Study Guide

Ustad Isa in Beneath a Marble Sky

By John Shors

Ustad Isa

Artist, Lover, Family Man

Isa is a seriously amazing man. He's smart. He's talented. He's incredibly humble, and he's kind. Just ask Jahanara:

What can I say other than he was one of those rare people who made everyone around him feel better? No, he rather made everyone feel important. If the most junior worker had a suggestion, Isa pondered its merits. If his most trusted mason had a complaint, Isa devised a resolution. Unlike almost all men of rank, Isa listened to those beneath him. He listened with immense care, as if your words carried weight, as if your thoughts were of consequence. And when he responded, his insight and sensitivity were sometimes startling. (8.21)

Okay, Jahanara may be a little biased, given that Isa is her lover boy, but still, even we can tell that he's pretty much perfect. On top of that, he's a master craftsman—that's why they call him "ustad," which means "master." His artistry has stood for centuries in the form of the Taj Mahal, and there's just no way words can do justice to this great wonder of the world. Seriously, just do an image search for Taj Mahal. Go ahead. We'll wait…

…See? Isn't it breathtaking? As Shah Jahan aptly puts it, "This man, my children, is remembered by more than his stones. He creates mosques and forts that aren't buildings, but tapestries of rock." (6.23)

Isa is truly an artist of great skill, and that is something that helps him define himself in a world where art is revered. (Who knew such a place could exist? History is full of examples…) But it wasn't just chance that led Isa to become a master of stone and tools; his father used what little resources he had to get Isa an apprenticeship:

"Why," I muttered, forcing my lips to move, "did you become an architect?"

"I was born in Persia," he responded, answering my thoughts regarding his distinct features. "There my father designed things. Wells mostly, but once an aqueduct. After my mother died and illness struck him down, he gave what little coin he owned to a visiting architect so that I might become his apprentice."

"But what happened to your father?"

"He fought, fought like a bull elephant, but didn't last long. And so I lived with my master, a good, kind man if ever there was one. When his project ended we returned to his home in Delhi."
(6.98)

What this tells us that Isa is motivated to create based on a feeling that he owes a great debt to his deceased parents. As he himself puts it, "'I'm fortunate, Jahanara. Truly blessed. For I can show my parents what I've done with their gifts.' His eyes darted between my face and the land encircling us. 'I could never be closer to them than when building'" (6.108).

It's not all sunshine and roses, though. Although Isa considers himself lucky that he can honor his parents with his art, this gift comes with a healthy dose of guilt, as well:

"You think you're the sole owner of guilt?" he asked, his voice overshadowed by the breaking surf. "My father's last wish was that I become an architect. And so I studied. I studied as he quietly fought his agony, studied as he died."

"But how you've made him happy."

"I've tried." 
(21.173)

Poor Isa. The dude is one of the most talented artisans of his time (or of all time, for that matter), and he's constantly punishing himself by striving to honor his dead parents.

Art is hard work, and Isa was only able to perfect his skill because his parents sacrificed for him. Sure, he gets to honor their memory, but it's not like they actually get to see what beauty their sacrifice actually brought about. That's tough.

Family Man

It may be precisely this devotion to his family that Jahanara admires most about Isa. Like her, he pretty much worships his parents, thinking them the greatest people who ever walked the earth, people who are eminently worthy of posthumous admiration and respect.

Sure, it's guilt-inducing for him because he feels like he owes it to his fam to be the best at his craft, but putting family first is a commendable trait—particularly if you want to build a family with him.

Even before Arjumand is conceived, Isa is a devoted father. He's psyched to see what he and Jahanara could make, as if a baby is like an art project: "He wrapped my hair about his fingers. 'I don't know, Swallow, which will prove more everlasting—the monument we create, or the child who might bless us. Our stone, of course, will endure for centuries. But a child…a child shall let us live forever'" (11.83).

A child will let you live forever? Sort of like a monument? Like the Taj Mahal itself? Hey, creativity comes in a lot of different forms.

Anyway, Isa is so excited to meet his child that he writes a letter to her sharing his hopes and dreams—when Jahanara is still pregnant. It's a great letter, folks:

Our child,

As I sit and stare at the Yamuna, you grow slowly in your mother's womb. As barges and clouds drift before me, I ponder you. I want to share this moment with you, want you to hear the words that I now think.

I wish I could handle words as I do stones, for then I could truly speak to you as I desire. I could aptly explain how I long to meet you more with each finished day. I could express my love for you, which, like you, is already alive.

Though I do not yet know you, my understanding of your mother flows strong, and I am certain you will be quite extraordinary, as, indeed, is she. Of the dimensions of your disposition, I can only wonder. Shall you wield her benevolence? Her loyalty? Shall you share her impatient spirit? Perhaps you will possess my eye for precious sights, as well as my oftentimes misplaced optimism.

Assuredly you will inherit some of our traits, just as we inherited those of our parents. Yet you shall also create your own qualities, and these characteristics we will find most endearing.

I eagerly await your discoveries, your pleasure in their revelation. What mysteries will you unfold each day? What will you see that I do not? I will learn from watching you, learn what I have forgotten, or what I never had a chance to know. I hope to teach you as much, for earning an elephant's trust, painting what is not present, and listening to strangers are more complex undertakings than some would have you think.

Know, our daughter, our son, that you are already beloved. You have blessed us, and I thank you for bringing such joy into our lives. I thank you for being who you are, and who you shall be. —Your father.
(11.143)

This fatherly devotion is pretty adorable, isn't it? The dude's smitten with his daughter, even if he isn't able to openly acknowledge her as his own. This is super hard for Isa—and for Jahanara.

But these two find ways to work around the issue. While Arjumand's still a baby, for example, they spend their nights admiring her in their secret love nest. As she gets older, Jahanara finds excuses for them all to meet on the site of the Taj Mahal, so they're hardly strangers, even if it's still painful for a guy who wants nothing more than to dote on his daughter without any constraints.

This little family's close-but-not-too-close status lasts until things fall apart in Hindustan. After their near-death escape from the clutches of the murderous Balkhi, Jahanara and Arjumand flee to the safety of Isa's house via their secret tunnel. It's only then, just after she's almost been killed, that Jahanara decides to tell Arjumand that Isa is her biological father. (Yeah, uhm, nice timing, Mom.)

The result? Arjumand is thrilled, and Isa is psyched that now he can treat her openly as his own:

"Isa's your father," I said. "And he loves you as much as I."

"How couldn't I?" he asked, holding her tighter, and crying freely.

"Truly?"

"I love you, Arjumand. You don't know how long I've waited to say that. How painfully long."
(15.133)

Isa's father-of-the-year status is firmly cemented when he's forced to flee to safety with Arjumand the next day. The situation is basically like this: "Hi, I'm your Dad. Let's run away together." We still can't quite believe Arjumand goes along with it, but she totally does. We guess we'd be pretty happy if this guy was our dad, too.

Over the long years of Jahanara's imprisonment, Isa is a good father to Arjumand, helping her to get over the presumed loss of her mother and reassuring her during the long, lonely nights. When they are all finally reunited, Isa sums up what it was like:

"She's fine, Swallow. The first year was terrible, of course. But even though I thought you were dead, I promised her that you lived. She made me repeat my promise each night. I promised and promised and promised. And, in time, she believed me. She grew happier, and I taught her how to build, watched her become a woman."

"And you? How did you manage?"

He stroked my cheek with a callused thumb. "I didn't," he said softly. "On the outside, perhaps. But if you ever see this mosque, you'll know that a part of me left when you did. For the mosque doesn't inspire. I couldn't see you when I built it, and thus its walls appear tired. There's no grace to them, my love."
(21.70)

So, although he's a devoted father, Isa is even more a devoted husband. He may have had the comfort of his daughter for those years, but the original is his one true love.

Is That You, Luvvah?

To the untrained eye, Isa is a consummate artist: he lives for creating beautiful things, and he sees everything through through an idealistic lens. But for those of us who know him through Jahanara's eyes, he is first and foremost a lover. Just get a load of this conversation between him and Jahanara, for example:

"Have I grown old?"

"What?"

"Men seem…to tire of old things."

"We grow together, my Swallow. Not grow old, but simply grow."

"But my beauty shall not last."

"Your beauty? Beauty is a feeling, and feelings last forever."|

"How so?"

Isa's dark eyes, so piercing, locked on mine. "There's a range of mountains, my love, far from here. Some of the leaves in the tallest of these mountains change with the seasons. It's an astounding evolution. They turn from green to gold to crimson, and I tell you that the leaves of fall are even more beautiful than those of spring." He leaned forward, kissing me again. "Your beauty, Jahanara, is like those leaves. It will only become richer." 
(21.73)

He's a true romantic, that Isa. Could it be that being an artist and a lover kind of go hand in hand? We mean, just as Isa's able to see beauty in the world, he's also uniquely poised to see Jahanara's true beauty. And just as Isa and Jahanara are able to create the marvelous Taj Mahal, they're also able to create Arjumand, a truly beautiful daughter, together.

In any case, this dude loves Jahanara so much, more than anything else in the world, and that's so sweet our teeth are falling out. No, really:

"Do you remember, Swallow, our first night here together?"

"You were so excited."

"Yes. But even then…even then I somehow loved you." He reached for a rose that lay severed beneath its bush. "I'd give it all up," he whispered, glancing at the Taj Mahal, "for you."
(14.51)

Awwwwww.