The quest for the Holy Mahal

i'll say it up front: agra does not deserve the taj. but then again, who does? mumtaz herself would need to be an unrelenting saint to justify such a mausoleum, and yet i suspect her merits may have resided mostly in the generosity of her womanly curves. decayed agra cannot tolerate such youthful beauty and so, like a jealous stepmother, does its best to hinder your way to the taj mahal by concocting barrier after barrier along the road. a present-day version of hercules' labours, a modern arthurian quest. only the worthy shall succeed.
your travails start just before the train pulls at agra cantt. railway station - and end only after it speeds away from it - in the shape of a swarm of touts.
'need a clean hotel sir?'
'the taj crumbled to the ground yesterday, but my shop is a sight to behold'
'just come with me. don't ask any questions'
'your chapals are disintegrating sir i can fix them in a flash'
outside, in the warm sun, you meet with a barrage of rickshaw drivers, rickshaw pullers and nebulous rickshaw agents. but keep faith. in the distance, is that not the tip of the taj, your object of desire, glistening like a lotus flower in a pond of filth?

you persevere. enraged, the city digs under your every step a puddle of undisclosed liquid. think of pleasant things and splatter on. past the moat, however, the challenge intensifies. constant traffic buzzes by too close for comfort, and presently you are faced with a narrow tunnel under the train tracks. you must squeeze between the wheels and a freeze of merchants' stands, zigzag as best you can among walkers-by. you remember the vision of the cupola and step forward.

if you make it across the tunnel with your toes intact - a remarkable feat - you find yourself engulfed in a spasmodic crowd. the bazaar. street after street of tempting plastic wares and colourful fabrics and fragrant delicacies and an impenetrable human mass can easily throw you off track. relying on your best boyscout navigational techniques, you slowly proceed towards the invisible objective, and soon bump into a grand enclosure. the taj mahal, you realise with trepidation, is just behind it.
but don't let down guard. for you must still overcome the fearsome ticket office, guarded by an army of official (?) guides. you will be excused to think touching the ledge of the booth will seal your quest, but you're in for the most disheartening blow yet. 'welcome sir. the colour of your skin will push the fee up to eight hundred and fifty rupees, sir, the price of three hotel nights or nearly a week's worth of food.'

you scavange the sum as best you can and solemnly move on to the entrance. but mind you, if you happen to be carrying any dangerous objects, such as a terrifying camera cable, you will not be allowed in. you must think of a solution fast, no refund possible. leave your weapon of mass destruction at a nearby shop, along with a banknote or two, and try again. this time you make it through.
inside, you meet your old friend the crowd. you take a deep breath and plunge into the dark passageway.
and then you see it.

it is as magnificent as expected, and then some. and then some more. and some more. and it does sparkle. the holy mahal, the most inspired building on earth, stands on its marble plinth in poised mockery of your troubles. serenely transcending your imagination and millions of photographs.

take your time, that is a right you have earned the hard way. you gasp at the holy mahal the whole day. at sunset, though, the taj is ready to go to sleep. you gently bow good night and tiptoe away.



ao que parece o mostrengo não é inteiramente desprezível. daqui até junho é um saltinho.


Como disse?

cena: estou confortavelmente refastelado no meu café de eleição em khajuraho, com vista para as esculturas marotas (noutra altura explico), quando se senta na mesa da frente um senhor dos seus sessenta e muitos, cabelo completamente branco e um dos meus livros favoritos debaixo do braço. tem um ar simpático, o senhor, um ar de avô doce, e veste uma kurta branca que ainda por cima lhe dá todo o aspecto de um plácido padre da beira interior. uma presença benigna portanto, e tudo melhora quando se põe ao telefone

"listen, i was thinking about our plan for the ashram school. can we not start with the rotary funding we already have? it's quite urgent, you see. no? must we really wait for july then? what a shame."

é americano, bem posto na vida, e com um interesse desinteressado - imagino - na educação e progresso deste desafortunado país. ah, ainda há gente assim. chega-lhe entrementes a omelete que tinha pedido. assim que leva à boca a primeira garfada, explode em direcção ao empregado de mesa

"hey bhay, come here at once. have you not learnt to do your job properly? there is no salt and pepper on this table, what is this nonsense? what do i have to do to get some service here? you people are just so thoughtless."

o pároco beirão transforma-se diante dos meus olhos no estereótipo do colono britânico. ainda há gente assim?

isto criou-me um problema, uma dúvida de julgamento. será que estou certo (por instinto) em duvidar das primitivas intenções do benemérito apenas por aquele momento de vileza? poderá certamente ser um caso clássico de olha para o que eu digo não olhes para o que eu faço. ou será que podemos confiar na honestidade de quem nos diz "todos os seres humanos são meus irmãos excepto se forem pobres" ou "sou louco por velhinhos mas não posso com bebés" ou ainda "não suporto pretos mas os gatinhos siameses derretem-me o coração"? não sei se haverá quem seja capaz da bondade integral. é que não sei mesmo.


Half-light in Fatehpur Sikri

of all the ghost cities of india, fatehpur sikri is perhaps the ghostliest, so pristine one may expect to witness the ablutions of emperor akbar or a tansen raga at any moment, cross paths with stern black-clad jesuits at the next corner or notice a harem giggle from behind the latticed screens. the superb dream of the emperor, built to be an unparallelled moghul capital, the city sustained communal life for no more than fifteen years. for sudden want of water, they say. or did it live too much too fast? this was after all the site of some unbridled pleasure-seeking, some intense hanking and panking, the setting of the most celebrated of all ecumenical extravaganzas and the stage of the feistiest music.

these days fatehpur remains a magnificent fossil, an insect trapped in ambar, laden with palaces and courtyards worn and torn by the march of time rather than human steps. too grand to be a ruin, too much of a ruin to be fully grand. it appears more like a capital under construction, prettying up to receive its glittering patron. a half-city half-lived. here is a pictorial half-portrait in half-light.