THE BLOG

Taj Mahal and Love (x)

10/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Karin Badt Associate Professor of Cinema and Theater in Paris

The British ex-pat Australian photographer I met at the Taj View Hotel this afternoon said it best: "When you travel, every moment is profound, no matter if nothing happens." His companion--an Indian, evidently his lover--beamed excitedly and said he was learning how to write, so at the end of the day he could express the richness of every moment.

I didn't expect any great moments from a day in Agra to see the original of the white plastic baubles being sold on the streets, and yet the day had a roundedness to it, paralleling the dome itself, beginning (and ending) with the love-happy rickshaw driver who I chose at the train station, after pushing away a dozen hawking drivers.

"I am always smiling," the young driver said, his bright dark eyes sparkling in his rear-view mirror. "Because I love all life and all people! Here, read my guest book."

The guests in the book exclaimed about the young man's vivacity, his "quickness", his massages--and his jokes, which he now assailed me with, one after another, from how many fingers can one count on two hands to something about Gandhi.

"So is the Taj Mahal beautiful?" I said.

"It is beautiful," he said, with a flair of his hand. "But not....." he enjoyed his punchline, "as beautiful as you!"

He grinned in the mirror. "I can tell you travel a lot--that you are like me, free!" Driving with one hand, his foot down on the accelerator, he pulled out his photo album of his trip to Nepal (him rolling happily in the snow), and pictures of his ex-girlfriend, a pretty British girl with blue eyes, and told me his age (29) and asked if I would like to drive his rickshaw (which I did), and also whether I would like to have a massage (which I kind of did, as the train from Udaiper was long and tiring).

I then left to see the Taj Mahal.

But en route--overwhelmed by the hawkers and the filth--I decided to have lunch instead at the Taj View Hotel, where on the patio before the pool, the Australian couple and I talked about the importance of being connected "to one's inner feeling".

"Nothing makes your life except you!" the British man said, leaning forward with a sudden intimate smile and curling his fist on the table. "You following your inner feeling. No fate, no destiny. It is you and absolutely you."

The conversation shifted to the Agra Fort, the Brit brightening in pleasure to talk about the history, the intensity of the wars in the northern region, between kingdoms--so I leaped up to go to the fort, something I had not at all planned..

"Make sure you get a guide!" the Brit said with great enthusiasm.

But at the Fort, all the guides seemed rather hawkish and ignorant, so I got rid of them, and wandered alone, from one huge red pillared room to the next, trying to find someone to listen to, to no avail.

Then I found a guide in search of a tourist.

I found her in the courtyard, explaining the architecture of the lady's chambers to a dapper man with an unusual straw hat, who turned out to be one of five wealthy Mexicans on a tour.

"Could I pay you to tell me something--anything-- in ten minutes?" I said, taking the woman aside, when the Mexican was far off under a turret. She was an unusual guide, exclamatory and learned--and a woman.

"Absolutely--and don't pay a thing. I will tell you all. Join us!"

She eagerly welcomed me to the group, who now congregated briefly--all five--and just as suddenly dispersed.

"You see that," the tour guide said, who was in mid-sentence explaining the fountains in the harem's quarters. "They don't listen to me. They are always just going off one after another, to take pictures."

"It must be frustrating," I said.

"Frustrating! I don't know what to do. It's been six days like this."

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So I got a private tour--just me and the lady--while the Mexicans roamed lost, like marbles, around the columns. I learned about the air conditioning system in the walls (the water flowing from the river), and the king who had made the Taj Mahal who had not only attacked his own father, but was then imprisoned by his own son---who had also, incidentally, killed his own two brothers in the fight for the throne.

The woman said with a small, wise chuckle: "What goes around comes around."

At one point, I excused myself to leave, but the woman said: "You needn't leave yet. We are almost out!" and she took some time to explain how the roofs used to be plated in gold, and how the curves of the cornices were in the shapes of elephant tusks.

Her Delhi website: http:/www.voyage-en-inde.com

From there, I rickshawed across town--a fast two kilometers of dust--to have a Coca Cola in a Bob Marley music bar, before facing the crowds at the Taj.

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It was a far gentler experience than I imagined--and a particularly happy one since it had been three years since I had wanted to see the Taj Mahal. My ex-boyfriend and I--in what was to be the last month of our relationship-- had been en route to seeing it, from Delhi, in a car, when I abruptly told the chauffeur to just take us to the airport. At the time, the idea of three extra hours on a traffic congested highway, and then be in long tourist line to see the Taj, was unbearable.

So it was good we did not see the Taj Mahal together, the most romantic site in India, where Shah Jahan built a mausoleum for his beloved second wife, when she died in childbirth.

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I enjoyed walking freely, by myself, along the long balustrade to the marble dome, large and symmetrical in the evening sun, and then around the marble patio, and inside to see the tombs, the marble latticework reflecting clear in the light.

..........


When I returned to my hotel, to pack, I found my happy rickshaw driver of the morning waiting--like a hawk.

"You don't like me anymore," he said.

"I do like you. I want to be alone."

"Please let me take you somewhere. I have been waiting since four pm for you."

He was so sweet but so pushy, I walked away, only to find him an hour later, still waiting.

I let him drive me to the Oberai Hotel for one last drink in Agra.

"I wait outside for you."

"Don't you dare!" I wondered if the 2 minute massage that morning had unleashed too much desperate passion; they say that Indian single men--because of the strict rules on women--were extraordinarily frustrated.

The Oberai Hotel (at l000 dollars a night) outdoes the Taj in luxury, with fountains in the lobby and outside, sunken lawns stretching to marble palatial towers, and glasses of wine that cost 15 dollars (the woman tour guide had told me, with great passion, that I had to try a fine Indian wine--and this was quite fine). I noticed the conspicuous contrast, of beautiful elegant Indian servants--maids, clerks, waiters--dressed in costume, with handsome, smooth faces, and the wealthy Western tourists, slumped, overweight and awkward in khaki trousers or t-shirts, the women with hair back in barrettes.

When I got out, the rickshaw driver was waiting.

"You are angry at me," he said--no longer smiling in the glass. "While I love you. I feel it in my heart. I love you. But you don't love me. How can I make you love me?"

There was no other rickshaw driver who could take me to the station in fifteen minutes (it was a half-hour trip), so I got back inside.

He got there in eight moments--racing like a race-car, zooming and zigzagging between the cars.

And then the train was late.

So he took me to dinner. We shared a thali in a local joint, crowded at a back table with a family of two little, cute boys and mother and father, who kept staring over my plate, and then we went back into the rickshaw, to wait for the train, with the rickshaw driver now touching his finger to my bare ankle and drawing it to my thigh.

"Why you don't let me make love to you?" he said now, with a strong pout. "I come to Varanasi with you! I buy a ticket and we share life together for three days!"

We shared a bottle of water, then he carried my bags to my train, and we said goodbye.

The train was still late. Right before it came, the rickshaw driver surprised me (again) at the platform: "I have bought a ticket! I am coming with you! I love you--and I will be with you."

He showed me his ticket. I told him he had to go away. His happy enthusiastic face turned sour and sad: "You like everyone tell me to get away. Why does nobody love me? Why must we each continue to be alone and sad?"

"Stop it," I said. "Enough self-pity!"

I boarded the train--and there I found myself in a compartment with five handsome (gorgeous) Norwegian boys, who shared rum and cokes with me all night...and regaled me with stories of their adventures in India and the midnight sun in Bodo, far in the north of Norway. One boy--with the cutest big eyes and bearded chin and soft yellow curls showed me the postcard his grandmother had given him to show Indians of their hometown. It was wrinkled and worn--from his pocket.

She herself had never traveled.

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