Not long after, I found myself back in India for a week and in Delhi for the weekend. My traveling companion and I had been invited by a local business associate to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra with him and his wife. My eagerness to finally have an opportunity to see this treasure was quickly tempered when he said it “would only be a four drive each way”. I suggested that he was very kind but wouldn’t it be easier on him if I were to buy train or even airplane tickets for us all. “Goodness no, I do it all the time. It’s very, very easy. Yes, indeed”, he answered.
This time it WAS four hours and for the most part it was four-lane divided highway. I say for the most part because at various points we would find traffic coming at us on our side of the road, this the only indication that the other side had been closed for some invisible repairs and traffic had been diverted to our side somewhere up ahead.
The capital city-state of Delhi is bounded by states of Haryana on the north, west and south and Uttar Pradesh on the east. After leaving the unbelievable congestion of Delhi and neighboring Faridibad behind we entered the flat farmland of Uttar Pradesh that was only given a third dimension by the smoking stacks of rural brick kilns and local village crematoriums. We were never out of sight of at least one stack of some type. The fields looked of only marginally better soil than we had seen in Bihar but in fact a bumper crop of wheat had just been brought in. Each plot had several circular storage bins made from bound wheat stalks with more straw thatched into a roof to keep the unlikely rain off the grain inside. Vermin and birds steadily reduced the pile while the farmers waited for a better price than the one currently dictated by the season’s high yield. Inching along the roads were large flat bed carts with high corner poles and a frame around the top. An immense, open-top, fabric bag was suspended from the frame and when filled with wheat straw, as these were, drooped over all four sides nearly to the ground looking for all the world like giant dirty marshmallows in a microwave oven. Tractors, horses, water buffalo, camels and gangs of men and boys were pulling them. Some went to brick kilns to be burned as fuel but I have no idea where the rest were going.
There were many small family farm dwellings along both sides of the road some overlapping into small villages. In front of each were neat stacks of buffalo dung. In the city we had seen women mixing dung that had been carted in with straw and shaping it by hand into thick dinner plate sized patties to be stuck to any available surface until the sun had baked it dry enough to be used as fuel in cook stoves. But here in the country the hand shaped dung was stacked to form a pile about the size of a small garden shed complete with pitched roof. Alternating layers of uniform dung patties gave the sides of the sheds geometric patterns that seemed to vary from village to village. Perhaps the careful storage reflects the high value placed on its use as a fertilizer because commercial fertilizer is so expensive.
We passed a broad roadside ditch with about twenty water buffalo being allowed a break from the brutal noon sun. No part of their body was showing, only the long flat profile of their forehead from nostrils to eyes lying on the surface of the muddy water looking like a group of crocodiles.
In the country even more than in Delhi every woman and girl wore a sari of brightly colored cloth. Riding singularly or in groups on the backs of muddy tractors and buffalo carts they stood out like neon lights against the uniformly dusty background. When they weren’t on a cart they were walking along or across the highway with equal oblivion to the traffic danger as trucks swerved around the slow moving straw carts. Ajay, our friend and driver frequently drove long distances through central India and the Punjab for his business and was clearly a skilled and prepared driver. His preparation this day took the form of an ice cooler in the trunk filled with water, juice and beer. Cold beer was a lifesaver as the car’s aircon couldn’t keep up with the 42°C outside but it was unnerving that while quenching his thirst, Ajay had only one hand left for the steering wheel. His wife had started playing western pop tapes when we left Delhi but after a few hours these had been quietly replaced by what I think was Hindi pop. Ajay seemed in good spirits singing along to these with his wife and we thought this important so we tried to enjoy the music, too.
Finally we were in Agra and after winding through impossibly narrow and crowded streets arrived at the gates to the Taj Mahal. Ajay let us out to be thronged by street kids and hawkers while he went to park the car. In an attempt to halt the damage being done to the monument by pollution several factories have been relocated or had scrubbers installed in their stacks and cars can no longer park near the Taj. You can drive all around it with exhausts bellowing but you can’t park there when presumably the engine would be off. Ah,India! The street kids seemed too easily put off with only a promise to buy something from them later. While waiting for Ajay to come back a pushcart vendor stopped to bargain with an old woman over some vegetables. A sacred cow ambled up to steal a carrot and received a swat on the nose with a snake gourd from the vendor. These cows are to be seen wandering everywhere. These same cows produce the milk for commercial dairies and family farms where they are treated with reverence. The problem arises when they are no longer productive as they cannot be killed and no one wants to bear the cost of keeping them. So they are turned loose to wander and stand in the roads and streets all over the country until they die of natural causes. It is commonly said that if your brakes were to fail and you were forced to choose, it would cause you less aggravation to hit an old woman than to hit a cow.
Inside the grounds of the Taj Mahal it was a little more orderly and quiet. The landscaping was poorly kept up and the years of pollution had turned the famous white marble to an off white color. Nevertheless the mausoleum is spectacular. Noisy crowds of local school children detract from a more serious appreciation and the crowded inner chamber gives new meaning to “the great unwashed masses”. Striking by its absence is what was meant to be a black mausoleum similar in design to the Taj Mahal that Shah Jahan meant to build to house his own body. He was deposed and imprisoned by his son before anything other than the foundation was begun. His body was subsequently laid in a larger tomb alongside his beloved Mumtaz Mahal and creates the only point of non-symmetry in the entire complex. Leaving the grounds we were aggressively thronged by the street kids demanding that we remember our promise to buy whatever it was that they had. Arms, bottles and trinkets were still inside the window as we began to accelerate away.
Night came about half way back to Delhi. Every thing and every one we passed was dirty and dusty from the fields and the open road, causing them to virtually disappear in the settling dusk. Only the buses, cars and trucks had lights. All the other vehicles, which were relentlessly still on the road, had no lights and could only be seen about 50 metres ahead. In less than 2 kilometers we saw four accidents that had occurred within a few minutes of our passing. The first was a mangled car and a truck with what must have been a body nearby thrown from one of the vehicles. It is very unsafe to stop at the scene of an accident. Villagers quickly gather and the presumed guilty parties, especially if they are strangers, are often beaten or even killed. The second was a tractor and cart, which was probably carrying a farm family like the others we had seen. Some of the carts had been carrying up to fifteen people perched on the sideboards. This one had been sideswiped by something and the tractor and cart had flipped completely upside down with the cart off the road and partly in a drainage swamp. There had to be multiple fatalities. The two other accidents were another bad car and truck tangle and an overturned wheat stalk cart with its contents spilling out of the burst bag onto the highway. Whatever had been pulling it was no longer visible.
It was dark when we returned through Faridibad but occasionally the night was punctuated with bright lights and colors as we passed several weddings. These were lavish affairs costing small and not so small fortunes to host. One groom was riding a horse in decorated livery; another was in a horse drawn chariot that was lit up like a carnival ride. There were costumed elephants curtseying to the newly wed couples at each of the guest filled hotel courtyards. Whether these were the traditional arranged marriages or not, it is fairly certain that the bride and grooms astrological certificates had been matched. We were to see astrologers later at their street side tables waiting to be called to a birth when the first entry is made in these passports for life. Subsequent entries and analyses are made before examinations, employment interviews, etc. There are few Indians who don’t take this seriously. While not officially sanctioned by the government, a new congress always opens on an astrologically favorable day.
The Jet Airways flight to Mumbai was much more pleasant than one on either of the two older national airlines. But to get to the plane you have to endure the chaotic gauntlet of an airport first. They are only a little better than a train station. Fighting through the throngs outside while fending off all the boys who insist on carrying your briefcase or polishing your shoes with a brush with no bristles left. After you’ve passed the hectic check in counters and security points you find yourself in a bleak, waiting hall with scruffy snack counters. If your international carrier has a business class lounge, it will be too small to hold more than two dozen people, and those will have to sit cheek by jowl. Water, tea and soft drinks might be available but little else. Finally you board a bus that sits in the stifling humidity waiting for god knows what before finally moving to the loading ramp less than 20 meters away.