A Quick Tour of IndiaPrint
Taking it all in, and taking it all back
By Phillip Lopate
March 17, 2017
After the wedding in Mumbai, which I wrote about in my last blog post, we had five days to see other parts of India before our flight home. Five days is a ridiculously puny amount of time to explore India. Knowing in advance that we could only scratch the surface, we elected to visit some of the obvious tourist sites, Agra, Jaipur, and Udaipur, and to do it in maximum comfort, in stark contrast to the way Cheryl and I had been traveling all our lives. Essentially, we bought a package deal from a tourist agency that would book us into fancy hotels at a reduced price and see to it that we had guides and drivers throughout. You might say we swallowed our bohemian independent explorer pride and embraced the role of fat cat American tourists. My knowledge of Hindi (or any of the other 300 languages spoken on the subcontinent) being nonexistent, I saw no choice but to submit to the well-worn guided-tour circuit preceded by countless others, which has its advantages as well as its clichés.
So we saw the Taj Mahal, rode an elephant up to the Amber Fort in Jaipur, stayed in the legendary Lake Palace Hotel in Jaipur (built on a manmade lake, where parts of Octopussy, one of the lesser Bond movies, was shot, we were told repeatedly), wandered through dense hectic bazaars avoiding head-on collisions from motorcycles every second, ate glorious expensive spicy meals, and did not drink the water.
En route, we passed through villages and roadside markets lined by tin shacks, where cows, pigs, camels, monkeys, and peacocks were set loose to find some dinner from garbage-strewn mounds. Cheryl was dismayed by what appeared to be ubiquitous poverty; I chose to take it in as a colorful or at least expected spectacle, knowing there was nothing I could do about it. And in any case, it seemed presumptuous to assume that the people we were passing at 50 miles an hour were all miserable.
Our first stop was Agra, a rather sad, rundown city that has little to boast about except for being the home of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. Hence, it’s being promoted heavily for tourism. What can I say about the Taj Mahal? It really is ethereally beautiful. I feel like Richard Nixon responding (is this an apocryphal story?), “The Great Wall is—a great wall.” Shimmering white in the morning sunlight, it sits there like a spaceship from a more exquisite planet than ours: you half expect it to levitate. The closer you get to it, the more you see the fabulous inlaid calligraphy, the jeweled ornamentation, the crystal-sparkled translucent marble. Inside the dome, there are the symbolic caskets of Shah Jahan and his beloved third wife (their bodies are actually below in an off-limits crypt). The guide is happy to fill you in on the story: how she bore Shah Jahan 13 children, and expired on the 13th delivery, but not before extracting a promise from him that he would build a monument to their great love. Getting knocked up 13 times does not strike me as the most protectively loving treatment, but perhaps I am being culturally narrow. In any case, he set about ordering the construction, which took 20,000 laborers 17 years to complete. When it was finished, one of his sons deposed him and placed him under house arrest, to stop him from constructing an identical, mirroring structure in black, which would have bankrupted the country. A sensible move, to my mind.
We also visited the fort, placed up on a hilltop for defensive purposes. Made of large sandstone blocks smeared with dark swirls like a suite of Franz Kline paintings, the palace within the fort is, in its way, as architecturally impressive as the Taj Mahal. We were to encounter this combination of fort and palace several more times on our tour, in Jaipur and Fatehpur Sikri. Imposing as such structures are, I always get depressed going through palaces, with their impossibly high-ceilinged rooms, sparse furnishings, and chilly stony atmosphere. I can’t imagine daily life in them being much fun. It seems unbalanced that the only material remnants we have of various civilizations turn out to be the living quarters of kings and queens. True, all these palatial forts have undergone so much reconstruction that it’s impossible to tell what has been preserved from the original architecture and what is modern, conjectural. The fusion of Hindu and Moghul architectural styles, however, clearly produced a legacy of a very high order. Gazing at it, I thought about Louis Kahn, whose splendid biography by Wendy Lesser I’d just read, and his reverence for this sort of traditional, noble monumental façade, which so influenced his own architecture. (Franz Kline, Louis Kahn: I kept trying to connect the strange Indian visual vocabulary I was encountering to something more Western-familiar.)
We had a total of five guides, and they ran the gamut from melancholy educated son of an archeologist to nervous-rabbit young man who rattled his spiel robotically to wise middle-aged veteran with a twinkle in his eye who knew enough English even to laugh at my jokes. The liveliest guide, the only who was Muslim, found out I was a writer, then kept begging me to put him in a book so he could get more customers. I would if I could remember his name. He was also the only one who shared my mistrust of Prime Minister Modi, a Hindu nationalist and leader of the ruling BJP party.
Complexities of caste, class, religion, and political affiliation swarmed around me and I could do nothing more than reach out for glimmers of understanding as they zoomed by. All dissonances were heightened if somehow euphorically harmonized in the markets, those lengthy narrow streets teeming with vendors, cars and cyclists, barefoot monks and nuns, chai shops and temples, with the occasional monkeys gibbering overhead. Here the only requirement was to look sharp.
The guides steered us to their recommended retail establishments, which aroused our suspicions, though often these places turned out to have superb merchandise. We spent far too much on carpets, jewelry, saris, shawls, dhotis, and gifts for family and friends. But that’s what happens when you fall in love with a country: you want to bring it all back home with you.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.