Saturday, 20 January 2018

Agra: A Teardrop On The Cheek Of Time

A leisurely stroll in Agra would show you blatant abandon, national ostracism and general indifference. Dilapidated kothis (villas), pothole-ridden, cow-dung infested streets, a conspicuous absence of any sort of infrastructure and an unquestionable maxim that cows and pigs have priority on roads and trivial entities like cars and pedestrians must adjust around them.

Even if you look carefully, you will see no residues of former Mughal affluence in this prevalent desert of destitution. But there is an aura to this city, ethereal and inaudible whispers in the air if you will, that seem to murmur ballads of the past.

Of great kings and their begums, of love and war, of ascension and conquest, of the richness of life and the inescapability of death.

With this collection of short stories, I must attempt, once again, to embark on the Indian Quest. Having tried to put in words (and spectacularly failed in the process) my odyssey in East India last year, I must try again not for the elusive outcome, but for the cathartic process. That I will not be able to do justice to India is solid and immutable fact, but I shall feel much lighter and significantly happier having invited you into the concoction of emotions I feel each time I step into this miraculous world.

I am also aware that Agra itself is not unique in evoking these emotions - you would probably feel similar sentiments in your own regions in India. For that, once again the Quest is your own - I can only be true to my own roots.

In the shadow of the Taj Mahal lies one of the former Mughal capitals of India. In that I found a story to be told, a city's soul to be explored and so I set out.

* * *

I am in the midst of being buffeted by platoons of curries, fried pakodas, barfis, laddoos, pethas, pedas and numerous other delicacies. It seems they are destined for my plate, right from the bubbling-hot-oil-filled cauldron they are raised from, dripping with the glee (and ghee) of taking another victim hostage to the realm of obesity.

In walks another distant relative, his hands pinned to his back as he surveys me. His eyes rake in my features, trying to formulate an assumption of my personality with my appearance. To compare with his database of stereotypical thoughts on 'these foreign kids'.

"Aur hero? Tu jaanta hai ki nahi jaanta hai?" ("You know or you don't know?")

"Ji, jaanta hoon." ("Yes, I know")

"Kya jaanta hai?" ("What do you know?")

He had last seen me when I was a teenage boy in school. Today I return to his house an adult. His conclusions at the end of his visual and oral scan are ambiguous, but somehow it meant that it was an occasion for stuffing me with even more food. With an incisive snap of his fingers, he motioned to his cook to juggernaut more edibles into my plate.

I raise my hands in protest. 

"Aur hero? Tu jaanta hai ki nahi jaanta hai?"

"Ji, jaanta hoon."

"Kya jaanta hai?"

It's like the last conversation never happened. I was stuck in this endless cycle of existential ignorance interspersed with familial affection. In Agra, have you really eaten if you haven't eaten it the right way?

Having been reprimanded multiple times, I ensured my thali had a dry sabzi and two curries. But have you really eaten if you didn't begin with a roasted papad, warmed up with a pakoda and ended the meal with an Agra ka petha or a jalebi?

If, by chance, you were to remember that entire sequence what if you forget to try the assortment of pickles? What about the home-made yoghurt and butter?

Why then, young man, you must start your meal all over again because you haven't eaten it the right way!

As I'm being stuffed with laddoos by loving aunts, I am also succumbed by a growing fascination with the value people here put on not just the food, but also the process of eating food. The hurried meals I wolf down on a normal day, usually as an afterthought as I watch a movie, Youtube video or indulge in a conversation stand in stark, discomfiting contrast.

I think I truly ate a meal after ages when my beloved relative paused his fascinating origin story midway when the food arrived and said:

"This story can wait, let us now enjoy the food."

* * *

"Sirf aapke parivaar ne Raj Babbar ko support kiya tha." ("Only your family had supported Raj Babbar")

One fine afternoon, we were paid a surprise visit by a local politician. He walked in barking orders to a faceless sycophant on his phone with exaggerated jerks of his head and hands that were consciously trained to display power.

A lifetime's practice of an exhibition of authority.

Gold-rimmed spectacles, a richly tailored suit and a gold watch to display an abundance of wealth. He had come to buy our house, and in turn he gave me a priceless demonstration of sales expertise.

The theatrics were incredible; the script was well planned. The entrance, the attire, the dialogues and climax. A well-structured thespian narrative, coupled with some assertions of power and social status. He had done his research on our entire family, our work, social circle and political affiliations. He warmed up by describing how well he knew many of our relatives. A little bit of caressing craftily injected with some needling. Some probing into his possible contenders, and a hurried exit after setting his price. No time for analysis, justifications or bargaining.

Emails, property websites and laptops aren't the norm here. In such a setting, the people you know, the words you say and the impression you make matters. The art of oration, the art of subtlety, the art of persuasion and the art of assertion. Nuances that are often hidden and left underdeveloped in this new age of digital communication, aided by GIFs and emoticons.

Yet right there in a significantly underdeveloped town, I found some of the most soft-skills-proficient humans. Every decision we made, every word we spoke and every person we associated with contributed to a legacy that would stay alive as long as this city did.

* * *

I am looking at Virat Kohli.

Of course, I spend 70% of an average day looking at Virat Kohli in various forms, but right now there seems to be an abstruse disconnect between me and my fanaticism. Kohli is all around me, decked in glistening sherwanis, kurtas and draped like royalty. A floor below him, massive portraits of Anushka Sharma hang over groups of women narrowing down the one lehenga that would somehow denote their social status at a one-day event where people would be too fixated on the food anyway.

This Manyavar store is a reflection of modernism. Simplistic interiors, suave salesmen, elegantly minimalistic attires with heavy price tags.

An Apple store of Indian wear.

Yet the massive glass windows behind the salesman show me a line of paupers, some missing limbs, some their eyes, clattering their stone bowls on the pavement in search for alms.

I'm not here to preach for poverty - it exists and I don't expect the rich to not live like the rich because it does. The contrast, however, is quite poetic - especially in Agra where the crumbling city houses some immensely wealthy people. People often write stories of the 'dark underbelly' of booming metropolitans like Mumbai or Dubai, but I feel in the case of Agra it would be the rich underbelly - the abundance of wealth lying hidden under the sprawling visage of a poor city in a poor country.

Maybe it is just the love for extravagance - the societal norm to spend a higher percentage of your salary on expensive watches, clothes and big villas. Maybe they earn less but live large with no eye for the future.


* * *

"Sir, I had the honour of driving Mr. Amrish Puri for a week."

I'm absolutely fascinated by this incredible man driving this Ola cab. A blue turban, a grand white moustache twisted and twirled so that the ends point up and a benign, joyful face. This Sikh man, or Sardarji, seemed to never lose his smile - even in the moments his mouth was busy narrating his life story, the traces of an infectious smile would linger in his eyes.

"Sir, I was very scared of meeting him. He had this image of an angry and rude man because of all his roles. When I went to pick him, sir, I bowed down and told him I was his driver and would go get the car. Sir, you will be surprised - a man of his stature looked at me with great respect, put his arm around me and said 'Kaka, gaadi kidhar hai? Hum chal ke jaayenge' (Where is the car? We will walk to it)"

I was quite embarrassed to be continually referred to as 'sir' by this sixty-year-old man, but this is the money-driven societal hierarchy so deeply ingrained in India, so much deeper than any other country I have visited. A pecking order that makes grown, aged men bow and salute me because I happen to be born in a richer family than them.

The dehumanising of a nation, one money bill at a time.

If I could, I would listen to the stories of Sardarji all night. He went on to describe how Amrish Puri would give way to women and children despite the need for hustle in his busy schedule. He then launched into the story of his escape during the 1984 Sikh Massacre, a story that ended with him driving a car for, non-stop, nearly forty-eight hours. He averaged 14 hours a day driving his Ola itself, and yet it seemed nothing could slay the smile.

"Sardarji, didn't you get tired of driving after all these years and incidents?"

"Tired of driving? No way, driving is my passion, sir!"

* * *

The Taj Mahal, despite the songs, myths and facts, remains one of the many and probably the biggest paradox for a writer - the apex of this uncontrollable urge to express the assimilation of emotions you feel, yet as I sit down to tell you I find myself increasingly handicapped with each word.

A most perplexing catch-22, I must say.

In this instant I must pay homage to the late Robin Williams, who said it right in Good Will Hunting - no novels, scriptures or pictures could do justice to the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. You need stand there, be there, breath in the smell and gaze up and really see that beautiful ceiling. To really see it. To really be there.

To become one with the Taj Mahal.

A symmetrical marble mausoleum built by Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar The Great, in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal - a story of love, death and everything that comes with a duet between the two.

A spectacle of Mughal creation, a wonder of the modern world.

You would feel having one of the seven wonders of the world would mean something. Agra as a city could have a thriving economy just from the tourism Taj Mahal generates. Yet, the tourist money is fragmented and broken between the rickshaw drivers that take you to the Taj and the freelancing tour guides that badger you with their linguistic skills, having learnt perfect English, Mandarin, Italian or Russian in order to win some meals for the day.

You would also pay the guy below the marble plinth to look after your shoes, and you would also pay the freelance photographers to print polaroids of you. At the end of the experience you would've spent at least a thousand rupees, yet not one person to whom portions of the money went would wake up to a better tomorrow.

Wouldn't it be better if the government streamlined the entire process, hired all the photographers, guides, rickshaws, shoe-guardians and charged a fixed all-inclusive ticket to the tourist? All these vendors would have a stable job, there would no false advertisement to loot the tourists and the economy would categorically reflect the benefits of having the damned Taj Mahal in your city.

Not just the Taj Mahal, but you would also glean the benefits of having the Agra Fort, the Tomb of Akbar The Great, the Tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah and the hidden, future wonder-of-the-world the Temple of Dayalbagh - all miraculous attractions which up to this point are unknown to the world of being housed in Agra.

Anyway, as an NRI who hasn't permanently lived in India what do I know right?

I shall take your leave, draw curtains on this vexing monologue of glutted emotions, with two common fables that linger with the Taj Mahal:

- While the architecture in itself is worth the wonder, not much is spoken of the processes involved in creating this towering structure in an age with no industrial cranes or technology. In fact, accounts have been made of the creation of a 15-km long ramp for elephants to lug blocks of marble to the construction site. According to another legend, the scaffolding itself was so massive that by the end of the construction, having depleted the royal coffers in the process, Shah Jahan had no more funds to get rid of it. Upon consultation with his trusted wazirs, he declared that all the bricks in the scaffolding were free for the general public.

The massive scaffolding vanished overnight!

- Another legend associated with the origins of Taj Mahal was that Shah Jahan planned a black Taj Mahal for himself, which would be situated across the Yamuna looking at the white one.

Lovers forever immortalised in wondrous marble mausoleums.

Yet, probably given the cost of constructing one, and the decades it took to construct along with his ill-fated illness and subsequent house arrest, this vision never came to be. Today his tomb lies right next to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal in the Taj Mahal, and there they shall rest together until the end of time.

Two diamonds in the teardrop on the cheek of time.

* * *

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