I remember getting out of the van, seeing the Agra Fort over there, across that muddy moat with the little trickle of muddy water meandering in the muddy streambed. The Fort looked like some sandcastle that thousands of little sun bathers, sometime, way back in the long dream of this timeless land, had dug out of the river basin, with thousands of little sand shovels and sand pails. And time and the sun had hardened it, compacted it, made it dense and strong.
And, then, maybe that’s when the Muslims came and used their skills, the skills that came from watching the stars and the moon, and from learning about the magic of numbers, to carve those palaces and mosques, and dungeons from those mounds of sand. And the thousands of dark, strangely serene people sprang up from the sandy soil all around it, and lived out their lives, and then laid down and melted back into the sand, and then rose back up again, like the tide of an impotent sea: impotent because the walls of the Red Fort withstood the ceaseless ebb and flow all around it.
The men wore loose cotton shirts, and sandals, and baggy cotton trousers tied close around their waists. And the women wore brightly colored shifts and saris. And they were all so dark that when they smiled you were taken by how white their teeth were. Or when their eyes widened, you saw only the whites, and the dark features around them were obscured, and you were startled by the limpid whiteness, and you stroked your chin and turned your thoughts inward.
But I just couldn’t take my eyes from across that bridge that spanned the muddy moat with the little trickle of muddy water meandering in the muddy stream bed. Beyond it was the Gate. The vast arch that led into the opulent fortress the Muslim kings used to guard their marbled jewel that lay across the river. The Gate, with its iron-wrought portcullis that could drop right down, like a set of jagged incisors, slicing through everything, shutting off the view of the soft parts of the throat, shutting that glimpse of pillowed bedrooms, and innately carved walls with semi-precious stones set into the depictions of peacocks and flowers. And it was strange to think that these were the same people, through some convoluted lineage, through some infinitely complex maze of genealogy, that had built the Alhambra, half a world away, in the dry and friendly hills of Iberia.
And then, just a glance across the river, across the vista, past the women threshing clothes in the muddy, meandering river with children running about their feet, to that white marble jewel with four domed towers set about a domed building, and... no, it can’t be marble. It can’t all be marble, and, surely, if I look closer I’ll see the ruse. No, it can’t be the way it seems from here, standing on the bridge that spans the muddy moat with the little trickle of muddy water. It’s something else, some vision, something someone dreamed about somewhere. And it shines, or shimmers, or somehow defies you to accept it, because, well, we’ve all heard the name, we all know about the mosque that Emperor Shah Jahan had built for his wife, for the mother of his fourteen children, because he loved her and he could afford it. But the photos and the name, Taj Mahal…that’s not it. Those couldn’t possibly be representations of this thing, this vision that I’m seeing over there, across the muddy, meandering river with the women threshing their clothes and the children running around their feet.
But then, just as I was squinting, trying to discern clearly whether or not it was real, or some ethereal phantasm, there was scraping and scratching, down near my feet, where I was standing on the bridge that spanned the muddy stream bed with the trickle of muddy water.
“Here they come,” said Edward. He was a lawyer for an oil company, out of Singapore. And he knew what that made him in my eyes. But somehow, on this long bumpy ride down from Delhi, we had got past all that, and even exchanged some jokes and travel stories. And he was always glancing down at his cell phone, tapping in text messages to his wife, back in Singapore.
And then I looked down, and there they were: more of the dark people, but these were somehow incomplete: they pulled themselves along with their arms, and they had twisted, gnarly clubs instead of legs, and humps instead of backs, but they still had those limpid whites set in the dark faces, and then, when they got up next to you, they stretched out a hand, and the dark pools inside the whites turned up at you, and you felt fear and revulsion and shame and…but no, no. Don't face that now; better to wait until you’re back at the hotel room, in the dark, after the Sikh has come to turn down your bed and brought you an evening aperitif, and you have turned off the television and the darkness has come down whether you wanted it to or not. No, go back to that vision, over there, beyond the meandering river, go back to Shah Jahan and the love he had for his wife, and how these brown people that grew up all around the Red Fort had achieved tolerance, and openness, and acceptance, and how it all came down to that, even for these poor creatures dragging themselves through the dirt to beg for a rupee.
And Edward was a corporate lawyer, but he was still a human being, and we looked at each other, standing there on the bridge that spanned the muddy stream bed and we each saw the other’s jaw stiffen as our eyes met: me, clutching my camera and trying not to think about it, and he, finger poised over the keypad of his cell phone, where he had been tap-tap-tapping out a message to his wife, back in Singapore, and we…said…nothing. Nothing. We said nothing.
Our guide, an old Hindu man who could speak English as well as Hindi, and who made a pretty good living taking rubes like Edward and me to carpet shops and clothing stores, where he received his kickback from the salesmen after they had plundered our credit cards, stepped out of the van, brushed past the twisted forms at his feet, took each of us by the elbow, and shepherded us toward the gate. “The Agra Fort was built by Hindus, sometime before 1080,” he began...