An India Travelogue, Part 4
by Lawrence Bush
I REMEMBER the first time I saw Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, after years of seeing it in photographs. You couldn’t drive very close to the mountain, so it seemed like a post card, even in “real life,” and I experienced disappointment. Rather than the moment seeming more vivid, I felt dulled and a bit dissociated.
Not so at the Taj Mahal, which is ten times more magnificent in real life, in real sunlight, with real people streaming in and out, than in all the photos of it I’ve seen.
We were on a two-day trip to Agra, about 120 miles from Delhi, with a driver and a guide, visiting 16th-century Mughal Empire tombs, palaces, and forts, and there were Jewish stars everywhere on these Persian-designed Muslim sites. The guide told us that the six-pointed star, often with a circle and nub at the center, represents male-female conjoining to make “the baby.”
Many of the design motifs at the red sandstone palace at Fatehpur Sikri (about an hour to the west of Agra), he said, were also meant to represent the unity of religions. Akbar, the emperor who built the sandstone place, had a Muslim wife, a Hindu wife, and a Catholic wife (from Goa, India), and developed his own syncretic religion.
Agra has 1.5 million people (compared to Delhi’s 20+ million) and a higher concentration of Muslims (15 percent) than most other Indian cities. Here the storybook India came to life for me, for better or worse. A few scenes:
• As our trip began, our driver, a lovely, deep-voiced man, touched his fingers to a dashboard idol (Ganesh, of the elephant head) and to his forehead and then chest while silently mouthing a Hindu blessing, a shehekheyanu of some kind.
• En route to Agra, we saw dozens of tall but small-scale smokestacks spewing both white and black smoke — brick-baking, I surmised. (The land is mostly flat and, in this region, unbeautiful.) In the fields are also lots of agricultural huts (for resting, shade, and who knows what else), and circular, almost decorative stacks of cow pies (a main source of fuel through much the country). Alongside all of these old, even ancient sights were at least two dozen high-rise buildings or developments in various stages of construction, none of them completed. Forty percent of the severe air pollution in Delhi, we later learned, is from unabated construction dust.
• Within a mile or two of the Taj Mahal, Agra’s streets are lined with tiny cinderblock stores selling stuff and more stuff: lottery tickets, sodas, chips, fruit, car and truck tires, street food, hats, sweets, fabrics. It’s hard to tell if these stores are backed by small dwellings. The sidewalks are mostly rubble, litter, and dust (it’s a very dry season right now), but people sweep the trash into piles every morning, and we saw one woman with a donkey-drawn cart collecting these piles. Here and there, trash smolders from burning. Other blocks have more upscale stores (watches, leather, clothing, shoes, and tons of restaurants and hotels), but nothing fancy or even up-to-snuff by American shopping standards.
• There are cows minding their business and doing what they please throughout the streets, and water buffalo, some of which are used for milking, our guide said. (Our driver, who lives about 300 miles outside of Delhi and only gets to see his two children about every two months — this we found out in our final minutes together — has one cow as part of his family.) There are also dusty, skinny, short-haired, intrepid stray dogs everywhere. We saw one with two pups who were jumping at her teats as she walked. They have their own society and seem largely indifferent to us humans.
• There are bands of monkeys here and there. The guards at every palace and tomb carry long sticks, and I wondered what for until I saw them chasing monkeys away from the crowds at the “baby Taj,” the Itimad ud Daulah Tomb.
• There are horse-drawn carts, donkey-drawn carts, human-drawn carts, amid cars and motorbikes. I have never in my life been in a place where humans and animals work together, strive together so.
• The backseat-driver experience: Amazing! With hardly any traffic lights or stop signs, the cars, trucks, tuk-tuks, and scooters (often transporting three, four, even five people on a single vehicle), flow around one another and around pedestrians with constant warning honks and bare inches to spare between them. The level of concentration our driver showed, the constant dance between yielding and forcing your way in, the beehive cooperativeness of it all, and the utter lack of road rage — amazing! Like driving in Manhattan times 10.
• I saw my first open sewer trench, which, unfortunately, was right on the street of our hotel. I asked the hotel owner — a handsome young man who has been in business for a year, a business established for him by his father, who builds furniture on the ground floor — how Agra, which boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and relies on tourism for so much of its economy, can allow such a condition to persist, especially when the Taj Mahal no doubt produces a considerable stream of income to the government (foreigners pay 1,000 rupees for admission, about $17, while Indians pay 40 rupees, about 65¢). He told me that he has complained numerous times to government officials; the problem, he said, is corruption, plain and simple. Government officials pocket the money, he said, at both national and local levels, and nothing gets done.
• We’ve been intentionally tipping very generously (VERY) except in two instances, when my ignorance interfered: at the hotel, when a boy grabbed my very light bag and I gave him only a ten-rupee note, which he looked at in his hand for a subtly disdainful beat; later in the day I gave him 30 more (the standard, we had learned, is 15 rupees per bag) and I bowed in apology; and at the Taj, where a man in raggedy clothes covered our shoed feet in paper slippers and I gave him only 40 rupees. No, no, our guide said, give him 100 — he is handling your feet. (At the baby Taj, we went barefoot, to feel the stone, and our guide indicated a smaller tip for the man who guarded the shoes.)
• As all savvy guides will do, our guide brought us to stores, a marble-works shop and a carpet-weaving shop, where we were given sparking water and cookies and bananas and demonstrations of the work. Watching the manufacture by hand of semi-precious stone inlays at the marble shop (by craftsmen who are supposedly the descendants of the craftsmen who built the Taj), we understood why the Taj Mahal required twenty-two years and twenty thousand workers to be built. (Susan got the chance to work the smoothing stone.) At the carpet place, the rolling out of rugs involved a mesmerizing, formal choreography — and we saw how many of the patterns of the buildings and their gardens were based on carpet patterns. And yes, at both places we bought small souvenirs, and at the rug place we should have bargained, but I can’t and Susan forgot.
It occurred to me in Agra that this is as close as I’ll ever get to shtetl life: the jostling of so many human beings in small and run-down confines, doing business, competing and cooperating, making noise, living with their animals, struggling with sanitation, enduring deprivation and insecurity, following their rules about dress and diet, sacrificing for their children (there are private schools EVERYWHERE, with run-down buildings and names like Einstein School, Agra Glory Public Inter-College, Agra Modern School, Brain Tree School) — all within a very intense and alive community.
By comparison, I live swaddled from the elements, more luxuriously than a Mughal emperor.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.