“Do you realize we haven’t even seen the Taj Mahal? We better go and see it some day soon, before that gets cordoned off too, or taken over or pulled down. This is India," so says the protagonist of Rukun Advani’s wildly funny but eerily prescient novel about contemporary India, Beethoven Among the Cows (1994).

In the novel, two brothers who have grown up in an upper-class Indian home, and who have been exposed primarily to Western culture—they are more at ease discussing Beethoven, not Bhairavi, Sibelius, not sarangi, concertos, not Carnatic sangeet, and Bergman, not any bhagwan—read about the Golden Temple being seized by Khalistan separatists and then taken back by the Indian Army after much destruction and bloodshed. The narrator decides they must see the Taj. 

“The Taj? Who’s fighting over that? It’s outside politics. Don’t get paranoid," his brother replies. 

“Nothing’s permanent. I think we should go and see the Taj," the narrator says.

His brother looks up sharply, and after a moment, says: “Yes, okay, let’s go and see the damn thing. Maybe the politicians will break that down too, though I can’t see how." 

Vinay Katiyar, who represents the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, seems to want to prove the brother wrong. On Monday, he declared that the Taj Mahal would soon become Tej Mandir, because “our Tej Mandir was turned into a cremation ground by Aurangzeb", and an administrator would destroy the cremation ground soon.

However outlandish the statement might sound, it cannot be taken lightly. Katiyar represents the ruling party at the state and at the centre. He has been elected to the Lok Sabha from Faizabad/Ayodhya thrice, and had launched the Bajrang Dal to support the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Many political leaders and analysts had thought that the movement was a ploy to propel the BJP to power: Surely, responsible leaders of the BJP wouldn’t do anything as drastic as tearing down the Babri Masjid? 

But they did just that: On 6 December 1992, thousands of foot soldiers of Hindutva defied court orders, attacked the mosque and razed it, forever altering Indian politics. Slogans saying Ayodhya is the beginning, and Kashi and Mathura would follow, were proclaimed loudly—and continue to be raised. 

Six months after the Uttar Pradesh vidhan sabha chose Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister, a curious thing happened with a tourism booklet of the state. At nearly eight million visitors a year, of whom about 10% are foreign tourists, the Taj Mahal is among the most visited destinations in India, and is recognized as one of the wonders of the world. And yet, the Taj failed to find a place among the attractions mentioned in the 32-page booklet. Adityanath had already said that the Taj Mahal was not relevant to Indian culture. The sites the booklet did mention included the ghats of Varanasi, the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, and other religious sites associated with Hinduism and Buddhism. Following the uproar, an official said the booklet was only showcasing projects the government planned to take up. 

There are two ways of looking at the explanation. The benign explanation is that inexperienced functionaries or politicians had been making outrageous statements or taking bizarre decisions, with the leaders knowing it would annoy a class of voters that they want to ridicule as elite, as removed from the Indian reality—the kind of people former Haryana chief minister Devi Lal used to dismiss as “urbanites". Such statements get made, there is some outrage in the media, and the officials explain the move in less controversial terms. Critics who have felt infuriated over the issue then accept the explanation, and in doing so the more critical issue passes unnoticed—that the state will not be making improvements to or investing in the upkeep of tourist attractions that represent India’s Islamic heritage.

There is a less benign explanation—keep floating trial balloons through such statements by saying something more provocative each time, and it lulls people into believing that these are only statements by the “fringe", until one fine day a committee gets formed to liberate a specific monument. The old movie speeds up, history repeats as tragedy. 

Surely Katiyar couldn’t possibly mean it when he says that the Taj Mahal is in reality Tej Mandir, and that some administrator would one day remove it, right? But that’s how the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi saga began. Many expected the state’s institutions, machinery, and unwritten norms and codes of political behaviour to play their assigned roles and assert the state’s authority for good sense to prevail. But the institutions failed; the ground where the mosque stood is now flat. 

The two brothers in Advani’s novel took a picaresque, whimsical journey across India to see the Taj before it is blown up. You never know, this is India, they thought.

At the end of the novel, Advani writes: “It (the Taj Mahal) seemed to stand there only as a neutral monument, black-and-white in the past, visible in full colour at one moment, extinguished by an impermeable haze at another, solid for a while but eternally vulnerable, an emperor’s concerto in stone to which my brother and I, after that unsettling journey through the gathering dark, felt suddenly deaf, immunized by a country, passive as a cow which ate Beethoven in the time that Nehru died."

That was fiction. Sometimes truth does sound worryingly stranger than fiction.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi 

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