Between the Cracks of Empire: A Review of Manahil Bandukwala's "MONUMENT"
Updated: Jan 18
As part of our review series, Maryam Gowralli reviews Manahil Bandukwala’s MONUMENT (Brick Books, 2022). Find a copy at your local bookstore, or online at Brick Books.
Read the full review below.
One of India’s most cultural treasures, the Taj Mahal represents a timeless icon of adoration and love—a historical monument built by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan which stands on the banks of the Yamuna River in memory of his wife, Empress Mumtaz Mahal. For many foreigners, it’s a picturesque tourist destination. A symbol both exotified and eroticized. But aside from this whimsical and cursory tale, what lies beyond the now run-down exterior of the Taj? An exterior which no longer shines of pearlescent marble, but rather, exists in a corroded greenish-brown tint.
Manahil Bandukwala tackles this question head-on with her debut poetry collection, MONUMENT. Through lyrical words, she skillfully weaves the complicated narrative of Mumtaz Mahal—otherwise known by her real name, Arjumand Banu—and the haunting tensions surrounding her life and immortalization through the creation of the Taj Mahal. Like something both free-flowing and crumbling, Bandukwala writes with a tone of sensitivity, yearning, and texture. Moreover, she does not shy away from the uncomfortable concerning bodily exploitation and empire-building, all the while wishing for better social realities. She writes, “You wanted to shape me / into empire, build me an empire. The sound / of empire alluring, but empire smelled like / charred bodies when you burned out people / who would not bend down to kiss your knees” against the reflections of, “If love is a mausoleum, tear it down / brick by brick, uncut the hands / of twenty thousand labourers.”
MONUMENT is a collection that is focused, well-researched and worthwhile. In the words of the epigraph for “Envision,” Mohsin Hamid proclaims, “I’m interested in the things women do that aren’t spoken about.” This commitment remains fully in view with a delicate ease befitting a skilled writer. I am struck by Bandukwala’s creativity, manifested threefold: firstly, by her poetic writing and masterful imagery; secondly, by her ability to expand and interweave genre within poetry through creative nonfiction, erasure poems using the last documented words of Mumtaz Mahal, and multimodal images (as the structure of the Taj Mahal slowly disintegrates into ruin by the end of the collection); and lastly, by her successful creation of a material archive that is both restorative and generative. Most strikingly, she deconstructs and reconfigures the traditional archive, as the story of Arjumand Banu highlights the debates made between history and truth, fact versus fiction, and the shifting landscapes made from the researching and reimagining of women’s interior lives. MONUMENT does justice towards representing the factual unknowability of Arjumand’s perspective, while imagining the social realities of her life (even after death) between the private and public; the personal and political; the remembered, the forgotten, and the overwritten.
Central to this collection is Bandukwala’s capacity as a feminist interlocutor, historian and archivist. She takes us (the readers) on a journey while speaking to the past. She traces, taking expert care to map the domestic, political and communal life of Arjumand’s lived experience as a woman through childbirth, motherhood, female companionship, and death through postpartum bleeding. In “Braid,” Bandukwala highlights the importance of documenting the communal act of braiding each other’s hair, a cultural and gendered act which continues on till this day: “The act / of braiding, woman to woman, of brushing the day / out of her hair, of her combing sleep and calm / dreams into yours.” Bandukwala follows a familiar path made by many feminist historians, who similarly use many unconventional sources as part of their record keeping. This is made evident in the section “Offspring,” which utilizes the family tree to document the struggles of a corrupted royal family in contention. Knowingly, Bandukwala laments that there is “no rest after death, Arjumand.”
The writing is sharp, tactfully excavating and ruminating between Arjuman’s life and with it, the Taj Mahal in all its complicated essence: “Come now / before / your husband / reduces your legacy / to marble.” Through the eyes of a woman, Bandukwala invites the readers to love, to speak to, and grieve over Arjumand: “If mourning never broke open / and you were still here, / tell me, Arjumand, / would you have run?” and “Before your body entered / the marble resting place, / I hope your spirit left, / that you returned home, / beyond the Red Fort, back / to ocean lyrics refracting light.” Bandukwala brings forth a new beginning made through her attempt to im/mortalize the Empresses’ life in the spirit of exuberance, respect, acknowledged sacrifice, and infinite possibility: “Here is your story in another language, / speaking you alive.”
In conclusion, it is inevitable that the Taj Mahal will always remain an architectural symbol rife with uncertainty, innuendo and inexplicable visual suggestion—especially when considering the controversial lack of restoration efforts due to the rate of environmental pollution, its functioning as a divisive symbol for contemporary Hindu nationalists, and the very fact that the structure houses the Empresses’ tomb. Bandukwala adds to these conundrums by tearing down said monument, and raising one anew. One which remembers all the unfortunate circumstances of history, while remaining steadfast in its ability to showcase timeless love, beauty, and the power of the untold feminist archive brought to life.
Maryam Gowralli draws inspiration from her Trinidadian-Indian and Indonesian heritage. She is currently the Creative Nonfiction Editor for filling Station and is pursuing an MA in English Literature at the University of Calgary. You can find her works at PRISM International, The Temz Review, The Selkie, untethered Magazine, The Caribbean Writer and other journals. Twitter: @MaryamGalli Instagram: Maryam.Galli