Part 2: The Magic Box.
Actually, this is the real Part I. This is the farthest-back point in my history of discovering South Asia. And for the first two decades of my life, it would have seemed an outlier. But whenever someone asks me how I first became interested in that part of the world, in my heart I want to mention this. Usually there is no time for such flights of nostalgia. But here I will indulge, and those who are not interested can move on.
My grandmother told me that her brother had brought this box back for her as a souvenir from India, where he had worked for some time. She told me the box came from the same place as the Taj Mahal -- this was my first time ever hearing of such a place -- and she showed me a picture. Since that moment I have thought that this had to be the most beautiful work of human craftsmanship in the world. The form and outline of this palace was so refined, so beautifully balanced, so serenely graceful.
But my grandmother then told me something yet more extraordinary: that the walls of the Taj were not blank, but inlaid throughout with jewels just like the ones on her box. This bit of magic that seemed impossible even in a tiny size -- this level of ornamentation could cover vast walls in the most beautiful building on earth.
For many years after this first discovery, my ideas of the subcontinent remained hazy, but also romantic, beautiful. The seed of curiosity had been planted deeply in my psyche, but it was dormant for many years. Further entries to this blog will attempt to describe the circumstances of its re-awakening.
My grandmother has passed away, and the box is now mine. It still carries for me all the magic that it did when I was a wide-eyed child. And I am still amazed at the grace and refinement of Mughal architecture. I haven't yet made my way to Agra to see the Taj in person, but it will happen someday. And I am discovering it anew all the time. Imagine my enchantment upon seeing the film Mughal-e-azam -- particularly the extraordinary sequence "Pyaar kiya to darna kya," a song and dance in honor of fearless love, performed in a ballroom that is itself a grand version of my jeweled box. With that song I shall end these reminiscences...
Image at top left is a digital
portrait by Pakistani artist
Imran Zaib, based on one of my own photographic self-portraits in Thari dress.