The Raj is Dead
3 a.m., New Delhi. The Marina Hotel. I had booked this place from Bangkok, handing up a ridiculous sum to the lady who ran the long-distance phone booth in the backpackers’ quarter; I figured it was worth it to avoid late-night haggling for a room. Now it's looking like a stroke of genius; Connaught Place, the ring of cheap hotels where this place sits, is nothing like insomniac Banglamphoo. There's not a light on anywhere; I would have been screwed if I'd shown up planning to hunt for a place to flop.
Airport security in New Delhi is incredible; the only place I've ever seen where they X-ray your baggage as you're getting off the plane. With only three days on my transit visa, I checked most of my bags and gear in the left luggage “room,” a seedy-looking shack in the airport parking lot. The guys there eyed my things with a gleam. Bleary-eyed, I looked at a sign that read "International Flight Booking" and was absolutely convinced it said "International Book Flushing." A terrible form of censorship.
Then a suicide taxi ride to Connaught Place, the early morning streets rolled up but unexpectedly clean. Outside my window, not even a dog.
In the morning, kids run up and down alleys that look like the Arab quarter in "Casablanca." I'm taking a picture of a long stucco gallery when one little boy plants himself right in the picture, hands on hips, a world-beater smile. I grin and snap his photo, and he’s immediately on me for 10 rupees, a model's fee. The neighborhood desperately poor, like so much of the country.
In most Asian guest houses the westerners seem like they're trying hard to ignore each other, but in India there's a kind of banding-together, a sharing of war stories and horror stories. Never take your eyes off your bags while you're on the trains, they tell me; sometimes a scammer will toss your things out the window as you chug along, his friends trailing the train to pick them up. One Englishwoman was sharing a sleeper with the nicest-looking family, asked them to keep an eye on her pack while she ran to the loo. Came back and the family still sitting there, all smiles, and her pack disappeared.
I flag down a Sikh driving a three-wheeled, tuk-tuk-like contraption, strike a deal with him to tool me around the old town. His religion teaches kindness to strangers, and the quality of his suit tells me he's better off than many in Delhi, all of which makes him less inclined to rip me off. I hope.
He carts me to the Red Fort, built by the Moghuls, the mile-long sandstone walls once ornate with inlaid jewels and silver, but much of the loot since carried off by invaders, coup regimes, mutineers.
The shadows growing as I leave, but my driver wants to make a detour before home. Wary, I accept, and he stops at a friend's antique store; "Only to look, only to look," he assures me.
In resignation I browse through stacks of things I can't afford, Jain sculptures, renderings of Shiva, carpets piled like badly shuffled cards. Then something stops me: a sheaf of pages from an illuminated manuscript, scenes from mythology or history. Vivid purples and gold leaf, the corners eaten by worms and age. I stop to consider one page, a ghopi kneeling before a holy man, fine fruit trees in the distance. The shopkeepers are quick, "How much? How much?" I knock them down a bit, still pay more than I'd wanted, but leave the store feeling I've snared a treasure.
The picture goes into my pack, which I'm leaving with my hotel-keeper while I head south to Agra and the Taj Mahal. A short walk the next day to the train station, through streets crammed with begging humanity. The smell of everything. A kid attaches himself to me, offering to be my guide. "You go to Agra? I come from there, I show you." No thanks, I tell him, but he tags along anyway.
"Listen, you can come to Agra if you want to, but I'm not paying you anything. Got it? No baksheesh." The kid smiles and shrugs.
On the train, wind rushes through the cars, cooling people and tempers. The land folds out in dusty fields. The kid and I talk about growing up in such a place. Deepavali and the holy river Ganges, fakirs and wandering sadhus. Buddhism and Hinduism born here, a hundred other faiths, a thousand gods. The boy invites me to his uncle's house in Agra, and I'm delighted by the thought of sharing tea in a family's home.
"What time do the trains head back to Delhi?" I ask him when we rattle into the station, and he answers, "All night." I want to head straight to the Taj, but the boy pulls my arm. "Too hot now," he tells me. "Very crowded. You come with me to my uncle's, then you will have plenty of time for the Taj." I'm reluctant, but he insists.
He takes me to a fine house not far from the train station. A woman in sari and palloo comes to the door, looks me over with disinterest while the kid jabbers. She lets us in and disappears. The kid tramps into a formal sitting room, no Delhi-style poverty here, and we plunge into soft couches.
The kid seems bored, sitting silently, and the Agra heat begins to stifle the aircon. After half an hour I'm getting bored myself, not wanting to waste my day here. "Is your uncle coming soon?" I ask. The kid just shrugs again, which annoys me until I finally realize it's the equivalent of a nod in my country.
After 45 minutes I'm on my feet, the kid up in a flash and wheedling, tugging on my shirt. "The Taj is hot, crowded," he reminds me. "There is plenty of time. Wait for my uncle." Struggling with myself, I tell him I'll wait 15 more minutes. Close to 30 go by, my anger rising by the moment, until suddenly a door swings open and the uncle arrives. He's a slick-looking man in a white silk shirt, and he smiles graciously, calls for more tea. The boy happily skips away.
"So," his uncle begins the small talk. "What do you think of India?" Truthfully, I tell him, I've been here less than 48 hours. It's a bit overwhelming. He laughs at this. Asks about my plans, where I'm headed after India, and when I tell him Paris he brightens. "What will you be doing there?" he asks, and I admit I'm not quite sure – teaching, I suppose, looking for work – I’ve been backpacking for almost a year, since graduation. "So you may need some money to tide you over," he suggests. Maybe, I agree warily.
"I have a proposition for you," the man begins, and I hold my breath. "I have a friend in Paris, a jeweler. From time to time I send him jewels from India, precious stones which he sets and sells. But with these laws, the customs duties, they are very expensive. Yes?" I'm still waiting, silent. "I sometimes ask friends who are traveling to... deliver a package for me. Just a small bag of gemstones, nothing illegal. All I ask is that they deliver it to my friend. For that, they receive $5,000."
That's not small money to me; I've done worse things for less. Still, I picture the airport’s cavity-exploring security detail. "No thank you," I tell him. The man persists. "It is very simple, I promise you. You take a little bag. You meet my friend and deliver it to him, very simple. There is nothing wrong about it. And as security, you leave with me an imprint of your credit card. You have a credit card, yes? You leave me the imprint, and when you deliver the jewels I tear it up. Just in case, you understand."
Now I'm really tempted; in jail for smuggling, and this guy cleans out my savings. "No thanks," I say again, rising. It takes another 20 minutes to get out the door, the uncle trying every form of persuasion, but at last he gives up and calls for the boy. The nephew sullenly reappears, leads me out of the house with resentful glares. "Thanks for the tea," I tell him coldly.
The kid disappears halfway to the Taj, leaving it to me to find it there. It's funny to see in person, for the first time, a thing you've seen photographed again and again; a strange sense of déja vu, sometimes underwhelming, but there's nothing underwhelming about the Taj Mahal. The bulk of white granite seems to glow. I wander through this ultimate love-poem to a Shah's wife, precious stones set into the walls in floral patterns, imagine the immensity of the builder's task. Later I lounge by the reflecting pool, just gazing at the place. The entire country boggles the senses, palaces and temples cut from the dust of myth.
When things get too dark to see, I amble back toward the train station and breezily ask about the next train. "Midnight," the ticket wallah pronounces, and my mellow comes crashing down. “I was told the trains run all night,” I stammer. The wallah simply grimaces.
Five hours to kill... and worse, I'll have barely any time in New Delhi to collect my things and boot for the airport. Dazed, I drift around the neighborhood. Pass a gift-shop window crammed full of the illuminated manuscript pages I'd thought so rare and precious yesterday; here they're a fraction of what I'd paid. Rooked once again, feeling sheepish and depressed.
But later, a miracle: I stumble across a wedding party, the groom masked and decked out in gold turban, sitting on a white mule led by family. The men surrounding him pound tambourines and leap with joy; it's the finest thing I've seen in India, at least that wasn't made of stone, and makes this enforced sojourn worthwhile. Or almost.
Back at the station just before midnight, I stop into a transit lounge and find a scene straight out of Dante, bodies twisted on the floor like bomb victims, people trying to sleep wherever they can grab the space. Right before the train is set to come, a loudspeaker announces a delay for another hour. I try curling up on a bench and succeed only in putting my legs to sleep.
Another hour, another delay. "Two o'clock," the wallah says dismissively. "Do you think it will really come then?" I ask, and he looks at me as if to say, "This is India."
I realize that if the train doesn't come at two, I'll miss my flight... and overrun my three-day visa. Feeling like a man about to commit suicide, I walk to a long line of taxis in front of the station. "How much to New Delhi," I ask reluctantly, and the man smiles like Ganesha himself has appeared in a shower of gold. He runs to find a friend to drive, insists I hire both of them, the first man as a "translator" though he doesn't say a word the entire five-hour, dead-night run. I doze on the dirty back seat as my money clicks away.
We hit the city at dawn, and I instruct the driver to take me to my guest house. The translator turns suspiciously; "You said New Delhi airport." I have to get my luggage, I explain, and the shyster clucks. "This will add to the fare." The airport at last; I stagger exhausted from the back seat, the co-pilot jumping up to grin at me expectantly. "I suppose you want baksheesh," I say, and I'm too battered to argue. Picking up my things from the left-luggage shed, I find the pockets I couldn't lock shut have been rifled, my shaving mirror gone.
After all of that, the flight’s delayed, of course. I go looking for breakfast at the deserted airport café. Music on the speakers, tabla and the drone of tampura, someone plucking out a sitar raga, and above the musicians the deep-felt wail of a man's voice. The song runs free for ten minutes, fifteen, with brief solos from a bowed sarangi, a woman's nasal falsetto making an occasional cameo... And the man continues his chant, voice trilling in his throat, sounding as though the world's at end, and the tala beats on mysteriously.
"What’s he saying?" I ask when the waiter comes to fill my tea. His answer simple and resonant: "He is singing about God."
Winging toward Europe an hour later, Asia streaming further away with every second. Over the left wing, a flotilla of puffy clouds like fierce little tugboats; and later still, sunlight off lakes below, the water the blackest shade of blue, wind-stippled.
The waiter’s words linger with me, leave me feeling somehow changed, like the afterglow of a dream or vision. I drift back to the midnight wedding party, to the fantastic foreignness of those hundred faiths, those thousand gods. The worst of human nature may be on display in the slums of Delhi, as in the ghettoes of Paris and New York.
Yet human hands, inspired, also built the Taj Mahal. And human hearts craft poems of love and songs of faith.