This story received a commended in the 2012 Trudy graham – Julie Lewis Award at the Peter Cowan Writer’s Centre
It is a package tour and our days are dealt to us like tarot cards, full of mystery and bright fortune.
Day 1. The lovers (Also known as the twins)
It is dawn on our first day in India and we have slept for four hours. This is the only way to experience Delhi station, drunk on adrenalin and exhaustion for there is no sense to be made here amongst the bodies and the baggage. Until – here is the train, here is our carriage, here are our tickets, here are our seats, as sensible as you could want. It is two hours to Agra with nothing to be done on the way except breakfast – but we could be riding the roof for the rush we feel. A couple, on the final spin of their own Disney ride of India, is passing on wisdom in the corridor. “Agra is the dirtiest city in India.” They solemnly state. It is an odd enduring impression.
Agra is an old city where the tides of power ebb and flood and ebb. The last one leaving behind the Taj Mahal sitting like a turbanned maharajah on the edge of the river. A relic of a forgotten age, the Taj Mahal rules like a benign and indolent despot with all Agra harnessed for its pleasure. Industries have been banished to reduce pollution and there are few prospects for employment that do not involve feeding, transporting, guiding and fleecing the thousands of tourists who are drawn here. During the golden age of Shah Jahan Agra flourished, but under the reign of The Taj itself the city has fallen into a decline.
The tourists on the train were half right, Agra is dirty, but it is somehow less than a city, more a rambling scrambling village. The river reflects a postcard picture but underneath would kill you in a toxic moment. The air is white and thick as marble dust. Cows are eating plastic bags. All is dun and dusty. In India the poor reuse and recycle, extracting every last particle of use from plastic, paper, cloth and metal. The valueless residue of this industry is what lines the streets of Agra.
It is early evening at the Taj Mahal and I sit in the minaret shade, leaning against the cool flank of this building dedicated to lovers. Below, the wide paths are filigreed with semi precious sari silk; clothes of malachite, lapis lazuli and mother of pearl; faces of amber and black onyx. These colours are embedded in the culture like the inlaid marble of this mausoleum.
We watch the setting sun cut its silhouettes and listen to the tales of a black twin that was to be built across the river. There is no evidence to back this theory and I wonder why, with such an icon, the people of Agra hunger for another. But maybe this is a city that needs to believe in an imagined future.
In a gritty white dawn we pass bullocks, bicycles, ruinous facades, conical piles of dung. We stand in front of the Mehtab Bagh and wait for the sun to wake the sleeping building across the river. Locals, immune to the view, climb the barbed wire to perform their ablutions on the riverbank; pups quarrel, crows digress, an army post reclines.
The sun rises and illuminates the white marble, somehow throwing us all into shadow, and now I can see that the Black Taj Mahal already exists; that Agra itself is that dark reflection. A carbon copy, a black cloud forming and reforming into the shape of the building that defines it, Agra, the colour of a city abandoned to its fate.
Day 2 The Fool
(Also known as the beggar, depicts a young man on the edge of a precipice)
The ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri is a folly. It was built by the great Mughal Emperor Akbar to honour a Sufi saint who took a fifty-fifty gamble and predicted a princeling son, but no one took into account that water was scarce and the combined thirst of an Emperor’s court was great. Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned in less time than it took to build.
It is murderously hot and we ask about the temperature, weather being the lingua franca of every tour group. A shrug, a guess, maybe 47 degrees. If it reaches 50 degrees then no one has to work – consequently it never reaches fifty. We absorb and reflect, scurrying from shadow to shade.
The abandoned fort is red stone – kiln hot and shimmering and there is no water. It is empty and strangely waiting, like a game board, for something to happen. There are many tourists but our footfalls echo eerily.
This is the site of some apocryphal tales; giant chess games with slave girls as the pieces and Akbar’s Hall of Private Audience where representatives of many different religions debated their faiths. In the middle distance is a tower decorated with tusks. This is a tribute to a judgmental elephant who, like the Sufi saint, had a binary choice – guilty or not. He trampled the guilty to a deserved death and set the innocent free.
At the far end of our trajectory we pause before we have to return and here, at last, something is about to happen.
Below us is a massive pool, maybe 50m square. It once held the water supply for the whole complex but now there is an 8m fall from the sharp edge to the water near the bottom. The stone is the colour of old blood, the water an urgent dangerous green.
A young man rests on his haunches in a vast arena of paving, his shadow a small dark circle beneath him, his face blankly introspective. When he sees us he stands and begins to remove his clothing. Leaning on a rampart nearer to us, his accomplice gestures for us to approach, holds his hand out for money. We are bewildered and turn for advice. “Do not encourage them.” We are told. It is dangerous and they are not supposed to be here, the water is apparently only a foot deep.
But the tableau is like a clockwork diorama, set in motion by our arrival. Stripped to his shorts the boy shimmers, a mirage in the heat. He walks to the pool and stands like a sacrifice on the very edge, watching us. It is not clear whether a donation will cause him to dive or prevent him. We are all caught like the tarot fool balanced on the edge of a precipice, a double handed choice before us; jump, don’t jump; pay, don’t pay; watch or walk away.
We walk away.
The boy is left forever standing motionless, an abandoned piece in forfeit game.
The elephant tower bristles and I fear we will be judged guilty, though I am not sure of what.
Day 3 The Hierophant
(The builder of the bridge between deity and humanity)
It is early evening and the Birla Temple in Jaipur glows a phosphorescent green. Built in 1988 by a business tycoon it sits at the base of a steep hill that is topped with an ancient fort. High above us peacocks defy gravity then plummet like trebuchet stones off the battlements.
We have arrived in time to hear the story of this icing sugar building, to watch the darkness melt over the sky and then we are asked to remove our shoes. Until now we have been on a virtual tour of India, cocooned inside our air-conditioned bus, or looking at a 3D make believe world through our sunglasses. Until now I have not really touched India and India has not yet touched me.
This is the first time we have had to take off our shoes and we hesitate. It has only been days since we left our homes; immunised, homogenized, wrapped in plastic and the thought of removing our shoes in this country of germs is daunting. But there is no entering the temple unless we do, and besides, our driver has eagerly volunteered to guard them from theft.
We comply and then, there it is – India, warm and rising through the marble. I stand and feel the tiny shifting of weight on my feet that regulates my balance, I feel it swing, I feel it steady. Now we are ready to enter the temple to experience the sunset worship.
From outside you can hear the rhythmic ringing of bells and gongs and you push against the noise to enter. Inside the temple is lit like a magnesium flare, it is as bright as a revelation, as bright as the beginning of the world with not one corner left for shadow or sin. And it is as loud as you can bear.
At one end, in front of a smiling god and goddess, pollen yellow priests perform their rites, each playing an instrument of bright brass. The worshippers stand arrayed, everyone in their personal space, swaying slightly, eyes closed. We find a place at the respectful far end and stand our ground against the assault of sound. But it is when I decide to stop fighting against it, when I let it in, that I suddenly feel tears running down my face. It is a revelation to find peace inside this barbarous noise.
In a land where privacy and silence are impossible dreams, this is how you pray. You drive every extraneous thought from your head with a clamourous noise. Like the unremitting horns in the traffic outside, you force through a passage that brings you, every time, miraculously home. I offer up hopes for an, as yet, unborn nephew and feel that they are accepted.
The god and goddess smile and bless our journey. We bow and walk out into the night and wait for the next turn of the card.