Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Things I liked more and less about Agra

One minor train problem later, we're in Agra. This city is gaudy, at least all the areas we've seen, and I kind of like its total lack of tact. Congratulations to the touts at Fatehpur Sikri for being, by a wide margin, the most persistent we've seen so far. I seriously thought S. was going to smack this one kid, and was trying to figure out how to say "You are putting yourself in physical danger" in Hindi when the tourist police came and shooed him away. (Yes, there are special tourist police in India. They're the ones dressed like police, but not carrying AK-47-style guns.)

The Hindi is coming along, slowly. I can construct simple sentences and understand some of what I'm hearing if the speaker isn't talking a million miles a minute. They all speak directly to S., right away, barely acknowledging E. and I sometimes. I know it's probably mostly because he's Indian, but I get the sense that his being a he has something to do with it as well. The good thing is that it lets me sit back and listen to them trying to speak so that he can understand them. The bad thing is that it gives me few opportunities to speak it myself. I'm getting used to the pacing, the bubbling, front-of-the-mouth sound streams, catching the beats and the intonation. But it still feels like double dutch, and even though I've got the rhythm of the ropes clicking on the pavement, I'm stuck rocking back and forth and waiting for one opening big enough to jump in. Still, it's coming along.

I got really serious about it a few days ago in response to a straw-that-breaks type incident on our "7k hike" (truth: grim, shadeless death march at a 30-degree incline which we gave up on halfway) in which the three of us ended up surrounded by men who were transparently talking about us. I could understand some basic parts ("Two girls, one boy," "Where do you think they're from?") but couldn't follow it when the tones changed, got quieter and bolder, and into what S. assures us was very, very crude - not that we didn't know what was going on anyway. It drives me insane that people always think that speaking in another language means that no one can tell that they're being discussed; it's not true, you always can. Always always. Anyway, it really burns me that people can openly show us disrespect and we can't do anything about it, so I've gotten serious about learning the language. My goal is to be able to shock and humiliate one person before I leave who says something exceptionally disrespectful to us. (Of course, if no one else talks rudely about us, I won't get the chance - and no one would be happier than me if that were the case - but in the meantime I think I'll try to be prepared.)

Anyway. Agra.

We spent yesterday at Fatehpur Sikri, which was ultimately not that enjoyable. It's not that the buildings weren't great - they were - but between the heat (yeah, uh oh), the touts (as I said, in a class of their own) and the bugs.... good god, the bugs.... I was too distracted and uncomfortable to really absorb the scenery. I speak for myself here, but I think it probably applies to all of us. The entire place was like a solid, dense cloud of these tiny, fruit-fly type bugs. Because we were perspiring and wearing sunscreen (okay, only E. and I), walking through a cloud of them meant getting them stuck to your face, your neck, your arms, and all over your clothes. I have never seen so many insects in one place. The clouds were so dense they were a permanent haze across the complex. I made the mistake of wearing yellow, which apparently they were attracted to, so I ended up absolutely covered. It's taken two washes to get all the bugs out of my shirt.

But, nothing a cold shower didn't fix. Every shower here feels like the Best Shower Ever. People in Canada don't really need to shower, ever. They don't get dirty. Not actually dirty. You don't really know how dirty works until you come somewhere like India. You don't really need to wash your clothes, either. We do.

Had a mediocre dinner last night and a beer that the restaurant had to send a boy on a bike to go buy, and made us keep under our table when we weren't refilling our glasses. You can get beer everywhere here, but no one has a liquor license. I can understand that (cf: my previous post on Indian bureaucracy). It was hilarious, we felt bad. Kingfisher is the only widely available brand here, which - like most of what Indians drink - is sugary as hell. It also comes in 650ml bottles, so I suggest that any blossoming alcoholics steer clear. Came back to the hotel and stayed up late watching old American cartoons dubbed in Hindi - Johnny Bravo, even, and Tom and Jerry.

Got up at 5.30 this morning to be at the gates of the Taj at 6am when it opened. (Okay, 6.15.) May I recommend the Taj Mahal at dawn? It's hard to imagine a time that wouldn't be worth rising to see the building described by Nobel winner Rabindranath Tagore as "a tear on the face of eternity"* shift from muted pink-blue-greys in the predawn twilight through the autumnal colours of sunrise and into the blaring, pearly light of the daytime sun. The play of light, which in Moghul (Islamic) architecture is used to signify the presence of God, who is never directly represented, is one of the most interesting features of the Taj. It seems flat without the sun, all grey. From what we saw, I think it's at its best when the first bits of direct morning light hit it, giving it a third dimension and illuminating the Koranic script around the main arches. It's definitely the most subtle, and makes the brassy major chords of the full sun** feel a bit garish. Of course, that's only until you actually enter the buildling - when you come back out and look again, it's so white and so fine that you can't imagine it in any other lighting. I know I'll forget all of this, and the photos won't help at all.

In the inside of the mausoleum, you can't take photos, and that is a damn shame. You've seen a hundred photos of the Taj and you haven't seen the most beautiful part. Inside is a replica of the tombs of Shah Jahan, who built the thing, and his favourite wife, whose death inspired it. They're surrounded by a wall of carved marble that's cut so thin it's translucent, with incredibly detailed inlays of precious and semiprecious stones in long floral motifs that echo the ones on the front gate. There are also panels in this wall that are carved right through, and through which you can see the tomb-replicas - for such a hard material, the marble here managed to look incredibly soft, even malleable. The walls of the interior, which sit back about 15 feet from the wall around the tombs (which is only 5 feet high or so) are all, again, inlaid marble and Koranic text, rising right up to the full-height dome ceiling at the top of the structure. Beneath the replicas, the real tombs lie in the same positions, in undecorated wood coffins, in a permanently sealed and inaccessible room that, my guide says, smells of incense and roses.

The thing you can't capture, in photos or words, is how much soul is in the building. The expressiveness of the work is completely unlike any other building I've ever been in, and it's hard to explain exactly what that means. The thin alley of water in front of the Taj (in which you can see a reflection of the building, in a lot of famous photos) is actually just the North stream of four, which extend in four directions from a raised platform, and represent the four streams in the Muslim paradise. Apart from the restrained elegance of the detailing, which itself speaks volumes about beauty and loss, the interior layout of the mausoleum follows an old Islamic text about the layout of paradise - the sum of all of these details is that Jahan and his wife's tombs lie at the seat of God, but for one detail: they are slightly off-center, and in an obsessively symmetrical structure, we had all wondered why. I have a guess, on further thought: to lie beside, rather than in place of, the throne of God.

To say the least, I was moved by the interior. A little choked up, actually. There's just so much feeling coming together in such a small space: of love, of faith, of loss, of joy. All I could pull together in my mind at the time were random strands of poetry from god knows where... well, some I know. "where leap the wild, bereft deer" is from one of Phyllis Webb's Water and Light ghazals, for example. But I think the truth of the building reveals itself like that, like those strange flashes of recognition that happen in poetry, where something far too big to ever be articulated is channeled into a narrow phrase, a shorthand for the human, or even the sacred. My experience of the Taj had a lot in common with my experiences of poetry, at its best.

Well, this entry has gotten really out of control now, so I'll cut it off there, except to say that I've also finished Anil's Ghost and strongly suggest that if you haven't read it, you should, and that if you have read it, a second reading is definitely needed. I'm considering a third.

We leave tomorrow for Orccha, in Madhya Pradesh to the South, after which we'll be headed to Kajuraho and Pachmari, then hopefully back to Varanassi, if the trains work. We've had a really hard time working the trains to Varanassi, and the buses are just unsafe there. It's also a theft-heavy city, and E. and S. want to skip it entirely. I'm torn. Getting there really will be a nightmare. We'll see what happens.

Take care, all.

*Thank you, Rough Guide.
** Thank you, P.K. Page.


Anonymous said...

Thoroughly enjoying your blogs. Having just finished "Shooting Water" (the film), a lot of the cities are somewhat familiar. Also read (Have you heard the night bird calling) and the Punjab, especially the Golden Temple is front and centre (especially the massacre of the Sikhs there). I'm on an "Indian kick" - your influence, Michelle. Love Grandma

E's Dad said...

My attempt to see the Taj Mahal took me to the river behind it where, in addition to the Taj bathed in mist, I saw a body, bleached white, floating downstream being pecked at by a black bird which was perched on it. The incongruity of the body in the foreground with the most beautiful building in the world behind exemplified what was one of the dominant themes of my trip; the incredible contrasts of India.

Anonymous said...

am reading "in the skin of a lion" right now. your edition is really helping me, as i'm now writing my term paper on it. miss you.

M. said...

Hi Grandma - I'm so glad you're reading this! I haven't read "Have You Heard the Night Bird Calling," but I think as soon as I've finished "Eat, Pray, Love" (which I'm almost done, and have enjoyed) I'm going to read Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children." Have you read "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry? He's an incredible Indian-Canadian writer, and I think you'd really love that book. My Mom can lend it to you.

Hi again too, E's Dad. I can absolutely picture the scene you're describing. There's a word in Hindi, "bahut," which is a strengthener, sort of like "very" in English, but more general... every time someone asks me how I find India, I have the impulse to answer "Bahut bahut hai." ("It's very *very.*)

And Tenni - gl with the term paper. At least there's a lot to talk about there... I miss you too.