“Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”
When people talk about the Trojan War, a huge horse filled with enemies often isn’t the only topic on the table. Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of Mycenaean Sparta, who was seduced by Paris, the prince of Troy, makes for the other hot dish. If Helen hadn’t been that gorgeous—people would reason– Paris wouldn’t have been so besotted to steal her away, and Menelaus wouldn’t have stormed in. Great poets like Homer have waxed lyrically on her legendary beauty since the time of Ancient Greece, yet it was English poet Christopher Marlowe’s words above in Doctor Faustus play (1604) that have mostly been referenced around, most recently in a 2004 Hollywood blockbuster.
Hollywood being Hollywood, not only they cherry-picked the first part of Marlowe’s line for the movie poster, they fixated on a lovey-dovey story that ended with Helen and Paris bounded stronger. Glossed over were the numerous catastrophes that befit the tale’s true genre of Greek tragedies; the lost peace for innocent Trojan folks, the senseless deaths of fine soldiers on both sides including that of the much better Trojan prince, Hector, or the laconic laceration of Achilles’ precious heel.
Ancient Greek poets themselves had different takes on whether true love was there. Some wrote about Paris’ demise and Helen harboring wishes to return to Menelaus. But even if Helen hadn’t been kidnapped against her will, I think it’s definitely not a kind of love stories to be heralded, what with so many collateral damages to make way for such a feeble prince lusting over another man’s wife.
Ah yes, sure, there’s only so much you can debate upon a mythology. You want a real love story?
In my last column I wrote about my India trip. What is imprinted on our collective mind is the breathtaking mausoleum that Shah Jahan built for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after giving birth to their 14th child. The queen, whose beauty “even made the Moon hide in shame” as a Mughal poet praised, requested in her deathbed for a monument that would be unrivaled in splendor and grandeur. Hence for 22 years since, which 12 years alone spent on the main structures, Shah Jahan strived for such perfection.
And perfection he achieved. We marveled at the grand idea, the geometry precision, and the meticulous details. But what is rarely discussed is how Shah Jahan managed to accomplish the almost insurmountable task.
For starters, there were over 20,000 laborers and crafters who toiled on the stone inlay technique pietra dura Shah Jahan had borrowed from the Italian Renaissance, whose names and working conditions are never made clear to this day. The only record showed that to feed them, as National Geographic’s documentary The Secrets of Taj Mahal revealed, Shah Jahan rerouted crops intended for other regions, thus creating hunger elsewhere.
Shah Jahan also got so infested in the mega-project and drained the state’s coffers along the way that at one point his children decided better they to rule than the absentee ruler they father had become. The musical Mohabbat in Agra tried to be delicate in portraying the coup, but Mughal chronicles clearly stated how Shah Jahan spent his last years in house arrest on Agra Fort, at a marble boudoir where he spent his evenings listening to valets reading him accounts of his past glory, and his days gazing out of the framed window into his beloved’s grand tomb afar—his legacy, as well as his downfall.
Rabindranath Tagore once quoted Taj Mahal as “The teardrop on the cheek of time”. Less poetry and more poignant would be “The teardrop on the cheek of every neglected and sacrificed Mughal subject in those 22 years”, if you asked me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been madly in love, and I’m hopelessly romantic enough to enjoy great love stories at times. But it’s hard to keep wearing rose-tinted glasses when the glossed over minutiae, mostly of the minions, are quite visible when you peer through just a wee bit closer.
All is fair in love and war, many would argue, perhaps only half-jokingly. In the case of the innocent people of the mythical Troy, one man’s love meant war. In the case of the innocent people of the real Mughal Empire, one man’s love cost them a ruler who’d been so wise and just. Given such circumstances, fairness is the farthest on my mind, however grand the love was.
Now, shall we take a walk down our own romantic lane? Between those butterfly-in-the-stomach episodes, in the heat of those moments, or in the name of true love, have we forsaken innocent hearts, too? A loving parent, a concerned sibling, a faithful friend, an unfortunate bystander? The budding wisdom in me quietly concedes that we must, somehow, have. However inadvertently, however slightly, however privately. We must have, even if our love story never got to warrant the launch of a thousand ships.
As dig deeper into your entangled web of love, I wish you love and a little more light. You’re gonna need it.