me. This time quietly. “Oh, yes. It is her photograph all right. She’s there, you know that…,” and trailed off; pointing to the project outside the window. He did not have to say the rest. The tyrant didn’t like outsiders looking at his women, even if it was just a photograph. When that project was being made, this old tyrant was a man who had just lost his wife. To say that he was deeply love with her was an understatement. That love showed in him when that project was going on. He was an odd fellow, prone to extreme emotions … people said he had even got his brothers ‘fixed’ so that they didn’t get into his business. But he was also one who was deeply in love. And when his wife died he was in deep sorrow. The only way he was able to come out of it was when he could put his heart and soul into a project that was started when she was alive. Despite all his tyranny, his love had propelled him to give me the freedom to do exactly what I wanted in that project. When we used to discuss its architecture, he used to often slip into a nostalgic mood and recount his happier times with her. I can say that the project was inspired by her hidden presence. It almost made him human.

The sun was setting as I stepped out of his bedroom. I caught a glimpse of the project thorough his window shrouded in a breathtaking silhouette. I almost forgave him for not allowing me to do similar projects. I now knew why he shifted his residence on the last leg of his journey. I now knew why he did not want to block that window. He simply had to see his pet project through that opening as his twilight faded away. His heart was in that project.

When I stepped out of his house, I realized that this story of architecture has been going on for so many centuries. Clients who are tyrants, architects who keep trying … all forgotten. Only architecture will survive. And the emperor’s story will be repeated over and over again. That story is eternal.

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