Study Guide

Beneath a Marble Sky Duty

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"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)

Yikes. Jahanara's mom basically manages to sum up the entire plot of the book in this one bit of advice. Think about how many things go wrong in Jahanara's life because of her sense of duty.

She tried to raise her head, and I bent even lower. Mother twisted so that her mouth was against my ear. "Watch over him," she whispered faintly.

"But, Moth—"

"You are strong enough…more than strong enough."

"No, I want you here. You should be here."


"You can't leave!"

"Please, Jahanara."

Her eyes were unguarded, and despite my overwhelming grief, I recognized her distress. I looked to Father, who knelt with his head upon her feet. "I'll try," I promised, my voice choked with tears. (5.130-137)

And thus begins Jahanara's long tradition of making deathbed promises that are really, really hard to keep. (And yet, of course, she does keep them.)

I held her, feeling the heavy toll of years, years short in number but becoming long with demands. I was tired of being strong, so weary of duty and scheming that at that moment I'd have traded my station with any serving girl in Agra. (7.93)

Jahanara is suffering as a result of her understanding of her duty toward Hindustan. But is that really her problem? Sure, having Ladli as a spy in Aurangzeb's camp is helpful, but is that plan really motivated by what's best for the kingdom, or is it motivated by what's best for her? Is there a difference?

"Nizam," I said quietly, thinking that I was undeserving of such a friend, "I'll grant you freedom, if that's what you want."


"Yes. You can leave now."

"But I'm a—"

"Slave?" I interrupted. "No. You're a man, a good man. And you've served me enough." I paused, displeased with myself that I had waited so long to utter these words. What right had I to oversee a man like Nizam? "You should go," I said. "There's little for you here."

Nizam straightened, as if my suggestion had given him pride, an emotion he rarely experienced. "Thank you, my lady. But my place is at your side. There I have freedom."

"But not true freedom. For you may be free to come and go but many still treat you as a slave."

"Let them, my lady. I wasn't born a slave. And I won't die as one." (8.28-35)

Here we think Jahanara is confusing duty with loyalty. She definitely did the right thing to offer Nizam his freedom, but she's missing the point: he hasn't stuck around this long just because he thinks he has to. He's there because he wants to be.

I had little interest in conversation, but when he persisted, I told him of all that had transpired, of how I used Nizam.

"You gave him a choice, Jahanara," Isa countered. "He didn't have to go."

"Did I?"

He took Arjumand, kissing her fleshy cheek. "Truthfully? No, you didn't. But to Nizam, duty's a sacred thing. He might love working on the Taj Mahal, but he couldn't live with himself if he failed in his duty to you." (12.102)

Isa always has a knack for seeing—and sayingthe truth of the matter. Perhaps he believes it's his duty also to be honest and tell things like they are.

He considered my words, looking fearfully at the dead cobra. "Then I owe you a life," he said regretfully. "A life I'll repay on one condition." I cared little for his conditions and told him so. But Aurangzeb, his fists clenching in anger, merely spat. "When the time is right, sister, you'll join me, help me grab the throne. Or I'll kill you, and enslave your child."

The words, even coming from Aurangzeb, assaulted me. "But I saved you—"

"And I've forgiven your sins!" he exclaimed, spittle flying. "Which are countless, may Allah be merciful upon you! Join me and I'll let you live in peace. But back the heretic and your death will be terrible!"

"My duty is to Dara!" I argued, my rage a living thing. "Why can't you let him have the throne? He'd rule in name while you ruled in power?"

Aurangzeb's lips curved into a horrible smile. "The heretic will never rule. The throne shall be mine. And I, I alone, will restore order to the Empire." (13.37-41)

Why does Jahanara feel such a sense of duty is toward Dara? Is it because she knows Aurangzeb is inherently evil? Or is it that she's closer with her older brother? Or is it just because Dara is the chosen successor to the throne?

"I can't go," I interrupted sadly, remembering my promise to Mother, made so long ago.


"You must flee with Arjumand. But I—"

He stepped back, his face wrinkling in consternation. "Are you mad?"

"I must stay."

"Stay here and you'll die!"

"I have to help Father."

"By Allah, he's the Emperor! He's man enough to help himself!"

"He's sick, Isa. And I can't leave him."

"Then take him with us!"

"And give the throne to Aurangzeb, who'll destroy the Empire?"

"Better it than us!"

"Better neither!" I said fiercely. "I can't leave him, Isa. And we have a good plan, one that will work. Once Aurangzeb is defeated, I'll find you. Father has promised to send us to Varanasi, where we can live forever in peace."

"He can promise nothing!"

"Listen!" I demanded, poking a finger into his chest. "If you love me, if you truly, truly love me, you'll do this. Because if I left with you, and Father died at Aurangzeb's hands, then my heart would die as well. I'd become a stranger to you and our love would never—"

"Survive? Then it's a shallower love than I thought."

I started forward as if to slap him but stilled my arm. "Don't say that! You know it's not true!"

"But how can you leave us?"

"Would you, Isa, let your father and brother die?" When he didn't answer, I continued, "You think that I feel differently because I'm a woman, or that I might offer them less?"

"I've never treated you differently than any man," he replied, his hawklike face gleaming in sweat. "Not once."

"And I love you for that. More, it seems, than you think. But if you love me, you won't ask me to abandon my family."

"We are your family!"

"Don't you think that I'm torn?" I pleaded.

"Your father—"

"Has given you everything, Isa. Everything! He let you build the Taj Mahal. He brought us together when our love could have destroyed him! Would you have me abandon him now, when he needs me most?"

"Then I'll stay with you."

"No! You must flee with Arjumand. She's seen enough horror. More than enough."

Isa cursed, which I had never heard him do. He pounded his fist against his hip. "Is there no other way?" (15.142-171)

Sorry for that whopper of a quote, but the full context is pretty important. Anyway, raise your hand if you hated this part. What do you think? Was Jahanara right to make this decision? What would you have done in her situation? Why did she make the decision she did?

I nodded slowly, strangely indifferent to what fate would befall the Empire. The weight of its woes was a burden I no longer wished to carry. "Father?"

"Yes, my child?"

"Did you ever tire of ruling? Tire of duty?"

He tried to rise to a sitting position, and I placed a cushion behind his back. His turban was loosening and I rewound the indigo silk about his head. "Not when your mother was alive," he replied as I gathered a blanket about him, for dampness dominated the room. "But after she left me for Paradise, I found the court dramas suddenly trite. At any rate, as you told me not long ago, she was always the real ruler. She'd have been a better emperor than I, as you would have." (18.23-26)

Duty is awfully tiresome. We expect it's even more tiresome when it requires you to be imprisoned in one room with your dad for years on end. And yet Jahanara pulls through yet again, just like a champ.

As dusk fell two days later, when all the arrangements had been made, I bade farewell to Father. I hated abandoning him and questioned the soundness of my judgment. Was I betraying my promise to my mother? Would anyone care for him once I was gone? I couldn't answer these questions, but knew that the last time this choice presented itself I had let my love and my child go without me. I couldn't bear to pass up this second chance. Furthermore, Father demanded that I take it. (18.86)

Duty, schmooty. Finally, Jahanara is following her gut rather than her head. Maybe she's finally earned the right to do that? Or do you think she should have done that all along?

"You'll find me," he whispered. "You've always…found me."

I felt the life slipping from him and I hugged him tightly, as if my hands might stop him from leaving. "Will you take me with you?" I asked, kissing his tears, tasting him. "Please, please take me with you."

"You are…with me. You always have been."


"I shall find you," I said. "I'll find you covered in stone chippings and help you build in Paradise."


"I do. And we'll live together again as one." (25.35-37,42-44)

Jahanara. What have we told you about making deathbed promises that you're not sure you can keep? Have you learned nothing?

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