Taj Mahal to West Bengal

This episode comes out of a rural orphanage in West Bengal, written as Kyle and I cringe in fear outside our bedroom, which is infested with giant, yellow wasps (“bolta”, in Bengali). We are sitting on our new ‘bed’ (an unpadded, wooden bench) in this abandoned, dimly-lit wing of the orphanage. However, all this is a story for another day.

Let me begin by sending you a most sincere thank you for your unfailing support through the Dengue disaster. Shortly after Kyle wrote our last update, the hospital sent the relieving news that my white blood cell count was rising, which, along with several days of itchy hands and feet so unbearable I nearly tore my hair out, was a sign that I was healing. I’m now good as new. Thank you for your prayers, jokes, newsy emails, encouragement, and love. It was a tough go, but you made a big difference.

Once I was back on my feet, Kyle and I spent our week wrapping up our time in Delhi with heartfelt goodbyes and speed-tourism.

As I was regaining my strength, we took a trip to the city-centre, gastronomy in mind. We indulged in rich, South Indian coffee, served in a metal cup whose creamy deliciousness overflows into a metal dish. The coffee is poured back and forth between the two dishes until the temperature is just right. We also tried masala paan, a chewable, spittable bundle of juicy flavours – betel nut, coconut, sugar, honey, cinnamon, lye, and other spices – all wrapped up in a green betel leaf and pinned together with a clove. Together, a symphony.

We also enjoyed dinner at the on-campus home of Kyle’s Mizo supervisor, Joy. At first I was put off by angrily chanting protesters outside the staff housing complex, but I came to understand that they were only protesting the firing of a terribly corrupt staff member. India is a strange place. We were joined by two other Mizos who expressed their usual conundrum after learning we will be in Mizoram for up to eight months: “How ever will you survive in Mizoram with our terrible food?!” Then we were served a delicious Mizo meal of which Kyle enjoyed thirds.

Friday was the opportune time to say goodbye to Martha, my Social Sciences student. Kyle and I made the dusty pilgrimage to the school and Martha brought tears to my eyes when she prayed for us in Hindi and gave me a beautiful, hand-drawn card to say thank you. She further amazed me by informing me that I had managed to make geography interesting!ImageThe next day we made up for lost time in Delhi by hiring a jovial driver, Charan Singh, to help us explore the sites. First on our list was the Lotus Temple, a Baha’i house of worship. The temple is architecturally outstanding, with delicate, white petals that fold over each other. Though the temple was built in adherence to the Baha’i faith, it has always been intended as a place of worship for all faiths alike and boasts acceptance of all ages, sexes, and types of people. The interior is kept quiet and could have been the picture of tolerance, apart from the guard angrily gesturing, “Get OUT!” to a mother whose infant child’s cries were breaking the silence.ImageNext, we visited Chandni Chowk, the famous street market of Old Delhi where the alleyways are so narrow and crowded that car traffic is impossible. We took a cycle rickshaw, pulled by a certain Raja, who assured us we could pay him what we like (“One million? Two million?”) but was angry when we offered a fair price. ImageChandni Chowk is an unbelievable sight. The narrow, dirt streets are run down, the leaning buildings are stained brown and black by smog, and a ceiling is created with hanging wires draped from building to building. Though no area in Delhi appears more dilapidated, no area is more full of life. Lanes are lined with shops and wares, and there is a separate lane for competing vendors in everything from tires to books to shoes to car parts to saris to dates, even. Busy people and vehicles fill every bit of empty space, and we even encountered a funeral pyre, covered in blue linen, being marched down the crowded lane, people ducking to avoid it. Raja turned and simply said, “dead body.” ImageImageImagePart of the Chandni Chowk experience is Karim’s Mughlai Cuisine. In India, we are vegetarian unless we are at someone’s home or unless we are at Karim’s. (Vegetarian friends, beware! You may want to skip this paragraph.) Karim’s is almost literally a hole in the wall – a filthy, crumbling wall – which leads to a courtyards surrounded by several, separate dining rooms, all part of the restaurant. Waiters dressed in red compete to take you to their dining room while motorcycles honk and force their way through the courtyard. And the food cannot be matched: mutton qorma so oily we poured off a layer an inch thick before reaching mouth-wateringly delicious curry beneath, loaded with on-the-bone cuts of mutton; tandoori naan, bubbled up and buttery; chicken tikka with roasted onions, tomatoes, and peppers, charred to perfection in a tandoori oven and gone in seconds; tube-shaped mutton shishkebabs perfectly spiced and tender; and chicken biryiani, served with a big piece of succulent chicken on a bed of yellow, spiced, baked rice, topped with a hard-boiled egg. Yes, we ate all of that.

Unlike Karim’s, our experience at Jama Masjid – the ‘must see’ mosque in Delhi – did not live up to its hype. We were greeted by guards who grunted towards a sign that indicated a charge of 300 rupees ($5/£3) to bring in a camera. We protested, telling him we would not be taking photos but, no, the fee was for having a camera – and that includes a camera phone – not using a camera. We refused to even show the guards our camera, but still the belligerent grunting escalated into yelling until we begrudgingly paid up. Feeling annoyed, we took two steps towards the entrance and suddenly a strange man was velcroing onto me a gigantic floral robe to cover my alleged immodesty, despite my care to wear long trousers and cover my shoulders and head. I quickly realized upon entry that only White women were forced to wear these drapes as if being White is inherently immodest. Afterwards, even the red sandstone beauty of Delhi’s Jama Masjid could not compel us to stay long.ImageImage(Ablutions.)

Next up was Hazrat Nizam, the shrine of a Muslim Sufi saint. We arrived in the smoggy dusk and were sucked down a busy, narrow corridor of Muslims holding out to us plates of fragrant pink and white flowers and sticks of incense, urging us onwards. We found ourselves in an unspeakably beautiful courtyard that housed two walled shrines, ornately adorned with gold and mother-of-pearl. Women peered into the shrines through perforated metal walls and tied on red threads as men entered the shrines to scatter petals and lay down colourful, embroidered cloths. People prayed fervently and were overcome by emotion at the spiritual significance of the site.ImageOur day was topped off with a refreshing glass of freshly-pressed sugar cane juice from a street vendor.ImageThe next day, Charan Singh took us on a long drive to Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where, in Charan’s words, “the Taj Mahal is available.” The drive was a long, dust-filled display of urban sprawl and we were frequently slowed by crossing cows and water buffalo. The scenery became increasingly run down as we neared Agra and, during our chance to stretch our legs, I was horrified by what a man, who turned out to be a cobra charmer, was keeping in his basket.

That evening we saw Fatehpur Sikri, a Mughal fort from the 16th century, situated near Agra. It is a fantastic palace decorated with reliefs of mind-boggling detail. It was built by Emperor Akbar (“The Great”), who had three wives – Muslim, Christian, and Hindu – and a palace for each.ImageImageImageImageImage(Looking nerdy and awkward in the Fatepur Sikri mosque.)Image(Delhi smog.)

We stayed in a beautiful guesthouse that night, though most of our evening there consisted of Pizza Hut and mosquito smashing. I’m feeling particularly vindictive towards mosquitoes these days for some reason. The morning greeted us with gigantic, thick aloo parathas and a scolding from the Mrs. of the house when I couldn’t finish mine (“But it’s loaded with butter!”).

With stuffed bellies we chatted with our host’s son, a shockingly cold character despite his ability to give a warm first impression. He showed up red-eyed and tousle-haired, sporting sweatpants and a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. Noticing his mother on the phone, he took a break from boasting to us of his “Mr. Fair” (beauty contest) champion status to question, nonchalantly, “Did my Grandma just die?” Reading his mother’s face, he decided she hadn’t, and then went on to explain to us that his grandmother is sick and old and that his mother should just let her die. He called his perspective “realistic”. Then he went back to describing the diet he is on and ordered his mother to make him some eggs. Learning that we had just arrived from Delhi, he queried whether we had been to any Delhi “discos”. To find we hadn’t was disappointing to him and said that when we go back we need to get a drug called ecstasy and, though expensive, it’s a good time. His mother responded impotently with a disapproving head waggle. Then he launched into the story of his recent marriage fiasco. His arranged marriage took place four months ago and he learned shortly thereafter that his wife was a fraud; she was 36 rather than the claimed 25 and held a highschool degree, not an undergraduate as advertised. He has since been dealing with the courts in order to finalize the first divorce ever in his family, have the bride and her family thrown in jail, and be freed up to marry again in two months. In effect, he had been at a wedding the night before with the purpose of bribing a prominent judge also in attendance. We learned that some judges in India accept bribes to speed the process up in cases where winning is assured. The tale was an unusual indictment of arranged marriages, which seem to be generally very successful in India.ImageA cycle rickshaw took us to the Taj Mahal for sunrise. It is a wonder of the world, indeed! Although the Taj Mahal has become such a common image in the West, I was still impressed beyond my expectations. The perfectly symmetrical, white marble structure is almost luminescent as it changes colour with the changing sky. It is a constant show; when we arrived the stone was soft white in colour, developed pinks and golds as the sun rose and made shadows stark, and reflected gentle, blue tones when the sun was high in the sky. It was stunning. Close proximity revealed intricate patterns, motifs, and scripts inlaid into the marble, tiny piece by tiny piece, using carefully chosen, colourful semi-precious stones that glinted green and gold when they caught the sun. Even the interior was breathtaking and looked like it was shimmering with a shower of flowers.ImageImageImageThe Taj Mahal was followed by a trip to Agra Fort where we found we were suffering, in the words of Kyle’s professor, ‘Fort Fatigue’. Despite the stunning architecture, carved detail, and outstandingly manicured gardens, we were ready to reunite with Delhi.ImageThe drive back was rough and Kyle, full of butter, overheated. We pulled off onto the side of the road just in time for Kyle to lose his parathas outside the car while everyone around watched. That was one hour into our six-hour drive.

Our remaining hours in Delhi were punctuated by farewells. We expressed our gratitude to all-star Dr. Sangeeta who guided me through Dengue Fever and we tearily promised dear Thapa and Surinder that we would come back and see them some day.Image(Sangeeta and I in her clinic.)Image(Thapa, Kyle, me, and Surinder at Chhoti Haveli.)

We sprinted to catch our flight, which departed Delhi a mere three minutes after we sat down, en route to Kolkata. Delhi – such a beautiful, ugly city – had surprised us, strengthened us, tested us, taught us, pleased us, cheated us, and loved us ways we could have never imagined.


One thought on “Taj Mahal to West Bengal

  1. I enjoyed your stories, Lindy, especially the description of Karim’s. We were there in 2009 and saw many of the same places. India is certainly a country of surprises. Hope you enjoy Kolkatta. I look forward to reading more!

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