This december, I was in Agra with my family. The whole trip was not bad at all, except for the following conversation I had with my mother-
Me looking at the non veg dishes in the menu card of a restaurant. Mom, eyeing me suspiciously-"Kaushal, can you not eat your chicken-shicken while you are with us? God, the smell is disgusting."
Me, admittedly appalled for she called it 'chicken-shicken' and said that it smelt bad, "Well, if you want me to eat grass and roots and twigs for the rest of the trip, fine by me!"
I thoroughly hoped that I had put enough sarcasm in my voice when I said this, but apparently it was not enough. She took it quite literally and proceeded to order harabhara kababs for all of us. Like, are kababs even supposed to be harabhara? Anyways, that was how I became a temporary vegetarian.( I got rid of it as soon as I came back home. Barbecue chicken. :DD) But being in the home of Murgi and Tandoor and not having it was insanely disconcerting. Also, with due respect to my Punjabi friends and readers, there is nothing much left in Punjabi cuisine if you take away chicken except, maybe paneer. And there is a limit to how much paneer you can eat. I secretly vowed to go back there again just to eat Murgi and Parantha in a Dhaba.
Anyways, being in Agra also meant being in the land of the Taj. The whole city revolves around the monument. I have no idea how they differentiate between places because I have seen so many 'Taj residency' and 'Taj view' hotels that after a certain point of time you start questioning the imagination of the people around there.
After a tiring six hour journey from Jaipur which consisted of a not so fulfilling experience of reading 'The lost symbol', I admit I was not very keen to actually make an effort to go see the Taj on the same day. I was dazed and tired and on an all-paneer diet. I needed my rest. But that was not to be, so I sat swatting flies and stifling yawns in a green rickshaw on the way to the Taj herself. After around ten minutes, the guy stops the Rick and looks at us as with part amusement, part pity." Aa gaya sirjee Taj!"
I get off and look around. There is a narrow street further narrowed down by lines of small-time shops selling marble articles, Kachori houses, laundries, phone booths, travel companies, photo studios, clothes shops and hotels- Most of them 'Taj View's, one 'Taj retreat'. It looks like you could cut off the whole section, scoop it up and keep it in any Indian city, and it would make no difference. Where the heck is the Taj? I look at the rickshaw driver. He is sitting, left palm full of gutkha, mashing it with the right index finger, the idol of indifference. I ask him, where is the Taj? He looks at me with a poker face before pinching up the gutkha in his right hand and depositing it in his underlip. Left hand points up to the lane straight ahead. A bunch of Chinese( or an oriental counterpart; I can't really spot the difference.) tourists seem to be going that way too, so we follow them. We come to this small doorway and buy our tickets in. Now I get a view of the first archway towards the Mahal, but the whole thing is blocking the monument. As I slowly jostle through the crowd, I get pearl white glimpses through the arch; like a teaser, or more so, a Parda- a veil; like the fingers of a beautiful woman peeking through a veil. As I get closer, I get a better view. When I get under the archway, time stands still.
The lady reveals herself. The pearl white skin with a pink tinge shrouded in evening mist, the sheer size of it and the grey-blue skies providing the perfect backdrop for the most beautiful landscape. I stand there taking it all in. For a full minute I don't move. Around me, the incoming race of people has stopped too, all eyes on the Taj. You know, you have seen it so many times on tv, in pictures. Even done a virtual tour on your encarta encyclopedia. The four minarets, the huge dome- the crown- the taj, the glistening white marble and the walkways. You think you know how it is. But, boy, it is way different. Its like the difference between guitar hero joystick and a Fender Strat. That moment I made a vow- I am going to see all the seven wonders of the world. I have six left now...
The rest of the evening passed in standing in a huge queue waiting to get inside the Mahal. We stood outside for two hours to get a thirty second tour of the insides, which were so dark that you couldn't see anything. But I loved the Taj the first moment I saw it.
The only other time I loved it was from the top of the Agra fort the next day. Shahjahan was supposed to be in a house arrest here and he had requested it to be at a place where he could see the Taj. When I saw it from there, I knew it was a perfect place. The yamuna snaked in front of me as I stood there. The evening mist skimmed on its waters. Suddenly someone shouted- " Look, the Taj!"
All heads turned up and people from different nationalities, colour and race held there breaths as one. Up ahead as the river bended out of site, it loomed, peeking out of the mist, the orange rays of the setting sun giving it a halo. Vivid and impressionistic like a Monet, with the mist giving a sfumato. Cameras flashed. The mist grew and as the sun finally dropped out of sight, the fog covered it beyond our gaze. The Taj retired to sleep.
And then all went dark...