Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Long, Lovely Day


Monday I awaken at six, completely refreshed from my day of rest. I gather my things: my cell phone, my camera, a water bottle, my umbrella. I’m getting ready to go to the Taj Mahal today with Susie, Katie, Susie’s Uncle Dick and the father of this girl from church who has to work today. His name is Russ.

Susie calls at six fifteen just as she said she would. They are on their way. We are actually going. This trip has been quasi-planned and cancelled innumerable times because of Uncle Dick’s changing travel plans. Today it’s finally happening.

I climb into the way back of the big Toyota van next to Russ. Russ just got here late on Friday, so he still has jet lag and his head is still spinning from the sensory overload that is India to the uninitiated. He is full of questions. He asks me what I'm doing here and how long I've been here. He wants to know about Susie, too. How long has she been here? Two years. How often has she gone home? She hasn’t.

She hasn’t?

She hasn’t gone home in two years?

It strikes me now that Susie is having a kind of Into the Wild Christopher McCandless experience, that she would be fine starving to death on a bus by herself having eaten moldy seeds, that she is at total peace out here on her own, peace with a twinge of nihilistic oblivion somewhere at the end of it. Two years without going home. I could never do it.

Russ and Uncle Dick snap pictures out the window of the car, framing up shots of overstuffed auto-rickshaws and motorcycles holding whole families: the sites that I now take for granted. It is fun to have people around for whom this is all new. It makes me see my surroundings with different eyes.

The back seat of the Toyota is killing my back until we discover we can adjust the headrest so it’s not in the middle of our backs. After that, the ride is bearable, even comfortable. We each have our own air conditioning vent and the car remains cool as we drive through towns and countryside. There is a lot of open farmland on the way to Agra, and every time there is farmland, there are also the grass huts of the agricultural workers. I am amazed to see them. They are like something from a Gauguin painting, but real. People live in them. I try to reconcile this with all the boys we see in school uniforms in the populated areas getting ready to go to school. I can’t. There are two Indias: one for the educated and one for the workers, the people who live in grass huts in the country and tents in the cities, the little boys who persistently try to sell magazines to people in traffic. Sometimes I am annoyed by these boys when they won’t go away; sometimes I admire their happy resilience so much.

We get stopped at some kind of border crossing where our cab driver has to show some papers to an official. While this is happening, men with monkeys on strings approach the car. Uncle Dick wants a picture. The monkey man tells Uncle Dick to get out of the car. He can have his picture with the monkeys. Uncle Dick hops out and one of the monkeys leaps onto his shoulders, perching there for the photo. Another monkey hops onto the end of a large stick. He is surrounded by monkey. Susie takes the shot. Once it’s done the man wants 500 rupees or ten dollars. This is a little much. My whole elephant ride cost that much, and Sonu told me it was way too much. Susie passes the man twenty rupees and tells her uncle to get in the car, but the man won’t let him close the door. “Very poor man. Very poor,” he tells us.

“He’s not poor,” Susie says. “People don’t know better and they all pay him that much.” But I don’t see carloads of people cueing up to get their picture with this man and his monkeys. The cab starts to pull away and the man’s hands are still reaching into the car. Finally he gives up and lets us go. Uncle Dick notices a monkey smell and asks if he has any souvenirs on the back of his shirt, but he’s clean. It’s just the lingering scent of his little furry friend.

After about three hours we arrive in Agra. Our cabdriver pulls over to the side of the road and a man approaches the vehicle. He is Vinni, our tour guide. We say we don’t want a tour guide. How much will he cost? But he tells us he is included in the price of the cab. He’ll just appreciate a tip when he’s done. Can he get in? No one told Susie anything about a tour guide when she booked the cab, but we figure it’s okay. He’s well dressed and well spoken. He seems kosher.

If we didn’t have two strapping men with us, this might have been an issue, but as it is, Katie climbs into the back bench seat with Russ and me and gives up her seat to Vinni who starts explaining how we have to get to the Taj.

Several years ago, the conservators of the building noticed the white marble starting to yellow from pollution, so now there is a ban on gas-powered vehicles within two kilometers of the place. We’ll have to park then take an electric auto-rickshaw. The cab pulls over and Vinni hails a rickshaw. He tells us all to get in: all six of us. Susie sits on the side bar and Katie and Uncle Dick smash into the back seat. I sit very close to Uncle Dick and ask him about that funky smell. Eau de monkey, I believe? Vinni and Russ sit with the auto driver in the front on a seat that is built for one. In this very Indian manner, we crawl the short distance to the gate. It is somewhat amazing that the electric motor can handle all the weight we’re pulling. As we approach the gate, Vinni tells us to beware of pick-pockets and aggressive vendors. I’m glad he’s with us. He’s been very helpful already.

We walk down a sidewalk-width street lined with tiny shops selling cheesy souvenirs like snow globes and magnets. The vendors are surprisingly mild. I don’t even get accosted. At the gate, it is revealed that Indian citizens pay twenty rupees while foreigners pay seven hundred and fifty to get in. We fork over the cash to Vinni and he secures our tickets for us. He takes us to a second booth where they provide each one of us with a bottle of cold water and covers for our shoes that we’ll have to wear when we reach the tomb.

We walk through the gate and Vinni has lots of information for us: how tall the building is, how many towers there are, how it’s built with exact symmetry, how the towers slightly lean outwards. I am interested mostly in the story of why it was built by Shah Jehan: as a monument for his second wife who died in childbirth.

The Taj comes into view and it is shimmering against the blue sky behind it. It’s built right on the banks of the Jumna so there’s nothing behind it. It almost looks as if it’s floating: a massive, white, floating, glittering monument to love. I didn’t know what I’d think or feel when I saw it. People at work have told me that some people see it and are disappointed. It’s just a big building, after all. And then some people see it and are completely moved. I fall somewhere in between. It is beautiful. It is amazing to see something in person that I’ve seen reproduced so many times in pictures and movies. But there’s still something more I want to figure out while I’m here.

When my father’s father was in the hospital diagnosed with heart failure and nearing his death, he suddenly began talking about how he’d been to the Taj Mahal when he was in the service during World War II. He was not an effusive or emotional man. He never told stories. I’d never even heard him speak of being in the service. Yet here he was, nearly delirious, almost unable to speak, not talking about his dead wife or his remaining family, instead talking about this distant memory, talking about a few minutes spent walking around a tomb on the other side of the planet. Why?

We snap a bunch of photos and allow the Indians to take their pictures with us, then we finally approach the monument’s steps and have to put on our little white footies.

There is no photography allowed inside. We walk up to the headstones. In the center is Shah Jehan’s wife. His is right next to hers: the only detail that breaks the symmetry of the place. Vinni tells us this is because his son buried him here. The Shah was planning on building a black Taj across the river for himself, but his son imprisoned him in the Agra Fort and took over the empire, foiling his plans. His son didn’t care about symmetry or memory. His son cared about power.

I stand in front of the tombs imagining my grandfather in his twenties. He has to have stood here. How many millions of feet have stood here to see this grand gesture? To see a tomb?

So many monuments you see and you think about all the tortured craftsmen or even slaves that gave their toil and sometimes even lives to build. The Great Wall of China. The Pyramids. But the Taj isn’t like this. You don’t see the separate bricks that went into making it and imagine the people hauling them. You see one whole gesture. The building looks like one piece of air or cloud that arrived on earth because it was willed to do so. The Taj you look at and you just see love: delicate, timeless love. And I think as I stand where my grandfather must have stood, that this is what he must have seen as well, and this is what he must have remembered all those years later as his heart lost pace with his body and his mind drifted. We lose everything. Our spouses, our hearts, our minds. But what remains glistening like the Taj Mahal, untouchable by time, is only love. Nothing can touch it. Nothing can take it away.

I thank the Taj for yielding its secret to me and follow my friends out of the foyer past the intricate carved enclosure around the headstones.

Outside I realize that I’ve sweated so much that my clothes are soaked and sticking to me. I quickly drink the free bottle of water in an effort not to evaporate completely, but I am extremely uncomfortable. We walk thankfully into the shade of the trees leading down the path to the gate. There is no way I can dry off. Even once we reach the cool of the air conditioned van, I will be wet. I could probably literally wring the sweat from my shirt and pants. It’s disgusting. I just want to jump out of my clothes, but I have nothing to change into. I’ll just have to remain a puddle of yuck for the next unforeseen number of hours.

We meet Vinni back at the gate and he wants to know if we’ll go with him to see some Indian handicrafts. These are the places where he’ll get commission if we buy anything. We walk down the alley of vendors, including a Planet Hollywood, which is a dirty little shack with a metal garage door front that sells curried vegetables on metal plates. There are not even any Planet Hollywood t-shirts for sale.

This time packing back into the rickshaw is easier because we’re all so slippery. This time I don’t joke about smelling monkey on Uncle Dick because I’m sure I smell much worse. At least I’m not the only sweaty soul. Everyone is pretty well drenched.

We get back to our cab and the driver cranks up the a/c. Our next stop is a jewelry store where they sell stones mined in Agra: stars of India. They’re these stones used in the Taj Mahal that, when in direct light, produce a translucent star. They have pictures of these stones lit up at night and glistening in the Taj. I want to buy a ring to add to my collection, but the prices are high. I say I’m not going to spend more than fifty dollars, but they won’t come down. I leave the store and, as I’m climbing into the car, they change their mind. I can have the nice big stone I liked for fifty dollars. I’m their first customer today. It’s for good luck. I am always their first customer in India. I buy the ring as my souvenir of the Taj and we’re off to a rug place, that is, as soon as Vinni gets his cut of the cash.

In the next place we go, they are making rugs. It’s amazing to see them work. There are hundreds of threads stretched taught on this loom and the men are sitting, making knots in an intricate pattern of color with such speed that you can hardly tell what they’re doing. They make the knot, then cut the yarn, and make the knot, and cut the yarn. I don’t understand how they know where to put each color to make the detailed design they are making, but somehow they get it exactly correct just by having a picture of the design posted next to them.

The rug man takes us downstairs and show us where they create the design patterns for the rugs. He says the designs they make are hundreds of years old. Then he shows us a demonstration of how they trim the rugs once all the knots are made. Then he shows us how they have to use a little wooden stick to straighten out all the lines in the rug after it’s trimmed. All in all, it takes about four months to complete a typical rug made in this fashion.

They’re about to go into their sales pitch when we decide no one in our crowd wants a rug. Thankfully, the man isn’t too pushy and allows us to leave without argument.

The next stop is a place that does marble inlay work. The salesman here tells us that the people we’re looking at doing this work are descendants of the people that did the work at the Taj Mahal, that this is a trade that has been passed down through the families for hundreds of years.

He shows us how the craftsmen shape the pieces of precious and semi-precious stones on a grinding wheel, and how they scrape the exact shapes of these tiny pieces into the hard marble surfaces with tiny chisels. He shows us pieces less than a millimeter long that have several tinier pieces within them, mostly flower petals with stems and leaves. He takes us into a showroom and offers us tea. We decline. We can’t buy anything here. It’s all too expensive and large. They’re selling huge, heavy tables. Perhaps we’d like to see the room of smaller pieces, then?

He ushers us into a roomful of boxes and plates and elephants and coasters. Uncle Dick buys a set of elephant coasters for a good chunk of change, so good that they throw in a free elephant for him. Vinni says next we should eat lunch. We can eat at Pizza Hut, or there’s a Chinese place next door. We decide that Pizza Hut is fine. Vinni will leave us, then, but he gives us his business cards. They are handwritten in green ink with tiny lettering that tries to mimic a typewriter. We should call him if we ever need a tour guide in Agra again, and pass his name along to our friends. He wants my email address and Susie’s too because he knows we’ll both be in Delhi for a while yet. We tell him thanks, but it’s enough to have his contact information. He looks rejected, but sorry Vinni. No need to send me emails.

I’m still wet, but I’ve cooled off enough to realize that I’m also starving. It takes what seems like half an hour to decide on what pizzas to order, but we finally accomplish the task. I order a veggie and the crowd gets two chicken pizzas to split. Even though the veggie pizza costs about half of what the other ones cost, we split the bill evenly. I try not to be too George Castanza about this, but it seems like it always happens when I go out to eat. It’s truly no big deal, though. Susie paid for the auto-rickshaw on the way back from the Taj and Uncle Dick paid for it on the way there. Uncle Dick also got Vinni’s tip. It all evens out.

Next the driver stops at the Red Fort, the place where Shah Jehan was imprisoned. As we get out of the vehicle we are accosted by hawkers selling tiny marble inlaid boxes and marble elephants and fans made out of peacock feathers and tiny chess sets. One man tries to stick an elephant in my hand to get me to buy it. Another shoves one in my face. I make the mistake of showing a glimmer of interest and a crowd of them gather around me. “Chalo! Chalo!” I yell at them. Go away!

We walk all the way to the gate of the fort and Uncle Dick is framing up shot after shot, all the while the men are hounding me. “Madam, madam, a hundred rupees. One hundred rupees only!”

“Chalo!” I shout, then Susie looks at me.

“What are you telling them?” she asks. “Are you telling them ‘chalo’?”

Uh oh. Yes, I say, waiting for the bad news. “That means come here,” she says. “It means, like, let’s go. You’re telling them to come with you. You need to tell them ‘jao.’”

I look up and the men are laughing at me. “Jao,” I say, but this doesn’t work. One man jaws this word back at me like a twisted grammar school teacher. “Jaaaaooooo. Jaaaaooooo,” he says, laughing and laughing. Then they cram their merchandise back in my face. “Hundred rupees madam. One hundred rupees only.”

“Okay, I’m ready to go anytime,” I tell Uncle Dick, who is still framing up shots of the fort. “Anytime.”

Finally Uncle Dick is satisfied. We walk back with some effort because we are surrounded—especially me. Back at the car, the hawkers don’t let up. They stick their hands in and keep up their fevered pitches. Now there are better deals. “Madam, two for a hundred. All three for two hundred.” Russ hops back into the car. He has purchased a wooden chess set that he now can’t get opened. How much did he pay? 400 rupees. I think it sounds a bit expensive, but don’t say anything. It’s not like you can get your money back. I think these guys have a no return policy.

They won’t let Uncle Dick close the door, sticking their hands and their merchandise in, yelling out prices without abating. Finally the taxi driver starts pulling away. They walk with the vehicle, keeping on. Uncle Dick tries to close the door but they’re still there. It’s like we’re being attached by an octopus or two or three who’ve gotten into a trunk of sunken treasure. There are arms everywhere with the goodies we just can’t live without. Finally we pull out into traffic and the men have to give up.

A few miles down the road we stop at Akbar’s Tomb. I’m kind of tombed out, I think, until I see it and remember Amar telling me about it. Some people like it better than the Taj Mahal even. It’s more intricate, with more designs on it. It’s captivating. And the grounds are like a zoo, with hoards of semi-tame monkeys and deer and peacocks that have been there for years. Akbar would have wanted it that way.

Half way up to the tomb, I get an ocular migraine, the kind wherein I go partially blind because there’s a big flashing blob in front of my face for about fifteen minutes. But I don’t let it come between me and the monkeys. I take picture after picture and get some great video of three baby monkeys taking turns jumping off a bench.

I can’t say I’m surprised by my migraine, going from such extreme hot to the air conditioning over and over during the day. I would just like for it to go away. I would like to be dry, and I would like my migraine to go away.

Inside the tomb there is a guide looking for a tip. He tells us some trivia about Akbar that I can’t pay much attention to because I’m partially blind and still wet. We travel down a long, narrow passage to a plain room that houses Akbar’s headstone. Here a man in Muslim dress gives us each a handful of flower petals and tells us to throw them onto the tomb. I follow the instructions. Then he tells us we should leave money on the tomb. No one else does, but I get out some coins and set them down. “Two rupees!” the man cries like I’m the biggest cheapskate in the world. The other tour guide goes on about how there’s a five second echo in the room. Two rupees! I hear again. Shove it mister. I’m half blind and all wet. You’re lucky you got that.

The interminable tour guide takes us into the neighboring chamber where Akbar’s daughter is buried and shows us a trick of the acoustics in this room. If you whisper into one of the corners, you can be heard on the opposite side of the room. He hopes we enjoyed the information he says, holding out his hand with a ten rupee note cupped into it to show us just exactly what we should do. Someone gives him a tip. I am out of change, so I can’t.

Walking back to the car we are greeted by hawkers with the same merchandise they were selling outside the Red Fort. There are elephants and fans and boxes and chess sets. Except everything here is about half the price. They are asking two hundred rupees for poor Russ’s chess set. I pay a man and get a large green carved elephant for a hundred rupees. As I pass to the car, a man pushes another man in front of me. This man’s eyes are all white. He holds a few ugly necklaces. “Madam, there is a blind man here,” his helper points out the obvious, hoping this will incite me to buy. It is a unique pitch. But I am hot, I am still wet and I am now in pain from the pounding headache that always follows my temporary blindness. I jump around the blind man and make for the Toyota with Russ.

We are the first ones there. Uncle Dick has stayed behind to dicker with a hawker over a chess set. I think he gets one for a hundred rupees, or two hundred. I don’t much care. I just want the air in the car to dry me off. I just want to lean back and close my eyes and recuperate from the day.

We are all finally in the car and the driver cranks up the a/c and pulls away. We are on our way home. The air gives me goose bumps but I love it. I could close the vent that is blowing on me, but I don’t. For once in my life, I enjoy being cold. I take a nap. I think everyone in the car takes a nap. It’s comfortable and quiet, and it’s been a long day. Travel in India is not a spectator sport. You get jostled around. You need your elbows. Your senses are overloaded. Your clothes are dirtied. Your patience is tried. You are tired out when you are done.

We drop off Russ at Nizamuddin and reach the Ahuja Residency around eight thirty. I say goodbye to Uncle Dick and Katie and thank Susie for what was a totally smooth and fun and comparatively easy trip to see the Taj. If I were going again, this is the way I’d want to do it. There was no messing with auto wallahs or worrying about missing trains or busses.

Upstairs in my room, I call Scott to let him know I’m home safely. Then I pick the last three biscuits from my fridge and head out to see if Acha, Baby and Baloo are hungry. Before I can find my dogs, I find my neighbors. Mister Kandhari is in his courtyard. “I call you! I call you!” he says excitedly. I tell him just as excitedly that I just got back from the Taj Mahal.

“Come to our temple,” he says.

“Now?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. “I just need to give these biscuits to the dogs.” I run around the corner and leave the biscuits on the ground, then climb into Mister Kandhari’s car along with Mister Singh and Gopi. The Defence Colony gurudwara is only, like, two blocks away. We park and get out. There are no footbaths here, only a sink in which I am told to wash my hands. We check our shoes and Mister Singh produces a white bandana with which I can cover my head. We stand outside. Inside there is a golden arch and a man singing a raga. There is another man who looks to be waiving a feather duster over the large copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. We wait outside for a break in the music, then Mister Singh motions for me to follow him in. The singing and chanting continues and pages in the book are turned. Mister Singh walks a few paces to the left to sit down. I’m glad I don’t immediately follow him because I notice that all the women are sitting to the right. I stay where I am and sit with the women. I’m not as worried about getting separated from my hosts at this gurudwara. It’s small and not as crowded as Bangla Sahib. It’s also close to home. If all else fails, I can walk home from here.

The chanting continues, then the book is covered with a golden cloth. The man comes back with the feather duster. Then a man comes around with the brown glop. Before I can think, I hold my hands out and get the warm goo straight from the hand of the man scooping it out. There are no garbage cans around. This is a whole ceremony. There’s no getting out of eating the goo this time. I take a taste. It’s something like cream of wheat with a hint of brown sugar. It’s not bad. I think, I’ll have to ask Mister Singh what the significance of this is when I get the chance. The woman sitting next to me feeds her goo to a tiny little girl crawling around the floor in an adorable yellow halter top and white frilly pants. The baby gets full of goo then gets interested in my rings, touching them with her tiny gooey fingers. The song goes on and a young boy is presented in front of the crowd. A large wreath of yellow flowers is hung over his head and some words are read.

Finally, the Gugu Granth Sahib is put on a cushion and covered in golden cloths. Everyone touches their heads to the ground as the book is raised and carried to the glass chamber where it is kept every night. Sikhs have this ceremony in the morning and the evening every day.

After the bible goes to bed, people mill about the clean, plush carpeted room. Mister Singh introduces me to a childhood friend of his who is impressed that I’m going to see the Golden Temple this coming weekend. He touches my head as in a blessing and tells me that I’ll be close to God when I go.

“Come, Vicki, come!” Mister Kandhari wants me to follow him. “I call you. I call you just a half hour ago, then you come. It is good. We’ll eat some dinner.”

Downstairs, a big meal is being served. Mister Singh explains it is for the occasion of the child being accepted into the church, the little boy who got the wreath of flowers placed on him just a few minutes ago. The family wanted to do this.

There are easily two hundred people in the gurudwara basement. We sit down in a row of chairs. Mister Singh said there never used to be chairs, but then they put them here for the people who are getting older and having trouble with their knees.

Young men come around with buckets and ladles and serve dal, then paneer, then a cucumber salad and finally kheer or rice pudding, as Mister Singh explains it to me.

He tells me for the third or maybe forth time how the Hindus have four castes, but the Sikhs think caste is wrong. Human beings are human beings, you see. That’s why the Sikhs serve food like this, where everyone can sit together, regardless of caste or religion.

“Happy?” Mister Kandhari asks me as he walks past with his empty plate.

“Yes, very,” I reply, as I always do when he asks this question.

The food is good and the meal is over quickly. An old man takes my plate away when I am finished. Then we meet up with Mister Singh’s childhood friend. He begins to tell me how the Sikhs think caste is wrong, but I have to excuse myself. It appears that my ride is leaving.

“Come, Vicki, come,” Mister Kandhari says and begins to teeter up the stairs. I follow Mister Singh to the shoe check and wash my hands. Mister Kandhari gets back into his car with great effort and a few grunts. They drop me off at the guesthouse less than an hour after I left planning just to feed a few biscuits to a few stray dogs.

It’s been a long, lovely day, but I’m certainly ready for a long, lovely sleep.


auntlinda said...

grandpa frank was , im sure ,standing right behind you at the taj . you are an amazing grand daughter . for once i am speechless

It's me mom said...

Your description and experience at the Taj Mahal was breathtaking. You continue to amaze us with your writing.