Jeweller in the Taj
Welcome to Jeweller in the Taj! You are the jeweller, and the objective is to install the sapphires, rubies, amethysts and other precious stones in the Taj Mahal as your Mughal emperor Shah Jahan has ordered. At the same time, you must avoid a number of characters, including:
— the emperor’s son Aurangzeb (whose ambition to seize the throne will make him stab anyone in his way)
— the ghost of queen Mumtaz (whose weeping and wailing have the power to drown those she meets)
— the insufferably declaiming court poet (whose fawning sycophantic verses suffocate with their excess honey)
— a Rajput ruler from the enemy kingdom (whose resentment over your emperor’s annexation of territory has him draw his scimitar without hesitation)
— a thief (whose greed leads him to go about with dagger seeking rich carpets, enameled lamps and Punjabi jasper).
If you come into contact with these characters, your strength will be depleted and your number of jewels will decrease. Your goal is to move over as much territory of the Taj Mahal as possible, with its 17 hectares of mausoleum, mosque and gardens, before your jeweller expires. Evoking the lush visuals and poetic atmosphere of games like Legend of Zelda and Dear Esther, Jeweller in the Taj meets the standard of the best offerings on GameRankings and Metacritic.
I had never played a video game before, not out of contempt or lack of interest, but simply from some ingrained habit that made me read rather than seek electronics. Books are cheaper and easier to get hold of; also, I had no gaming system installed.
All this changed when I won the contest. In front of the mall, some locals inspired by India had set up camp, laying out a big sheet of green tarp covered with sequined fabrics; one held a sitar, all wore imported outfits and comfortable shoes, and the hair of the girls was tied into double braids. The group was passing out slips of paper advertising a contest with unspecified prize.
I took the slip unthinkingly but did not consider entering. Later, however, in the queue to buy wine glasses — they break so easily — and bored because I’d forgotten a book, I filled in the slip with my name and address. Exiting the mall, I passed it to one of the girls in braids. The man with the sitar was still plucking away with no sign of flagging.
Months later, having forgotten about this entirely, the prize showed up at my door — a game. Along with it there was a console, controllers, instructions, everything I needed. I didn’t set up the system right away; it took a week. But at last there they were, the elegant inky letters of Jeweller in the Taj flashing across the screen in emerald.
What’s the catch? I kept wondering as I wandered through the rooms. Nothing comes free, and clearly I was doing something wrong. Despite what the instructions that came with the game said — I was jeweller, I had to avoid certain characters, etc — I hadn’t come across any of those mentioned, though I’d been wandering half an hour. Alone in that vast landscape of marble and gold light, I put up jewel after jewel, advancing into room after room, setting my stones into the inlay with precision and delicacy.
At last I came to the tomb of Mumtaz. When I attempted to move, the screen froze and went emerald. A glitch — for a few minutes it flickered there, silent. Then a face appeared. ‘Greetings, user,’ it said. ‘I am the help desk.’ I recognized the face of the man who held the sitar. Things I hadn’t understood began to slot into place. The group at the mall likely consisted of amateur programmers, who had built characters into their own likeness. The give-away was probably intended to provide publicity for a game with limited distribution.
Reading between the lines, the phrase in the description, ‘meets the standard of the best offerings’ on famous gaming websites, was really a euphemism to say this game had not been reviewed in such places. I myself was a sort of guinea pig, free labour to test if the game really worked. Surely my movements were somehow relayed back to the programmers themselves. I really should read the fine print before participating in contests.
‘This is copy number 100,’ the beaming face proclaimed, in a firm yet warm voice. ‘Our games are pacifist and promote calming repetitive activity, such as placing jewels on a wall; they do not contain any sniper guns or similarly aggressive components. We never expected to sell many copies for just this reason. Thus we have great cause to celebrate this hundredth copy. You have acquired a very special edition of Jeweller in the Taj, along with the system we sent you; in fact, in this game you have the chance to be not jeweller but emperor. You need not avoid anyone; everyone will hide from you. There are still conspiracies and plots, of course, most notably that led by your own son; but for all intents and purposes your life is calm. All you want is to mourn your dead wife and build a monument to Mughal glory. May you wander in splendour and peace.’ The beaming face disappeared.
A mirror in one of the many rooms reflected my face: I was old and had a great sadness in my expression. My eyes gleamed softly like onyxes. Exquisitely dressed, my bearing was majestic. And? How lonely, this existence wandering the halls of the mausoleum. Power rippled through my being, as if with the click of a button the world would be shaped to my will, yet I felt empty. I could program fate in this place, but there was nothing to program.
Although I was emperor, I would prefer to be jeweller. The real jeweller, I knew, was somewhere in the Taj avoiding me. With the stones left in my pockets I continued to move along the walls, setting the gems in place, living within my memory of a parallel version where as jeweller I possessed a liberty now lost. This was fate, maybe — but the ‘prize’ did not please me.
I did not want to occupy this role assigned me; the fundamental concept behind the game, the quest, an almost spiritual task I had been given, was gone. Now as emperor, there was nothing left to do; my orders to build and decorate had already been executed, and the peons were in charge. What I most desired was to exit the constraints of the game.
Still inhabiting that reality, for a brief time when I went back to trade the game for its normal version, the mall too seemed a rendering of the Taj — there were the jewellers, the sad women, the poetic advertisements, the competitors scoping out neighbors’ shops, the robbers. But the amateur programmers were no longer there. Perhaps they had achieved their vision of paradise in which every wish is fulfilled, but now that I had known this kind of everlasting bliss, I did not envy them. My next game, I hope, will be a garden of more varied delights.