A Fading India

A Fading India

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On the dawn of a June morning, I wait outside the Vasant Kunj residential buildings in New Delhi for a tour bus to the Taj Mahal. It is not yet six but India is never quiet. Nearly a billion people live in this country and need all twenty-four hours to live their hopes, fears, and dreams. The cows from the neighboring dairy farm are moaning wildly in anticipation of being violated to produce milk. Men sit on verandas and read newspapers while women calm whistling tea kettles and fussy babies. On the street a traffic policeman waits to direct the morning commute, fiddling to center his beret and smoking a cigarette from the corner of his wrinkled mouth.

I am waiting for the Regal Taj when another bus, advertising itself as the “premier deluxe air-conditioned Taj Express,” arrives, its seats apparently filled completely with people. I climb up the creaking steps as the driver stretches his hand for a 10 rupee note for the pleasure of this upgraded ride. There is a reason why the bus is “air-conditioned”; two of the windows are broken. A makeshift cellophane sheet stuck with duct tape over the open space keeps coming undone and rattles angrily against the ledge.

This is not a bus for the country club crowd. Men show deep creases of labor and worry on their foreheads and women balance four or five children, on their laps and pressed against their bosoms. But they are Indian, and they have a birthright and an obligation to respect their history. This is the country where spontaneous monuments sprout up in honor of Shivaji, the Hindu warrior who lost his friends, family, and then his life in resisting the conquering Moguls. This is the country where people invoke the name of Gandhi at political rallies, “Long Live Mahatma,” as if his placid face lingers as a ghost on the stage. The Mahabharat, mostly mythical but historically based, was adapted for television a few years ago and remains the highest rated series of all time. So, as overworked and overburdened as the masses may be, the Taj Mahal beckons to reveal the glory of India’s past to them.

The back of the bus has an empty seat, next to a foreign tourist, which I claim as my own.

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He is young, wears a USC shirt with a faded Trojan, and with the exception of an emerging goatee, is smooth-shaven. With a hiker’s backpack and lived-in brown boots, he seems well prepared for the journey. Gripping the virgin pages of his Indian travel guide in one hand, he extends the other to introduce himself. As I sit down, the bus moves ahead and leaves behind puffs of black smoke to rise up and greet the awakening sky. He is an anthropology graduate student, on an independent field project to immerse himself in a new culture. The trip to the Taj Mahal is to be his introduction to the Indian way of life.

Within three hours of leaving Delhi, we arrive in Haryana, the agricultural state. The bus stops at Raja’s dukhan, a small corner market and lunch counter, for drinks and refreshments. I buy bottled Evian while the American finally decides to grip the curves of a Coke bottle; they are out of Pepsi, his favorite brand. Across the street from the market, we see the anonymous farms, stripped bare from the spring harvest. The tractors are now at work turning over the topsoil for a new planting of seeds. The American jokes that these tractors, painted red with H-O-N-D-A in yellow letters, are faster than his Celica at home. After a while we climb aboard the bus, leaving behind the screams from the kitchen for orders of omelets and french fries, as well as samosas, idlis, and dosas.

The ride to Uttar Pradesh, of which Agra is the crown city, usually takes an hour or two after leaving Haryana. Our journey takes longer, however, because we make one stop for lunch and another one at a handloom house. The driver tries to make the latter stop seem natural and impromptu, but it is pre-arranged, as his candor with the manager indicates. The salesmen crowd around the American with jewelry, fabrics, and carpets, wooing him with discounts and congeniality. “Saheb, hum credit card accept karte hai,” they say to him in their broken attempt at English. But the lure of plastic does not convince him. He has heard that child labor is responsible for producing some of these handicrafts; he cannot encourage such exploitation. We return to the bus with postcards and stationery, no consolation to the salesmen who acknowledge our departure with disappointed stares.

A sudden stop at Agra awakens me and most of the sleeping passengers on the bus. The American turns sheepishly to me with a smile and says, “I could not sleep because I am too excited. I have heard that the Taj Mahal is one of the most peaceful spots on Earth.” We make our way through Agra slowly. It is nearly four in the afternoon and the daily traffic jam of school buses, commercial trucks, and commuters has begun. The “Taj Express” no longer lives up to its name as it crawls along the street, slowed by children on tricycles and street vendors with big baskets of red, yellow, and green vegetables on their heads. After a few minutes at a snail’s pace, the bus comes to a complete halt. The American extends his neck out of the window to gauge the extent of the traffic backup and starts laughing. Apparently, a herd of cows is blocking the road a few yards away. As we wait impatiently in the bus, vehicles honk their horns to urge the cattle on, but they refuse to budge. Finally, their owner comes to lead them back home and the traffic starts moving again. The American breathes a sigh of relief and says, “The traffic here is even worse than in L.A.” We continue the bus ride for another ten minutes before the sign appears: “Taj Mahal—2 km ahead.”

The bus stops next to a dozen other tour buses and the American eagerly jumps out and loads film into his camera. From the parking lot, the Taj Mahal is not immediately visible to us. We are walking up a small hill when we see a towering brick wall with wooden doors, perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead. Looking at the top of the wall, we first catch a glimpse of the Taj, its dome extending slightly above the wall into the sky. This wall joins with other walls to create a border around the monument. The enclosure gives the impression of a guarded fort. We continue to walk towards the wooden doors.

We are a few yards from the entrance when a commotion distracts us. Crowds gather as a policeman attempts to arrest a panhandler who has kept his straw cot and his belongings against the brick wall. The man is kicking and screaming, not wanting to leave what seems to be his only home. But the policeman succeeds, the crowds disperse, and we make our way through the doors. Just before we enter, another policeman stops us, takes our purses and bags to a holding area, and checks our pockets. “Why are you checking my pockets?” the American asks. “You could be carrying a gun or a bomb,” he replies, adding, “You never know how the terrorists will next plan an attack.” His eyes, cloudy brown and sunken deep into his face, are old and experienced; he means his words. He allows us to proceed.

Upon entering the main doors, we make our way through a maze of gardens and walkways until we reach a smaller wall with wooden doors. The doorway perfectly frames the Taj Mahal, which stands a half-mile straight across in the distance. As we walk through the gardens that lead to the stairs of the Taj, the American remarks, “It’s beautiful but not as big as I imagined and a little darker than the pictures in my travel guide.” In the horizon, refinery towers choke out curling black smoke. He is trying to take pictures when children accidentally splash water on him from the garden fountains. “Too many people in the way,” he says, “so I can’t get a good shot.” We sit down on the marble benches between two sculpted dwarf pine trees. An elderly gentleman, with wire-rimmed glasses like Gandhi’s and a Nehru jacket, is sitting next to us studying the monument. His son, in faded denim and a polo shirt, keeps urging him to be in a photograph with him, with the Taj as a background. But he sits still and stares at it, imprinting every image into his memory so that one day his words can show his grandkids the Taj Mahal. And everywhere the older generation sits and stares wistfully while its sons and daughters pose their children for pictures. Then we hear our driver shout that it is time for the Taj Express to leave. The American says, “Is it that time already?”

The ride home is quiet and mellow. “Did the trip,” I ask, “meet your expectations?” “Not exactly,” the American replies. I know what he means. It is not the India of his imagination or my childhood memories. We expect India to be exotic and mysterious, with snake charmers, warriors, and precious jewels. In reality, it shares problems familiar to the Western world, like traffic, pollution, and terrorism. Indian culture has readily adapted to western food, technology, and clothing. The cows, once sacred and celebrated, share space with automobiles. Even the Taj Mahal is no longer the focus of myths, fables, and romances; it is now reduced to a celluloid image in some family’s vacation photo album. The past is there, but the future demands its own attention. As the bus slows near my stop, I turn to the American and wish him luck on his field project. The Taj Express speeds away, the black puffs of smoke no longer visible in the midnight shadows.
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