My friend Anne had told me southern India was quite different from the north, more relaxed, less crowded and intimidating. She and Peter were there in 1984 so I wondered if that was still true. It is.
From the moment we stepped off the plane in Delhi I could tell the difference. Actually, I could tell from the people getting on the plane in Chochin – a man kept pushing his luggage cart up against my feet, then knocked me rushing past when I stopped for a moment as soon as the queue opened up inside the airport. There was a lot of impatient pushing as we boarded. When we landed in Delhi no one waited for the seat belt sign to go off. People hopped up from their seats and jockeyed for position in the row.
Walking out to our car to the hotel, men stared at me. Anne had told me that too – that she’d been stared at in northern India. But she was young and attractive, I thought, it wouldn’t happen to me. But it didn’t seem to matter that I’m 30+ years older than she was then. Wherever I looked, a man was looking back.
Everything we saw in Tamil Nadu and Kerala – busy streets, shops and carts and stands and signs and plastered posters lining every road, chaotic traffic, people living in marginal shelter – we saw in Delhi and Agra times 100. With many many more cows – cows wandering down the street, cows feeding from a heap of garbage on the side of the road, cows on the median of a divided four lane speedway.
What does it mean, to drive through a slum in Delhi, in an air-conditioned car with a hotel driver, on your way to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and to find men looking directly at you through the car window as you’re stopped in traffic? To watch an old man struggle to pedal his cargo bike with a load of boxes 5 times bigger than him and the bike? To have to stop looking at the young girl (maybe six?) who is knocking on the car window to sell flowers to the cars stopped at a light because she won’t stop knocking as long as you look?
Okay, stop removing myself from the reality of my privilege and incredible luck in the world’s birth lottery in terms of material resources. What does it mean for me?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know I’ll be thinking about it. A lot.
We went north because I wanted to see more of India than only the south and Doug wanted to see the Taj Mahal. David had been there 40 years before and was enchanted.
The dense smog of Delhi followed us the 210 km to Agra. David had wanted to get to the Taj at sunrise, to watch the changing colors of the marble as the light rose in the sky. But there was no need to get there early. The day was smoggy and dim, and when we walked through the Mogul Gate that leads to the central square crowned with the Taj Mahal standing above a symmetrical set of reflecting pools, it was shrouded in haze. The reflecting pools were lined with scum or empty. None of the fountains were spraying and two of the minarets were wrapped in scaffolding with men scrubbing the marble. As we got up to the building we could see the inlay work was corroded in many places so the striking designs on the exterior of the great mausoleum were muted. There were gates and stanchions to direct crowd flow that weren’t there 40 years ago, and David remembers there being more light in the interior. It was very dark.
Still, the Taj Mahal is magnificent. The symmetrical design of every feature – the corner gates, the minarets and mosques on each side, the interlocking design of the stone walkways, the star patterns of brickwork outlining garden beds, the stars and V’s and floral inlay work on the Taj, the height and width and depth of the building all being exactly the same – is breath taking.
And the Taj itself, its grand dome rising even in to a smoggy sky, is truly a wonder, a wonder I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.