Curtains of fog cloaked the ancient city of Agra at the crack of dawn one morning in early January. A fog so thick that walking through it felt like ferreting through a bucket of whipped cream. Despite the hindrance it posed to daily lives, the streets had already begun whirring into action. Store shutters were noisily rolled up by bedraggled shopkeepers, boys and girls with bands of oil-slicked hair stuck to their heads restlessly waited for school buses and milkmen donning snug balaclavas and sweaters pedaled their way through routes where dozens of families waited for them to ladle fresh milk into their milk-pots.
Amidst all of this, troops of red-faced monkeys casually went about their business, scouring rooftops for Food, picking ticks off each other or simply watching their human descendants crank start a brand new workday. Dragging their coiled tails behind them, these dusty brown creatures ambled from one roof to the next with a confident air of being very much at home in the city. Had they been fashionable enough to dress up in a ‘conical hat and red jacket’ ensemble, they would have quite easily passed off as over-sized replicas of Abu the monkey from Aladdin. Even so, thanks to them and the vaulted exteriors of aging constructions, the city wore an esoteric, ‘Arabian Nights’ glow.
Negotiating a maze of arterial alleys, choked with piles of garbage and rows of houses stacked cheek to jowl; we made our way to the hallowed site of Mumtaz Mahal’s final resting place, the grandeur of which has earned it a place on the list of the Seven Wonders of the World. On our final mile, the congestion suddenly disappeared as the confined lane gave way to a wide cemented road. It appeared as though recovering from a bout of population and pollution induced flu, the city had finally blown its nose clean and was now taking a deep, refreshing breath. The russet walls of the Red Fort ran alongside, directing us to the parking lot at the monument’s doorstep which turned out to be a colourful mosaic of cars with hilariously corny bumper stickers (Gussa nahi, Pyaar chahiye), scooters with shiny tassels on their handles, flamboyantly decorated albeit malodorous camels with equally jazzed up carts hitched to their backs and battery operated rickshaws that looked like three-legged mules.
Like an apparition, the Taj Mahal rose from the grip of a cloud of fog that, instead of thinning, seemed to be getting denser by each passing hour. In the vicinity, a quintessential coterie of pale, light eyed foreigners clutching ‘Lonely Planet’ guide books and hi-tech cameras were fighting a losing battle to deter a pack of touts that had hungrily descended upon them. Steering clear of the smooth talking salesmen and the harried bunch, I slipped on the gauzy shoe covers that are required to be worn over footwear before entering the mausoleum and walked into the Marble monolith. This wasn’t my first time at the Taj, yet it’s intricately carved and delicately filigreed features did not fail to enthrall me. Even though it is a mausoleum that is said to signify the angst of a bereft husband over the death of his beloved wife, the pulchritude of the Taj was sufficient to shoo away any lugubriousness that the story threatened to bring about.
Shah Jehan’s second love – that for the cool confines of marble structures, seems to have rubbed onto Agra dwellers over centuries. Treated as a mark of prosperity, slabs of marble are still used extensively as building material here. If not the whole house, at least the floors in most houses are made of either the original mottled white marble or its fancier coloured variants. In the form of a small Marble Elephant with a lapis lazuli flower inlaid on its rump, a piece of this obsession made its way into my luggage as well.
As it turned out, the poker-faced camels that welcomed us at the Taj weren’t meant to be the last animals to greet us that day. Our foray into the behemothic Agra Fort began with sighting a jalapeno coloured parrot with a bright red beak, lounging blithely in a slight nook in the wall while amusing itself by posing like a diva for the tourist cameras. The ease with which animals blend into public spaces in India has always tickled me. For instance, it is completely natural for traffic to come to a standstill as a cow parks herself in the middle of the road, lazily chewing her afternoon cud. Similarly, a horse trotting languidly next to a car on the main road is not a sight that will make the driver do a double take before succumbing to a stroke. Herds of goats making their way back to their barns at the end of a long day seem to commiserate in loud bleats with their human counterparts who share the same back alleys on their way home. It is thus a country where livestock is not confined to the countryside; it has equal rights to enjoy the glitter and glamour of city life as well.
Examples of enterprising Indians conjuring opportunities out of thin air can be seen in abundance at sites like the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. At the gates of the Agra Fort, my ears pricked up as the sound of a flurry of excited German commentary mouthed by a puny Indian lad with a shock of disheveled hair drifted by. Upon closer inspection I found that he was a tourist guide who made a living by showing German tourists around. The fact that he spoke their language made even the oft stingy Germans loosen their purse strings instantly. Later, as I explored the fort, I found Russian, Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese speaking tourist guides too, seeking those who preferred listening to the enchanting tales of history in their own dialects. These tales mostly sounded authentic and got a thumbs-up from Google but they were also laced with a handful of fabricated figments, sprinkled on to add a pinch of drama.
Then there were those selling a deluge of articles on mobile carts. Cut from the same cloth as their ‘tourist-guide’ cousins, these hawkers were difficult to shake off as they attached themselves inextricably by our side while trying to convince us that theirs was the best deal in town and that ignoring them was a grave folly that would come to haunt us later. Quick to deduce the needs of their prospective clientele, their wares were a motley collection of plastic souvenirs, memory sticks for cameras, suspiciously flimsy plastic bottles with muddy ‘mineral water’, feeble key chains, tacky fridge magnets, pencil torches, picture postcards and a variety of quick bites packaged in transparent cellophane paper.
One of the most crucial messengers of love in India is food. Aaloo kachoris fried to a golden crisp, flaky bajre ke (pearl millet) paranthe ready to be dunked in flavourful curries, syrupy jalebis fried in skillets of bubbling hot shudh gheeand stuffed paranthas fresh off the stove with a blob of homemade butter melting atop into a rich pool of creamy indulgence – they all carry calorie laden tidings of deep rooted affection. The best season to partake of this largesse is the winter as our perennial love for food seems to peak just as the first winter chills start seeping into our houses. Luckily, I found myself quite in time for it. With each day starting with a steaming cup of sugary tea spiked alternately with black pepper and ginger and ending with a generous helping of flaming red gaajar halwa, I was in food paradise.
A few added inches to my waistline, a satiated tongue, a trumpeting marble elephant, a picture book brimming with stories and an undying urge to visit again are souvenirs from my days in Agra. They remind me of a city that is slowly but surely making its way into my heart.