Thursday 2 July 2020

1986 India I: Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri

23.10.86 Delhi

Connaught Place has the feel of eternal cricket afternoons – cut grass, dust, heat haze.  Not as squalid in New Delhi as I expected, nor huge number of beggars – a few gypsy/Dravidian women, a few cripples.  Traffic very India – lots of motorised rickshaws, pedestrians going everywhere.  As you walk down the street – incense now and then – everything is garish – trucks, hoardings.  

Delhi old and new, poor and rich.  NB Lutyens' gracious avenues, lawns kept immaculately like Surrey Gardens.  Cows pulling the lawn mower.  Hundreds weeding.   A snake charmer; ants the size of dogs (well, very small dogs).  Rajpath – an architect's dream – an arch like the Arc de Triomphe, mile-long road rising up to government buildings.  Red dust gives way to warm red sandstone buildings – looks like Versailles, but more spacious – the hill is a gift.  Style a mixture of classicism and token Indian.  Lies almost due west, like a church: the sun sets behind it.

Delhi at night – pleasant warmth.  Feels just like Samarkand, Banjul – garish lights, small children, pools of light.  Doesn't feel dangerous – partly because all the people here are small.  Even labourers are half-hearted, thin.  Sikhs are more muscular.

Regal cinema – full – livid-coloured posters; incense burning around.  Connaught Place a huge, dimly-lit amphitheatre.  But not real feeling it is a bustling capital city – everything is on a small scale.  Hotels seem centres of activity, with two or three restaurants, visited by locals.  Restaurants have a huge number of swirling waiters, threadbare linen, dubious cutlery.  Unfortunately, their idea of sophistication is vaguely-Westernised food.  No beef or pork, so chicken, lamb, fish and the music – sitar, tabla, portable harmonium.  Male and female singers.  Maudlin swoopy stuff.  Perhaps this is why the Victorian Raj fared so well in India – they had similar tastes.  Sitar risks a few extreme passages.  Harmonium warbles away.  Female voice very young , very Kate Bush, who uses similar ornaments.

Very strange day – spilling into yesterday, which didn't really exist.  Just travelling in similar metal tubes, with hours shifting constantly.  Having lost time, I have also lost distance.  I have not yet managed to place myself here: it is as I am in a very large Indian film-set somewhere outside Bradford.  Except that the sun is shining, and the temperature in the 80s.

On Indian TV, the language is formal – TV announcer finished with "cheerio and chin up".  Papers and videotext news items read like a gentle parody. 

24.10.86 Delhi

Up to the first class reservation office via rickshaw – typically held together by solder, bits of wire, welding, all on their last legs.  Driving slow-ish, but daredevils – a thousand near-misses – scattering pedestrians.  A wonder they obey the traffic lights.  First class reservations claims to be computerised, but that seems unlikely.  I wanted an Indrail pass, and wandered through administrative bowels of the building.  Lots of ancient typewriters lined up – another reason English will always be the language of administration.  But everyone unphased by strangers wandering – a bit like the sacred cows in the streets.

To New Delhi station, although this is much more Old Delhi, the real Delhi.  There were cows standing amidst bus queues.  A throng around the station.  Few touts or hawkers.  Station itself dark, with people everywhere, sitting, squatting, lying.  Notices directing hither and thither.  The Tourist Office a relative oasis of calm.  Very affable bloke – pointed out that I need a permit to go to Kashmir.  Gave me a slip of paper with the address of the Ministry of Home Affairs, ominously "beyond India Gate".  It proved to be my first real brush with Indian bureaucracy.

I bought the "at-a-glance" timetable.  The ads show the same upper-class 30s English.  Ads for snuff and recondite engineering products, all backed up with exhortation like "Get the best" etc.  Typically Indian printing – poor quality paper, some puce (cf. Suffolk pink), heavy printing, with movable type.  Introduction has some gentle, faded English, meticulously polite.

Lunch at Kwality, a well-known chain.  Nothing special – I think my chicken saved people the trouble of killing it by dying of malnutrition.  The hotel restaurant is better – but not better than my local take-away.  

I went further north for North Delhi station, which is opposite main bazaar.  Very definite change here.  People were living on the streets.  Cooking, washing utensils in puddles, washing themselves from standpipes – a girl wringing out her hair, a main holding up a cloth around himself like on a Cornwall beach.  Everyone cooking.  Everywhere food on sale – fried balls, fresh limes, fruit, daal.  Everywhere tiny stand-up restaurants – often called "hotels" – tin shacks behind shacks, everyone bustling with tiny jobs.  I saw one bloke selling Spirograph drawings – successfully.

Further north, poorer.  There exists a definite hierarchy.  Taxis and motorised rickshaws below Connaught, then motorised rickshaws to North Delhi station, then horse-drawn rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, something I hadn't seen south.  Then even further, rickshaws with no tires.  The streets were crowded along the walls with people and their possessions – sometimes a tiny pile of bare necessities.  And yet most are modest.  There was little oppressive begging, and people seemed content to live their lives – just in public.  

After lunch, to the Home Affairs Ministry.  First we queued to get in.  Then we queued to get a pass.  Then we went upstairs.  Some queued to get a form; others of us just got it.  The we queued to go to room 2.  And waited.  Unfortunately, at this point the queuing system broke down.  One had to resort to downright cunning.  Eventually we got to the inner sanctum.  And then queued.  When our turn came, a man simply wrote in our passports that we could go to Kashmir.  The form we had filled in was not even glanced at.  Just filed.  I have a horrible feeling this may be the tip of the iceberg.  What was noticeable was that the Indian bureaucracy seemed so huge it was normal.  Forms appeared, books were filled in, people handed out, shepherding in.  You've got to employ 700 million people somehow.

Walk back very pleasant through wide leafy avenues.  Rush-hour – but on a smaller scale because roads are wide, cars are few, and many people use bikes or rickshaws.  Overall effect very human.  Buses are one of the few things which lack much English: just Hindi and numbers.  Rajpath very peaceful as India Gate and government buildings on the hill start to fade in the haze and thinning light.

25.10.86 Delhi 

The day starts early.  By 9am the sun is already strong, though the atmosphere is thick with haze.  The sun also sets early, lending the whole of the latter part of the afternoon a kind of eternal English summer's day quality.  To the tourist office again.  More queues.  But eventually I bought my Indrail pass, and reserved some of the seats.  Despite the frustration of the (Westerner) queues, the officials maintained an even humour.  The respond very well to courteousness.  But nothing is closed.  I obtained only provisional reservations for trains coming from other centres – Jammu and Udaipur.  Pretty brisk work – only two hours.  On the way, I saw my first leper.  His fingers had been reduced to the last joint.

After lunch, I hopped over the wall and went to the International's swimming pool.  Not that I swam.  But 50 Rs. was still good value, allowing me to lounge in the sun in my swimming trunks.  Even just after midday, the sun was very benign.  With palm trees all around and the waiters serving efficiently, it was easy to forget that over the wall lay Janpath Road and the beggars.  I left about 3.30pm; the sun was weak and low, and held little power.  This gentle warmth pervades the rest of the day and early night.

After an extensive coffee break, complete with timeless universal cameo of corner tete-a-tete – "I will be frank – will you be frank?" - I tried to reserve some hotel rooms.  I phoned the telephone desk to book calls through to Srinagar.  Several minutes later, I was told that there were no lines on to Udaipur, Agra.  A strike for a week, evidently.

A walk into town.  Everywhere a-swirl with people.  Connaught Place looks more impressive by night.  By day, the open space in the middle diminishes it; the surrounding buildings fail to bind together.  By night, the garish lights turn it into a huge amphitheatre.  It also forms the perfect space for a passeggiata, and this Saturday evening, many did so.  Most shops stay open to 7pm, some to 8pm.  Hawkers sat everywhere, polishing shoes, selling magazines and books.

Indians in New Delhi are very keen on books.  Mostly, these are British, some quite recent – latest magazines like Business, the Economist, Elle etc.  Even a computer bookstore with a rack of dBase III and C books.  Very aspirational.  Article in Sunday  - Newsweek/Economist type – led with the rise of the middle classes.  It claimed 50-100 million in this bracket, buying cars, fridges, designer clothes.  This is India's great hope, that and its insatiable desire for education.

The outer ring of Connaught Place is another example.  Hundreds of small shops, especially car seat covers, photocopy shops. Bare bulbs burning.  Several cinemas, all with solid names like Odeon, Regal.  Several eateries with lots of Indians.  The main restaurants are nearly empty – too expensive?  

I go to Gaylord.  There seems to be a lot of the Gaylord brand around – ice creams and such-like.  The restaurant is full of ancient semi-splendour, moulded swags on the ceiling, dusty chandeliers, plaster falling off central piers, showing the wood beneath.  Waiters ancient, but with a faded air of gentility.  Linen frayed and crumpled.  Food selection limited as ever, quality indifferent.  The only matter of note was the real spices – lumps of cinnamon, cloves etc.  Everything strangely quiet, as if everyone is waiting, or as if something happened years ago, but now has left everyone behind, still carrying on, but to no point.  I felt that I had been there forever, or for no time.

Walking back the air was still warm.  The shops along Janpath had placed all their wares on the pavement.  They all seemed to be painting their shops.  A festival?  Also, the booksellers had left their books beneath tarpaulin, unguarded.  Is the city really this safe.  It feels it.  

A note on Indian English.  Sunday, the magazine, used the phrase "chucked up".  I thought this was just another error; in fact, this is a real language in the making.  I cam across a book detailing the interesting divergences.  Indian English is not wrong, any more than American English is; just different.

26.10.86 Delhi 

Up betimes.  Indian Times, Sunday edition has pages of "brides wanted" and "grooms wanted". Would-be brides give age and weight, grooms their age and salary.  Women are either fair or homely.  Men and women emphasise their qualifications – women are "convented".  Really no different from the Village Voice personals.

To the Red Fort.  Surprisingly long way out, over the railway, past hovels made of cloth and wattle.  Red Fort area absolutely abuzz with people; real old Delhi.  The fort itself is stunning: huge red walls rising up sheer in an unbroken curtain.  Inside, once you pass the bazaar, all is relatively peace and stillness.  First there is the public audience hall – Diwan-i-Aam.  Today it is rather bleak red stone; once it was draped with fine cloths, and thronged with nobles, the prime minister before the emperor himself.  Today the well-kept grass again feels like an eternal British summer afternoon.

Behind it lies the main area within the fort, another open space with grass, but also with many fountains, sadly not working.  The main focus is the Diwan-e-Khas – the private audience hall.  Again much of the glory has gone – for example, the Peacock Throne; but the pietra dura inlays that remain, the ragged once silvered roof, do at least suggest past wonders.  As well as baths and various pavilions, there is Moti Masjid, the Pearl Mosque.  To enter, I was given over-shoes, and looked rather ridiculous.  The mosque itself is very small and intimate; particularly noticeable was how open it is: the sky forms an important element in the whole.  Interesting how many Indians had brought the family this Sunday.  Outside, there is a throng of hawkers et al.  But as ever, they are remarkably restrained.  I think this may be to do with my deeply black shades: without eye contact, it is hard to make much headway.  

For the same reason, my stroll down Chandni Chowk was uneventful enough, though I drew a few glances – partly because I was about the only white there, and about 6" taller than everyone else.  The usual sellers of water, but also many selling cheap garish posters – some of gods and goddesses, some of a semi-Indianised Jesus, some of saccharine little children.  As with the area around New Delhi station, mostly cycle rickshaws here – and piled with goods so high it passed belief – ten feet of laundry on one, wobbling precariously.

I took one of the rare motorised rickshaws to the Jami Masjid.  Since this cost me 5 Rs., I can't imagine what the bicycles cost.  The Jami Masjid complements the Red Fort.  Both are monumental, one sacred, the other secular; both were built by good ol' Shah Jahan, who seems responsible for many of the best bits of brick and marble in India.

As with the earlier mosque, it is like a cathedral with its roof removed.  After taking off my shoes and wandering around in my socks – again, rather daftly – I entered and brought a ticket for the tower.  There are two great towers flanking the main mosque. To reach it you climb up the wall then along, then up inside.  It is very narrow and very dark – a claustrophobe's nightmare.  At the top there is a low wall then a small balcony with an even lower wall – not for those with vertigo.  Noticeably, the Indians all kept inside; I didn't.

The view is superb.  Every city has one of these vantage points where you can sit and watch it unfold beneath you – the Campanile in Venice, the World Trade Center in New York (and London?).  The Red Fort was seen in its full splendour; nearby there were various parks with palm trees.  To the south-west, the mid-town high-rise developments near Connaught Place could be seen.  In between everything was a jumble of small buildings.  The haze of distance was very noticeable, and the horizon was lost completely  Much of this is smoke: the air is not very clean in New Delhi. The mosque itself is rather dull – with a smell of pigeons and decay.  Because of Islamic ideas, little decoration either.  

The trip back was less a journey, more an odyssey.  The traffic round this area had gone mad.  Everyone pushing and shoving – how bad accidents are avoided, I don't know.  Rickshaw drivers also take great delight in swooping across crossroads, even if they don't have priority.  Never mind overtaking on the inside, or whatever.  And they love their squeaky horns – a characteristic Delhi sound.  Yet the overall effect is comical – all the bicycles and rickshaws careening around like some huge dodgem.

PM to the International for poolside lunch and sunbathe.  I leave as the sun gets low and its rays weaken.  It is still only 3pm.

27.10.86 Agra 

To New Delhi station by taxi – a reasonable 15 Rp (about £1); road very quiet: London is busier than this.  Noticeable that all the hawkers and such like are absent from Chelmsford Road – what a name.  New Delhi station bustling; lots of offers of porterage etc.  Around 6.20am my train arrives. I have – I hope – reserved seat 4 in carriage 1.  There is no carriage 1 – or rather, it is carriage 3.  On the outside by the door is a computer print-out.  It looks strange to see "Glyn Moody" blazoned forth for the world to see.

The carriages are air-con, spacious and non-smoking.  Generally impressive.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the Taj Express was fatally flawed.  It wasn't express.  At about 9am, we stopped; in the middle of nowhere.  At first, it seemed temporary; after an hour or so, it clearly wasn't.  Like half the train, I decided to climb out to investigate.  I think this is the first time I've done this, and it felt very like being in some World War II film.  The train was very long, and people stood along its length.  It was lovely outside, and I was quite content to sit and watch.  Up ahead at the front of the train, some engineering works was going on, trying to fix the electrical conductor.

After a while, a distant hooting could be heard.  People cleared from the track.  I sat where I was: I thought it would be interesting to have several hundred tons of locomotive thundering past me.  It was; the earth shook authentically.  Unfortunately, a fine spray accompanies it.  I had forgotten about the toilets on board.  I confidently expect to contract some appalling gastro-intestinal disease. 

Eventually, we moved off.  We passed through small stations, all very quiet and sleepy – and sometimes literally.  We also passed trains going in the other direction.  Those carrying the workers into Delhi were crowded.  People hung on the outside, and even between the carriages, standing on the buffers.  We also passed a real museum piece: a huge behemoth of a steam train, battered and rusty but noble still.

We finally arrived in Agra some two and half hours late.  The hassling had begun on the train: people offering sightseeing, taxis. Luckily, it was a buyer's market: the main season begins in November.  So it was possible to ignore the rabble – though they were pretty persistent.  I was driven by a typical Sikh to the Clarks Shiraz hotel.  He loved Britain, he said, his father was in the British Army.  And sure enough, there was a Union Jack on the windscreen.  As we drove to the hotel, there were many army stations – Indian now.  The station we arrived at was Agra Cantonment.  With its spacious villas, Agra still has very much the feel of an Army town about it.

Booked in at Clarks Shiraz – for one night instead of two.  Tuesday completely full: mass bookings again – so unsporting.  Spent ages trying to get through to the Taj View Hotel – I was on the point of succeeding, when inevitably I was cut off.  In the end, I gave up, and went down to the swimming pool – fast becoming a pre-requisite in my stays.  Luckily they had a phone down there – of sorts, and I live in the optimistic hope of having a reservation.

I had assumed the sun would fall off in power just as in Delhi, but I realise now that Delhi is not representative, if only because it has so much smog.  Here the sky was slightly hazy, but much more blue.  The sun was stronger, but not fierce.  It is appallingly wonderful to lie out in it at the end of October.

About 3pm, I felt I had to see something of Agra.  Not the Taj Mahal, though.  I felt this with some certainty; I wanted to be fresh for the experience – not tired by delays and frustrations.  So instead I decided to visit Agra fort – yet another fort. There was no motorised rickshaw around, so I took a bicycle one for the first time.  We agreed on  5 Rs., with the possibility of extending the trip.  As soon as I mounted the frail contraption – there is no back support, and precious little to grab onto – I felt mortified with shame.  Here in front of me was a skinny little man, with his stick legs pumping away.  And there I was, a great lump of a Westerner, sitting back like some colonial oppressor.  It was even worse on one of the few hills I'd seen – most of India is completely flat around Delhi.  The poor little man had to get off and push it.  And yet I was a comparatively light load.  Indian think nothing of piling three or four people into these contraptions, plus plenty of baggage.

It was still a strange experience as we passed along to the fort.  Every now and then I caught glimpses of "it" – like temptations, invitations to taste a forbidden fruit.  I resisted.  After a fairly long while – Agra is really very spaced out, we came to the fort.

Initially, it looked almost identical to the Red Fort in Delhi, except that it was even more impressive.  This was partly because it stood in splendid isolation.  It certainly put to shame all our weedy British forts, Windsor only excepted.  Inside was even more miraculous.  Ascending a long ramp and then turning right, you are confronted with Jahangir's Palace, an enormous red sandstone building, with richly textured surfaces, a lawn in front, and all looking strangely quiet.

Entering, you come across a maze of rooms, some derelict, others still showing traces of former glory.  It certainly beats Delhi's Red Fort: it is large and brooding, and very evocative of ancient empires.  In fact, as one began walking through the complex, the scale gradually became clear; it was huge.  Unlike the Red Fort, which was primly guarded everywhere, here you could wander where you like, jump off where you like.  The views over the ramparts towards the Yamuna were stunning – and always with the great white cloud beckoning to the right.  The Yamuna is a classic oxbow, scouring out a huge plain, and leaving behind white earth/sand.  To the left there is a bridge; around it washing had been laid out to dry.

After the palace were the standard two Diwans of public and private audience.  Again, the Red Fort was dwarfed.  It look like some cross between a wooded mosque and Great Court Trinity.  And of course as with most architectures, there has been a constant interplay between sacred and secular.  In this Mughal style, the open air is a critical element.

The public Diwan was huge: a forest of pillars, yet retaining something of its origins in the ornate canopies it must have grown from.  The private Diwan was intimate in comparison, culminating in the tremendous backdrop of the river.  In the courtyard below, the grass had grown lush and a brilliant green.  Around it was the warm rosy stone; above it the hard blue Indian sky.  

Alongside was a small mosque; the Pearl Mosque remained closed.  In the great public Diwan, I felt for the first time near India, and in a foreign ancient land.  Perhaps the time of day helped, with huge, lengthening shadows; the mixed screeches of the grass green parrots and the chittering of the wild monkeys made it memorable, the day's declivity.  The air was hung with Indian scents, and warmth.

I left the fort feeling that I had arrived at last, that Agra was a key, and that the rest would fall into place.  My rickshaw man came to greet me – I had paid him nothing yet – and we went off for a ride through the city.  Or rather a push to begin with, since he had to walk us up the hill.  Old Agra is like those parts in Delhi.  Although everything is drab and dusty and squalid, I like it.  It seems to feel natural: the human equivalent of fractals.  Again I felt totally alien – I was a bit obvious in my shades, shorts and white t-shirt.  We passed all the usual things, plus a few new ones – like a TV repair school.  I wonder whether these streets are universal in India.  One factor which clearly does vary is the use of English.  Noticeable from the train was how Hindi predominated in small villages – but English abounded in Agra, often fractured.  Tomorrow, the Taj Mahal.

28.10.86 Agra 

The morning is warm, and the air clear.  About 9am I hire the same man as yesterday, but the whole day.  We agree on 20 Rs.  Once again, I am appalled by what I am doing.  More, I am appalled by the power I have through my money.  There is no doubt that power does corrupt, money is just the first step.

We arrive after a while at the Taj Mahal.  It is a long way – I am constantly amazed at how far everything is: Agra is so spread out.  From the outside you can see red towers through trees.  As you approach the main gate there is the first glimpse of white through the dark archway.  The white comes as a shock: after all the red stone its candour is disconcerting, ghostly.

Passing through the gateway and standing in its shadow, you get the full first impact of it.  I had expected to be disappointed: almost inevitably meeting an icon face-to-face is often disillusioning.  In this case, there was no disillusionment.  I had expected it to be rather small; it was grand and soaring.  I had expected it to be crowded round with oil refineries or cement works; it stood alone, with only its framing towers and the empty space of the river beyond.  I had expected it to shine with a kind of tinselly sheen like Sacre Coeur; but its surface seemed to be alive with constantly-changing gradations of white and pearl.

The setting was perfect.  As seems often to be the case, the formal gardens were well kept.  In particular, they were lush and green – the Indians seem not to stint with water, which in most countries is a precious luxury to be hoarded niggardly.  There were the same armies of thin men and women plucking at weeds one-by-one and watering each blade of grass.  This seems to be a very Indian solution to its employment:  divide up work to its tiniest unit, and share it out.  As a result, minuscule wages can be paid, and nobody need expend much of their little energy.

There was also water as a major element.  With the fountains turned off, the long artificial pool became a sliver of a mirror, with a phantom Taj within.  Walking towards the monument, I was impressed by the size: it is really big.  All pictures I have ever seen diminish it, make it a sugar confection.  The folly of trying to capture things with cameras.  Gradually the details as well as the overall form begin to emerge: the wild roulades of Arabic script around the frame of the main arch.  But with that an awareness of the four towers.  Take them away, and the Taj becomes a stumpy block on a slab; with them, the whole thing soars to heaven, powered by the towers' pinnacles, which echo the main dome.  And they also serve another purpose: standing at the head of the long pool, the line joining the two tips of the towers on each side meet almost exactly at the base of the arch in the centre.

The towers and the series or arches – the main one with its gentle point, echoed by smaller arches, two of which are seen at 45 degrees – are important, but it is the dome which defines the Taj.  At first, it looks like any other dome, yet there is something infinitely suggestive about it, something appropriately feminine.  Partly it is the gentle curves, culminating in the efflorescence at the top – just like a nipple.  For this is the Taj Mahal's secret: its dome is a perfectly-formed breast.  The breast of a young woman.

The marble itself is beautifully varied with mottling and variations.  This lends a sense of movement to the whole.  The inlays enhance this effect, giving elements of colour which seem to dance over the building.  Apart from the wild Arabic curlicues, the building's decoration is very restrained.  This is particularly so regarding the interior.  The formal coffins are again magnificently inlaid; around the room there is a frieze with yet more text – noticeable is how long horizontal lines flow through large sections of it.  Surrounding them was a fine marble screen, intricately carved.  The real tombs below were even more staid.

It seems that the outside is generally more important than the inside in these Islamic buildings, especially when the outside includes the sky.  So I went outside again and sat and looked.  The Taj itself is framed by the towers, and this ensemble by two further mosque-like buildings.  These are echoed in the middle of the garden, and the Taj Mahal itself is reflected in the huge entrance gate.

Apparently Shah Jahan had intended building another Taj for his own mausoleum, but in black marble, the dark image of his beloved Mumtaz.  The mind boggles.

All the while I was there, people offered to take my photo as if on Brighton beach.  I never fail to be amazed by this desire to have snaps of oneself with a building or landmark in the background.  Inevitably the latter is either invisible or out of scale.  Perhaps it just comes down to something to prove you've been there, as if some synecdoche of the experience were needed to justify the effort.  What of me, then – I who return from these forays empty-handed, but with a head full of memories?  I am regarded as a fool. Worse – nobody here believes me when I say I have no camera, they obviously think I am just trying to avoid paying extra.

Back to my little man outside.  The hill is so steep I get off the rickshaw.  I have to change hotels – inconvenient but not a great loss – I am not impressed by the Clarks Shiraz.   I have reserved at the Taj View – I hope.  It seems miles away.  From the outside it looks quite passable – and it has quite the most splendid commissionaire I have come across in India or elsewhere.  He is got up in brilliant red, is be-turbanned and has a good handlebar moustache.  He salutes grandiloquently as I arrive – a man of perception, obviously.

The hotel is quite good – or rather will be once they have finished it.  As the day wears on it is evident that a lot of work is still being done: the building echoes to a strange Varèse-like score or bangs and knocks and buzzes.  Unlike my father, I do not find this too distracting.  Besides it is cheaper than the Shiraz, and has a pool.

After my morning of culture I felt justified in indulging in a little hedonism around the pool.  Unfortunately, this too turned out to be in a state of flux and incompleteness.  Workmen were scurrying hither and thither.  There were no cushions for the sun-chairs, and the pool…  It was a soupy blue-green, and was already occupied by various animals, including something that looked like a cross-between a huge daddy-long legs, and a pond skater – except that it dived underwater.  Yet people still swam in it.  God knows what they will catch.  I contented myself with dipping in the sun, and was amazed to find myself sweating.  At times the sun really beat down; the difference from Delhi was marked.

After as much sun as I thought was good for me – physically and culturally – I went back into town.  By now, my little man was beginning to get fractious.  We went to the Cantonment station – I wanted to find out about ITDC tours to Fatehpur Sikri.  Since these were too brief I went to the bus station to get details of bus services there.  It was interesting to compare the two transport centres.

The station was touristy – touts everywhere, everything geared to parting people from their Rupees.  There was also flies everywhere.  In contrast, the bus station was local – even to the point of having nothing in English – and purely functional.  

To round off the day, I decided to go to Itmad-ud-Daula.  At this, my little man got really shirty.  He hadn't eaten all day, he said, and had had to pedal a lot (true).  I said I'd give him more – 25 Rs. - and he was appalled.  I said we'd agreed 20 Rs. For the whole day, and he said the rate was 70 or 80 Rs. For a day.  I felt on weak ground.  I tried haggling: 50 Rs., but he was having none of it.  I had to agree 60 Rs. And even this seemed paltry enough.

As we set off for what turned out to be a very long ride to Itmad-ud-Daula, I began to resent this scrawny little man, his greasy hair, threadbare clothes and weak little legs.  After all, he'd got off pretty lightly compared to his fellows: one of them had 10 schoolgirls in his rickshaw; but then again, maybe that's not so bad.  But this switch from guilt to anger – "it's not my fault, it's yours" – is common enough.  Another prerogative and pitfall of power.

As we preceded along seemingly endless streets of shops, all looking exactly the same, I tried once again to understand why, despite their griminess, they were still strangely attractive.  I decided it had to do with the fact that however ramshackle the building was, it was not some new prefab/breeze block job: it had grown organically.  Some were clearly quite old, with remnants of plaster work and mouldings.

Travelling along was also to travel in the land of smell.  India does smell, but not as I expected.  It is the smell of wood-smoke, incense, cooking, cow dung.

Apart from the embarrassment of forcing this poor man to cycle so far, I was also worried about my safety.  Time and again we narrowly missed oncoming traffic.  Everything stacks here: bullock carts are overtaken by rickshaws, who are overtaken by bicycles; they by scooters, and scooters by cars.  All at once, and the same on the other side.  Added to which, everyone cuts corners desperately, and the roads can be very rough, so you have the makings of a nightmare as far as inexperienced passengers are concerned.

It was around 4pm, and we hit the Agra rush hour; forget it, give my London any day.  Bullocks as ever were wandering around; how does anyone know who they belong to?  There were also a few goats.  We went down by the fort, and then towards the river.  There is a splendid Hungerford-type bridge over the Yamuna, a double-decker affair with a rail-track over the road.  According to an inscription, it was opened in 1907 or so, and toll-free.  The journey across it was equally precarious, with everyone overtaking everyone.

We made it to the other side, and were confronted by yet more shops, even poorer, if that is possible.  People were selling rolls of hay for horses, and bundles of sticks.  Wild-looking hairy pigs wandered freely.

As we arrived at Itmad-ud-Daula, I wondered whether it was worth it.  After all, I had seen the Taj Mahal – surely everything would be a disappointment after that?  In the event, it wasn't.  The memorial – which apparently was an influence on the Taj's architect – was quite different in effect.  It was smaller and much more intricate.  In form it consisted of the central building and four squat towers, joined by high walls.  In other words, this building did not soar like the Taj: instead, it had a rather minatory aspect, like a warrior's head peering over the battlements.  But what battlements.  The walls were minutely carved marble screens; elsewhere these were covered with colourful geometric patterns typical of Islamic architecture.  The overall effect was more immediately appealing and interesting than the Taj, though nowhere near so grand.  Inside was rather dull again, but the ceilings were splendid: scalloped forms of great complexity, though now sadly in decay.

But best of all was the setting, a jewel of a garden.  There was the same gate-house followed by a water course leading the eye to the monument.  There were the same flanking buildings.  And the same backdrop of the river.

Looking down from the terrace's considerable height, the river stretched out before me.  Below, a pig rooted around in the mud, on the opposite bank a herd of oxen were being driven home.  Back towards the bridge, on a huge white sandbank, a group of people worked by huge cans – washing perhaps?  Rows of sheets and clothes lay on the sand to dry.

As the shadows lengthened in this haven, there were the usual screeches of parrots, and monkeys darting back and forth, always with their terribly human movements.  I had seen some in Agra itself, looking like tiny guerrillas, stealthily penetrating the city.  We came back along the road underneath the walls of the fort, which reared up magnificently before us.  You would have to be mad to try to take it from here.  Rush hour had subsided, and in the cooling air glorious scents of grass and earth wafted to me.  

I finally paid off my little man, shamed into giving him 70 Rs.  This kind of power I could do without – I have a feeling you get hardened to it, as I was beginning to.  Not nice.

29.10.86 Agra 

A long, hot lazy morning by the pool  My day is complicated by the fact that I must check out by noon, though my train does not leave until 7pm.  I decide to go to Fatehpur Sikri – the hard way.  There is a tourist coach which leaves and returns too early, and spends too little time there.  Instead, I take the local bus, a mere 4.60 Rs. For an hour's journey.  The bus, like most other mechanical contraptions in India, is held together by pieces of string.  The seats are detachable, and metal edges are jagged.  I am slightly worried by the fact that there are no English signs on the bus: it could be going to Timbuktu for all I know. 

It isn't.  Instead, it is heading out across the totally flat, sandy landscape.  Most of India around here is flat – a bit like East Anglia, only bigger and drier.  We pass through a number of small villages, all looking much the same.  The bus hurtles along in the usual way, overtaking things that are overtaking other things.

Finally, a great curtain of wall hove into sight: Fatehpur Sikri.  This crazy place in the middle of nowhere was once a glorious capital.  Then it was abandoned, and has remained perfectly preserved, as a ghost city.  The village is as fly-blown as you can get.  Before visiting the city I had a Thums Up (sic) – currently my staple diet.  Black swirling masses of flies buzzed insanely around me.  After a few minutes of their endless irritations, I began to believe that they really were the devil's.

Fatehpur Sikri is placed impressively at the top of a hill – one of the few hills around here.  At one end, there is a huge mosque.  The main entrance is reached via one of the most impressive set of steps I know – huge treads, rising up steeply until at the top you are overpowered by the sheer face of the gate.  Despite cajolings by lads trying to get me to hire some overshoes for the mosque, I did not go.  Until I learn a little more about the finer points, all mosques are beginning to look the same to me.

Instead I went on to the city itself.  An embarrassing 1.50 Rs. to get in – less than 10p.  History, like everything else in India, comes cheap.  The first palace consisted of a large quad.  It was perfectly still, and that perfection was matched by the preservation of its buildings.  It was as if they had been built yesterday.  They gave a very strong sense of timelessness, of India the ancient.  And they were blissfully empty of people, so the magic was not broken.

Another thing which makes these Indian monuments so pleasant to wander around is the lack of supervision.  You can get practically everywhere, even to the most dangerous tops of towers.  There is none of this English nannying that we have.  

Round the back of this there was a huge colonnade courtyard, open on one side.  So many of these buildings bore striking resemblance to Oxbridge colleges.  Most of the rest of the buildings were in one large group.  They formed an amazing ensemble.  With their open towers and multi-platform construction, they looked like something out of Escher.  It really didn't matter that I had no idea what these things were.  Unfortunately it is hard to explain this to the importunate, uncomprehending guides whose services I spurned.  I want the experience to be unmediated, not pre-packaged in convenient tourist-sized gobbets.  And I want to move at my pace: even with personal guides there is no way to do this.  Some sights can only be understood by sitting and staring at them for half and hour.

Notable among the group of buildings was a five-storey tower – each storey smaller than the next, the whole effect being one of airy lightness.  The view from the top showed a huge flat plain to the horizon with occasional rocky hills.  One splendid and strange building had a central pillar capped by a platform which was joined by four walkways to the corners of the room.  The pillar was massively ornamented like a chandelier.  It was a wonderful folly.  Other notable elements were a human-sized playing board and a fountain garden with a central area.  Another small canopy had marble struts which made Bernini look staid.

Only one thing marred the overall effect of all this: the unremitting redness of the stone.  The characteristic red sandstone became oppressive.  In this country Chester cathedral is rather too much of a good thing; here it was a hundred times worse.  In a way it suited the heat and the sun.  Above all, it did partly explain why the Taj Mahal is such a shining impactful masterpiece: its whiteness is like a balm to sore, reddened eyes.

1986 India II: Kashmir
1986 India III: Jaipur, Udaipur

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