by Mohini Kent
Pub date: 31 March 2016
Simi, 25, is a privileged girl living with her family in the mythical city of Atmapuri. Her educated parents, Devi and Gogu, are liberal, but her grandmother, Old Mrs Bhandari, cannot put to rest the ghost of the partition of India in 1947 when her wealthy family lost everything. The bloodbath between panicking Hindus and Muslims as they fled across new, uncertain borders has left behind a permanent and bitter legacy.
Mohini Kent’s book is a very modern tale of individuals negotiating class, caste and prejudice in their daily lives in India. Against a backdrop of monsoons and heat waves, rich old women and angry, poor young men in shanties, social upheaval, religious conflict, violent death, and the trauma of the partition of India, characters are forced to re-invent themselves, each in his own way. A love story, the legend of the black Taj Mahal, desire, betrayals and conflict make this a compelling story.
The novel is set in 1993, one year after the destruction of the Babri Mosque Masjid in Uttar Pradesh by Hindu activists. When the Babri Mosque crumbles, so does the secure structure of Simi’s life. Religious conflict, which simmers just under the surface of India, explodes in riots in Atmapuri, leaving several dead. To the horror of her grandmother and the outrage of friends, Simi falls deeply in love with a Muslim doctor. Partition stands like a ghost between the two. Her grandmother cannot even bring herself to utter the word Muslim: she calls them Ms.
Will Simi marry the man of her choice, and can they ever be happy? Will India herself become the nation she was destined to be, open to all communities and societies?
There are many gems for the reader to discover. Mohini Kent writes: “too much past and too little future, that’s the problem with ancient civilisations”. A 500-year old issue can still stir up do-or-die passions in India today, and result in deaths. And religion is a potent rallying cry for poor, dispossessed people who do not have the identity of wealth, education or social status.
At the same time, spirituality has been a continuous thread of Indian consciousness, and that is personified by the Baba: “Half of Atmapuri came to him, Hindu and Muslim. No one knew which religion the Baba followed – he neither feasted nor fasted during the Hindu Diwali or the Muslim Ramadan. If asked, he said: ‘I am a servant of the Master’.” Sri Aurobindo called India the spiritual heart of the world, and an unbroken spiritual lineage of Himalayan masters and others keep that alive.
From the class of the Raj, such as Old Mrs Bhandari, to slum women such as Marriam and her son Ahmed, from the aristocratic Dr Chaudhury who lost his inheritance, to his friend Sanjay who is unscrupulous in the pursuit of power, Mohini Kent looks at the rapidly changing nature of Indian society. The book offers an insight into many different mindsets in across feudal structures that is Indian society.
Black Taj will give the reader a home in India. This is an important book for the new Indian century.