Study Guide

Mumtaz Mahal in Beneath a Marble Sky

By John Shors

Mumtaz Mahal

Mumtaz Mahal, Jahanara's mother (her actual name is Arjumand Banu Begum) might as well walk around with a halo over her head, because everyone who knows her considers her to be a saint. She's beautiful, intelligent, diplomatic, and softhearted, and she knows how to wield all of those intimidating traits with a gentleness that people respect and admire.

The Empress was one of the few women in Hindustan who could do almost anything she wanted. She didn't dress like a man, of course, but she spoke like one, unafraid to voice her true thoughts. Father indulged her behavior, and thus it usually went unchecked. I sought to be bold like her but worried more than she about offending my elders.

"We women must be cautious," she advised, stopping at a stand of lemons. She squeezed a few. "Dealing with men is like juggling hot coals. They're fairly harmless if you take precautions, but by Allah, they can burn you if you don't pay attention."

"Have you ever juggled coals?"

"No, but I juggle men every day. And I'm sure coals would be much less frightening." 

Jahanara just about worships her seemingly perfect mother, and she puts a lot of stock into the lessons she's learned from her. One lesson, in particular, ends up having ramifications far beyond what Jahanara could ever imagined:

"Sometimes, Jahanara, I wish that duty weren't such a sacred word," she admitted, slowing her pace. "But few words are more revered. Even if it is a weaker feeling than a mother's love for her daughter, men die for duty, and women…we women suffer for duty in more insidious ways. Our duty, just as those leading the Empire, is to follow whatever path is best for our people. And while marrying a silversmith might make you happiest, it wouldn't be best for Hindustan." (2.42)

Remember how Jahanara promises Mom as Mom is dying that she'll take care of Dad? Yeah. Duty becomes one of the driving forces in Jahanara's life. Thanks, Mom.

Mumtaz Mahal's husband, Shah Jahan, in particular admires her for her quick wit and her ability to solve problems that seem too thorny to handle. His attempt at expressing his love via badly written poetry is adorable, and it shows that his devotion to his wife knows no bounds.

This lady's untimely death in childbirth is therefore devastating to all those who knew and loved her. Her kindness has touched many lives in profound ways, so it seems a fitting tribute that the Taj Mahal is built to honor her memory.