SHORT PROSE CONTEST Finalist:
MUMTAZ IN BURHANPUR
BY TARA ISABEL ZAMBRANO
The girl, a tour guide in Burhanpur, India, has never seen the Taj Mahal, doesn’t intend to. She’s twenty, banana and history in her teeth. “Burhanpur,” she explains, “is the city where Mumtaz Mahal died during her fourteenth childbirth.”
She kisses a boy from a group of tourists, the sun beating on their backs. Along the rutted dirt road, she hums a ghazal, smokes a joint with the boy. Later, she points her stoned finger to the initial grave of Mumtaz before it was moved to Agra.
The girl has a tattoo of rose-water fountain behind her neck. The boy licks her inked skin, his tongue drawing a map of river Tapti on whose banks the mausoleum was supposed to be. She feels as if her heart has been hoisted like a flag by the riverside, fluttering in the uncertain summer air. A kaleidoscope of rhythms.
Sometimes the girl dreams of Mumtaz. The empress tells her, “Death makes you larger than who you’re.” The girl thinks she embodies the spirit of Mumtaz ― an embarrassment since she doesn’t know Arabic or Persian languages like the illustrious queen did.
The girl’s room is papered with sketches: Mumtaz practicing her hunting skills in her favorite deer park, Mumtaz relaxing in the Zenana hammam, Mumtaz wailing while delivering her last daughter, Shah Jahan coming to her grave, sobbing while reciting the fateha.
A week later, the boy starts calling her Mumtaz ― the name falling on her ears like a wish, as if her real name was never enough.
They’re lying on her bed when she queries if Shah Jahan had other lovers, if he was capable of such devotion despite all temptations. The boy stares at the ceiling. Then he pulls up a blanket, and says, “There’s only one way to know.”
The boy declares he’ll mourn for a year, just like Shah Jahan did. He’ll never marry. The girl feels a fresh fear, a giddy feeling of unknowing when the boy hands her a gun ― the cold barrel drawing her in like a black hole. She realizes for the first time she’s afraid of being buried. The voice of Mumtaz Mahal hovers over her, loud enough for clarity ― “now I’ll never leave Burhanpur.” Nine hundred kilometers away, the Taj Mahal glows under a full moon.
Tara Isabel Zambrano lives in Texas and is an electrical engineer by profession. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Tin House online, Yemassee, Slice, The Minnesota Review, and other journals. She is a prose reader for The Common.