Noor’s kohl rimmed eyes followed Haider everywhere. He would get up early at dawn for his work. Her furtive gaze was interspersed with blushes as he made his way around her palatial house to the artisan’s camp. Haider knew Noor was a woman any man would dream to be with. Her sublime beauty can only be rivalled by the purity of her heart. He knew in his heart that he loved her. However it was a desire beyond his reach. He was a bonded slave who pledged his life and work to the emperor. Love and marriage are seen as deterrents to his work and are forbidden. Ever since he turned down her advances, their love was reduced to silent gazes and an unfulfilled dream.
Haider was exceptionally gifted with a prodigious talent for architecture and design of forts and monuments. He earned a high reputation among his peers and worked directly under master architect of the Royal Emperor. He was present in the Court hall on the day when the Emperor unveiled his grand plan and vision for a new monument in the capital city. It was unprecedented and required the best artisans and craftsman of its times. Haider saw it as an opportunity and worked on it sleeplessly for months. The designs were personally selected by the Emperor who was impressed with Haider. He granted him a direct audience one day and appreciated his work. However the Emperor said that his designs were inspired and wanted something original and breath-taking. He was given a month to complete this task.
Haider was disappointed and spent several days at his study working on the new design. After a few days he knew he was struggling. He would hide himself in his house without food or water for days. He teared apart his designs which were either inspired or clichéd and was desperate looking for new ideas. Time was running out.
Noor couldn’t see Haider for many days and was worried. One day when she saw him in the bazaar, she went quickly and confronted him. His face was pale and lifeless. She asked what is bothering him but he wouldn’t answer. She kept following and pestered him with questions. He then pulled her into a desolate street and warned her not to look for him again. She exclaimed that she loved him and will continue to love him. He saw her fierce and deep gaze and was astounded by the intensity of her love. He then steadied himself to tell her the truth. “I am a Hindu by birth. I was an artisan in the neighbouring kingdom which was annexed by the Emperor. I was enslaved and was forced to convert to Islam”, he said controlled his anger and tears. “I cannot afford to love and live a life of my own. Now tell me if you still love me?” She was stunned into silence with tears running down her face. Haider left her and walked in dejection to his house.
The last day approached for Haider to prove his worth. Disillusioned by his failure and devastated by his love, he was spiralling into self-destruction. He drank all the opium he could get and his head was spinning beyond control. He dropped down in his study, shut his eyes and ears and tried to block his pain. Just when it was becoming unbearable, she came like a dream. Noor’s uncovered face was shining like moonlight and her eyes were like the deep recesses of the night. He never saw her this close and was enthralled by her pristine beauty. She lifted him out of his darkness and placed him on his bed. She laid beside him and kissed him gently on his head. He took her into his arms and they made love to each other passionately. He wasn’t sure whether this is a dream. The experience was transcendental taking him into the very edge of light and darkness. He remembered his work suddenly. In a flash of brilliance her hand joined his and the design drew itself on paper. Ideas were flowing like a river from their confluence and could not be contained by the limitations of his mind. He then fell into a dreamless sleep.
Haider woke up next morning hardly remembering anything. To his shock there were the design of the monument hand-drawn during the night. He studied it and was shocked by the beauty of the design. He rushed to the palace chambers. The Emperor hailed his extraordinary vision and brilliance. He claimed that this would be an unparalleled wonder in history and would make him immortal for ages to come. He then decided that the building of the monument would begin immediately. The best builders, artisans and masons from all over the world were brought in to work for this monument.
Haider’s popularity grew and he became a legend across the kingdom. However all this unwanted attention made him lonelier by the day. His heart was beating for Noor and he was longing to see her again. He was ordered by the Emperor to stay at the camp site of the monument and oversee the construction. However he had made up his mind. One night he sneaked into Noor’s house and woke her gently. She was startled to see him by her bed and cried with joy. They hugged and comforted each other. He exclaimed that they will have to leave this place if they wish to live together. Both of them agreed and he made an elaborate plan to escape from the city. He asked her to meet him on the next full moon night at the dungeons on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile he would make arrangements for their travel. He kissed Noor goodbye and left.
The full moon was up and high by the time Noor slipped out of her house. Her heart was beating loudly with hope and trepidation as she walked to the edge of the city. She found the narrow passage way and went down the stairs like he told. She carried a torch aloft as went further into the dungeons. There she waited for Haider to come. Hours passed without a trace of him. She searched for him in the tunnels calling out his name in vain. Soon her torch went out and she lay in pitch darkness. Her thoughts ran wild and anxiety overcame her senses. She did not know how she had ended up in this place. She had done everything right and she did not deserve this. Yet, here she was, in the dark dungeon that stank of stale urine and sweat. She never thought he would betray her like this. Then she broke down and cried her heart out. After a while, dawn broke through and beams of light showed the way out. She regained her composure and walked out of the place. She looked around for him one last time and went back desolately to her house.
Noor waited as days passed by without a word from Haider. She was held captive by her thoughts. “Did he betray her? Did something happen to him?” She couldn’t dare to face that reality. She withdrew herself into a shell and hardly smiled or spoke. Clinging on to hope she went again to the dungeons on the next full moon night but couldn’t find Haider. She returned crestfallen and the cycle repeated every month. She waited stubbornly drawing strength and resolve from her love. Months and years passed. Time marched on relentlessly. Yet there was no sign of respite for the pain and longing of Noor. She refused to get married and joined an orthodox religious sect. She spent her days in prayer and reflection. But she never gave up hope. For twenty years, Noor went to the dungeons every full moon night and waited for her love in vain. Haider seemed to have belonged to another life now. Her days of happiness were a distant dream. She was now old and withered and was slowly passing into memory.
However one full moon day when was about to turn back she heard a faint sound in the dungeons. She walked further hoping against hope. She turned into a corner and saw an old emaciated man lying on the floor. She quickly ran and turned him over. She saw Haider and yelled in shock. His thickly bearded face was covered with wounds and wrinkles. His legs were bound by chains. She held him close as years of pain melted into tears. He saw her face and smiled weakly. Each breath of his was taking its toll on his body and he knew he was dying. He summoned his strength and told her that he was imprisoned the day he met her 20 years back. The Emperor decreed that an architect like Haider cannot be left free to design any other monument in the future as it would belittle his present creation. He then sentenced Haider to life time imprisonment turning a deaf ear to his pleas for mercy. His life was wasted away in prison for two decades. Yet he stayed alive hoping for one last chance to meet his love. He was released as neared his end and he struggled his way to the dungeons which stood directly beneath the prison. Saying this he went quiet. Both of them shared a moment of peace and happiness together. Then Haider asked Noor to take him outside to see his creation before he died.
Noor steadied herself and helped him out of the dungeons. They slowly made their way to the banks of the river Yamuna. The now finished Taj Mahal stood on the opposite bank resplendent in all its glory. It shone pearly white under the full moon adding to its aura and magnificence. Haider and Noor looked at it in awe. “If there was ever a heaven, this is it.” whispered Haider as he breathed his last in the arms of Noor.