India and the Taj Mahal
I didn’t expect to love India. It wasn’t on my bucket list. I had no wish to see hoards of the great unwashed, nor to endure an entire vacation without salad, lest I contract the dread ‘Delhi Belly.” I didn’t get the whole allure of the Taj. Very ‘first world’, I’m ashamed to say.
And so it was only the love of my husband, who works there, and local crafts ~I’ll admit it, I wanted to shop~ that got me there. We arrived late at night and were greeted at the airport by a blast of cool air and a curious burning smell in the air, the closest thing to fall and a bonfire likely since living in Singapore. It was only a few minute taxi to his hotel, where I were bowed to and called ‘Madam’ in lovely, lilting accents; a graceful hostess approached with a tray of flowers and pressed a circular red bindi on my son’s forehead, as if to claim us.
And we were hooked. The next two days in Delhi ~a day for old, a day for new, not nearly enough~ were magical, as we learned the progression of shahs, the propensity for war, and the role of the British Empire. It is easy to see why all these rulers wanted to own India, and easier yet to understand why no one really can.
India gets a bad rap, because of this complexity. Because we fear what we cannot categorize, and there is nothing cut and dried here, except the graceful, living spirit that is India, is its people, with their colorful dress and inquisitive eyes, even the poorest and most fragile seem ethereal. And yet these people are choking India ~without a suitable infrastructure, Delhi is not a world class city, and so parts of it remain world-class slum (and cow dung, for the locals dry and cube their poo and burn it for fuel; it is this organic smog that perfumes the air). Tuk-tuks, rickshaws and cows clog the streets along with bicycles and pedestrians. There is seemingly no right of way, anywhere.
On the weekend we traveled to Agra, leaving in the morning. The first hour was spent driving to the tax office in Uttar Pradesh to pay $7 to cross state lines; a piece of paper that without, we could not travel. Once to the highway, the road opened up and our driver, Nindo, a resident of less-crowded Jaipur, was gleeful on the pedal. We got to our hotel as sun set; as we approached the Taj Mahal shimmered like a mirage on the horizon and we watched it disappear with the light, sipping cocktails as darkness fell.
Yet curiously, I felt the pull of it all night, like a magnet in the darkness, even as I slept. Waking early to the sounds of the call to prayer, I listened to the city arise and ready to fete its queen, like a kid on Christmas morning waiting to see if Santa had been. For she is a beauty, the Taj, stunning and royal, glowing alabaster white like a living cloud.
One time, I said, just let’s visit the Taj and stay at the fanciest hotel, so we can really see it at every time of day and night. Little did I know what a love affair I was embarking upon ~and like an eager lover, I think of the person I became in the shadow of the Taj, and yearn to be near.