Creative non-fiction / November 2009 (Issue 9)

A Night at the Taj

by Iain S. Baird

The sun has yet to rise as we walk through the ancient arched stone gateway and into the shadowy garden. There, ahead in the soft, pink glow of this pre-dawn October morning looms the Taj Mahal, still shrouded in the retreating night's mist. My wife Ann and I are touring India with our friends, Maralyn and Bob. We've traveled more than eight thousand miles from our home in New Orleans and across ten and a half time zones. But for me, the journey is even longer. I've traveled through time; it's been half a century since I last stood on this ground.

We have the place almost to ourselves, but the noise of a tour group disembarking from its bus outside the main gate signals that our privacy will be short lived. We use our precious minutes to watch the sun brighten and change the complexion of the minarets and the dome from pink to vermillion to ochre to saffron to gold to silver and finally to a dazzling white. The last time I was here those many years ago was at night, and the scene was monochromatic, the only variations caused by the few stray clouds moving across the face of the full moon. It was 1960 and I was fifteen years old.

As the noisy tour group bursts into the garden followed by more visitors swarming through the gate, we explore the monument while wending our way between smiling tourists taking each other's photos and fending off the eager young men who have appeared from nowhere clamoring to be our day's guide.

"Sir, sir? One minute, please. Where are you coming from? I shall be your guide, today. Not to worry. You give me whatever you want. I am the best guide here."

"Sir, sir? The Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan began construction of this magnificent edifice in memory of his beloved Mumtaz Mahal in 1631. Please, one moment."

"Sir, sir? Your visit will not be complete without my assistance. Did you know it took twenty-two years to finish and over 20,000 artisan from around the world?"

"Sir, sir?"

While I'm sure that the guides' spiels would be instructive, the truth is that I have come to see two things not in any tour book. The first is now before me. As the people around me remove their shoes and ascend the white marble square before the mausoleum, they look up to marvel at the dome and the minarets, their white marble walls inlaid so exactingly with red, green and black semi-precious stones. I look down and kneel. There scratched into the marble step is the flaw. It is two adjacent circles, each smaller than a fist and bisected by parallel lines. Another dotted line runs perpendicular, connecting the two circles. The image is gouged into the stone, and I trace its coarseness by running my fingers over its fading surface. In all the surrounding unworldly perfection of the Taj Mahal, here is the imperfect mark of man, a stonemason's benchmark chiseled into the marble base to assist in orienting the construction that was to follow.

My father spotted this mark a half a century earlier on his first visit to the site. He designed a bookplate from its image and even had the mark inscribed onto a silver ring that he wore as a talisman. When I went through his papers three years later after his death, I found doodles of the benchmark in the margins of documents and on stray bits of paper. What was it about this mark that so mesmerized him? Like us all, my father was imperfect, and during his abbreviated life, he died at fifty-four, my father dealt with various demons. I think there was something comforting for him in finding that even on sacred ground, where man had strived for perfection, a flaw was unavoidable and survived through the centuries to remind us that no one or no thing is perfect.

Now, as the crowd at the Taj divides around me, I press my hand against the ancient mark one last time and feel a tap on my shoulder. I look up to see a Japanese couple gesturing to their camera. I smile and rise and position them as best I can among the crowd so that their heads and shoulders will be framed by the dome. They bow their thanks and move off into the crowd. Now, I need to find the second place on my personal quest. I head toward the garden.

I step off the path and over to a corner of lawn shielded from the walkway by shoulder high bushes. Here it is. Here is where I spent the night in 1960. The grass seems less lush than I remember, but all of northern India has been experiencing a drought. I toe the dry earth with my shoe then decide to lie down.

As I stretch out, I hear a loud metallic crash from somewhere outside the walls and the muted din of angry voices. Another traffic accident. We have driven over to Agra from Delhi in a rented car with driver to begin our three-week road tour of Rajasthan. Our driver, Bilhu, is perfect. He's twenty-three years old with a new baby daughter—the combination makes him young enough to deal aggressively with Indian traffic yet cautious enough to keep us from getting killed—a fine line indeed.

As we observed the mayhem of India's highways, with overturned lorries dotting the roadside and every manner of conveyance from taxis to bullock carts to tour buses to horse tongas to bicycles to handcarts to motor scooters carrying whole families, all in combat for a share of the narrow, cluttered and pothole ridden pavement, I couldn't believe that here was where I first learned to drive. But the roads and cities have changed. Delhi, with a population of two million when I lived there, now has grown to over ten million. The air, once fragrant with jasmine and smoldering evening fires, where chapattis fried and curries warmed, is now choked with auto exhaust and the unfiltered output of hundreds of chemical and industrial plants. The roadways are still littered, but where once the litter was organic and recycled by roaming dogs and pigs, now it is plastic. Water bottles and white shopping bags cover the countryside, even in the remotest areas. When we stop for a rest and to eat some mangoes and samosas along the road from Delhi to Agra, we collect the plastic utensils, containers, and white bags to throw away later at our hotel. Bilhu looks on, amused. "Just throw it away. It's a big country." We put the trash in the back of the car as he shakes his head.

My trip from Delhi to Agra in 1960 was by train. The September morning of our departure was hot. Not the blistering heat of the summer when the temperatures soar past the one hundred degree mark shimmering the air, but hot enough. The monsoon season had just ended and the humidity had dropped a few degrees. My American friend Van and I got our tickets and waited for the platform gates to open. Van was seventeen, two years older than I. Where I was tall, Van was short. Where I was fair, he was dark. Where I was hesitant, he was outgoing, with an easy smile that soon won new friends. He was from California and told everyone he had been born in Hollywood. I never found out if this was true, but, in movie-crazed India, a Hollywood pedigree got him lots of attention.

When the gate for the Delhi-Agra Express opened at 7:15 that morning, Van and I surged forward with the waiting throng to battle for the rare seats in the third class compartment our limited budget permitted. The more experienced travelers knew what to do. Some bypassed what they knew would be crowded and overheated compartments and climbed up the ladders at the ends of the railway cars to make the journey on the roof of the train. This was more excitement than we desired. We were well familiar with the reports of people falling off the train roofs when they become overcrowded or when the train unexpectedly braked or swerved a bit too fast. About once a year there was also a story of a train taking a detour on a new track and racing under a low overpass that swept the roof clean of all riders. No, we headed for the compartment. But even here, the more experienced riders outsmarted us, foregoing the doors and diving through open windows to secure more advantageous seats. By the time we elbowed our way on board, the only space available was on the grimy floor by the open compartment door. The advantage of this location was that we would be able to enjoy the breeze from the open doorway. The disadvantage was that our space was only a few feet away from the toilet, and every time someone went in, we were forced to scrunch up our legs while extending our heads out the train's door, to avoid the stench released through the toilet's entrance. In those days, the toilet consisted of a hole in the floor and nothing more. Accuracy was impeded by the swaying of the train, to which the badly soiled floor attested.

As the steam locomotive slammed into the waiting cars and lurched forward, a Sadhu, an itinerant Hindu holy man, raced across the platform and extended his arm for an assist to board the moving train. I reached out and grabbed his hand and he tumbled across us as the train pulled out of the station. Nodding and smiling, he settled in next to us on the floor with his back against the latrine, apparently untroubled by the fumes or inconvenienced by the need to shift his weight every few minutes to let another passenger into to the foul chamber. He said something in Hindi and laughed. I smiled back, having no idea what he was saying. My Hindi was confined to the few phrases necessary to make periodic purchases or to get myself fed or home.

He sat cross-legged and his bony brown knees protruded from his dusty orange robes. He had a scraggly beard and his hair was long and matted. A white and red mark was smeared across his forehead. His teeth were bright white, though a bit crooked, and his eyes were glazed but sparkling. I'd heard that some Sadhus will eat a krait, a small and very deadly viper smoked over a fire and wrapped in a chapatti, nibbling it from tail to head, ingesting the deadly venom gradually to get ever closer to a state of Nirvana. But, perhaps, our Sadhu was only exhausted from his dash to catch the train.

Leaving Delhi behind and entering the open plains of Uttar Pradesh, the train hurled along, jostling us from side to side, the wind from the open door blowing our hair and cooling us down. The sky was clear and glorious. Van reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cheap, unfiltered Panama cigarettes. My folks didn't know I smoked so I still confined my smoking to times when I was out of their view. As we lit up, the Sadhu gestured that he would appreciate a cigarette. He acknowledged the cigarette with a slight "Namaste" and a smile and proceeded to smoke it in the Indian fashion by making a fist and placing the cigarette between his middle and ring finger. He drew in the smoke deeply through the hollow of his fist. It was sort of like sucking on a hookah. He smoked the cigarette down to its last inch, put the smoldering butt into his mouth, chewed it up and swallowed. We flicked our butts out the doorway and tried to get comfortable on the hard, swaying floor.

Now, five decades later, the bare ground of the Taj's garden troubles my back and I sit up. A couple walks by me on the path. The man is in dark trousers and a white shirt. The woman wears an emerald sari trimmed with gold thread. She glides across the walkway, herding her two small children. The man glances at me then quickly away. Something in my appearance sitting on the hard ground of the garden appears to startle him, and he hurries his family farther down the path. These days we're all a bit more jittery. Things in India, as elsewhere in the world, are less easy going. From the tight security at the airport when we arrived, to nervous hotel clerks, to police with submachine guns, to my own watchfulness and caution, there is an anxiety in the air that I don't remember from my youth. But these are different times.

Twenty years ago, in 1984, in response to fears of attacks from Sikh separatists and other terrorists, the Indian Government closed the Taj to night viewing. This was a great loss as seeing the Taj Mahal by moonlight is one of the few true wonders of the world. We'd learn a month after our return to the States that the Indian Supreme Court had ruled that the gardens could be opened for five nights a month at the time of the full moon. But even then, viewers will be restricted to forty every half hour and confined to a platform erected more than one thousand feet from the Taj itself. Several hundred security forces will patrol the grounds, and additional metal detectors and check points will be set up. A no-fly zone will be imposed over the whole area.

Back in 1960, things were decidedly more lax, especially for white males. India had been independent from British rule for only ten years, and the personal relationships between the new free Indians and their former colonial masters was still being worked out. In those days, European males were routinely referred to as "Sahib." While in the company of my father, who was British, I was often referred to as the "Chota Sahib" or "Little Sahib," a term I decidedly did not care for, but when on my own, I'd often get the full Sahib treatment, which was a different matter altogether.

While there were disadvantages to being an Anglo in India in those days, being stared at and followed constantly, the total lack of privacy, sometimes being heckled by ultra-nationalists, always being quoted prices several times the going rate and being the target for touts of all persuasions, there were decided advantages as well. With the exception of certain holy places, everyone just assumed that you had a right to be where you were. For example, when greeting my father's flights at the airport, I would look straight ahead and walk purposefully through Customs and past Immigration and Health Inspectors right out to the tarmac. No one ever tried to stop me. When I showed up at restaurants, tables miraculously appeared. In queues, I was often ushered to the front of the line. This might have had something to do with money or just typical Indian hospitality, but you had the impression more was at work—some kind of undeserved deference. This was my first experience with unearned privilege. Getting benefits not for whom you were but for what you were. Of course, over the years, I'd see lots of examples of this phenomenon among celebrities, politicians, blue bloods, and the wealthy. But this was my first direct encounter with the experience, and I confess I liked it. It was really about power, seductive at any age but especially so for a young teenager. I don't think I was ever rude, but this treatment encouraged an assurance to which I soon became accustomed. I gained an attitude that, when coupled with normal adolescent impulsiveness, led me to try to get away with an awful lot.

It was with this arrogant attitude that Van and I exited the train in Agra in 1960 and began our tour of the city. We explored Agra's Red Fort, a poor second cousin to the one in Delhi, and took a bus over to Fatehpur Sikri to see the mosque and ghost city built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great in 1571 and then abandoned mysteriously after only fourteen years. Some claim from a lack of water. Others think it was because of disease. Still others blame it on court politics.

Returning to Agra in the early evening, we found a stall selling dhal roti (lentils and bread) and a thin vegetable curry with rice, all for a couple of rupees or about forty cents. We finished our meal and walked over to the gates of the Taj. We had planned our visit so that we would get there an hour before the gates closed, in time to see the full moon rise over the timeless mausoleum. It was a mild night in late September, and we explored the shrine and the gardens in silence, struck by the peace and quiet in such sharp contrast to the bustling city just outside the gates. As it came time to leave, we found ourselves in a corner of the garden protected from view by a four or five foot hedge. The grass was thick and still warm from the day's earlier light.

"Why don't we just sleep here tonight?" Van asked.

"Here? You mean at the Taj?"

"Yeah. We don't have any other place to stay. It's warm. The grass is soft. We can save a few rupees. We'll leave in the morning and catch the train back to Delhi. It'll be fun."

"They'll never let us stay here."

"Shit, everything is so loosey-goosey. We had to wake up the ticket taker when we came in. He's probably sound asleep again. They don't know whether we're still here or not."

With that, we heard someone calling out from the vicinity of the gate. "I think maybe they know we're still here," I said.

"Well, so what?" said Van. "They've got to find us in the dark and we're pretty well hidden behind these bushes. If they find us, we'll just tell them we didn't realize that the place closed and that all we were doing was watching the Taj in the moonlight. That's what everyone talks about, right? The Taj in the moonlight. What's the worst that can happen?

So that's what we did—slept the night at the Taj Mahal. Periodically, during the night, I got up to watch the shrine as the moon moved across the sky until replaced by a sky full of stars. I could hear the sounds of the city in the distance, but they were only a faint din overpowered by the rustling of the leaves stirred by the night breezes and by the chirping of crickets and other insects. Though it hadn't rained, the air smelled clean, perhaps freshened by the cool water in the Taj's many reflecting pools. Finally, birds began to sing and dogs barked in the distance. A pink glow emerged in the east, and the air became pungent with smoke from early morning breakfast fires brewing tea and warming chapattis. Van and I arose to watch the sun rise over the mausoleum.

The night's interrupted sleep didn't bother me, and we showed no ill effects from resting on the ground. Sleeping under the stars had a bracing effect, and we were hungry and raring to go, but caution dictated that we delay our departure a bit until the morning's visitors arrived and gave us some cover. We kept out of sight until the gates opened and the tour groups filtered into the garden and climbed the steps to the Taj itself. We mingled in with these early visitors and, after what we thought was a suitable period, made our way to the exit.

As we crossed the threshold, an angry guard dressed in khaki and carrying a brass-tipped lathi, a bamboo riot stick, stormed out of an office, yelling at us in Hindi. It looked like someone had noticed us after all. He was furious and spittle flew from his betel nut stained mouth as he became more agitated. We feigned ignorance, shrugging our shoulders and telling him we didn't understand. He pointed at us and then at the ground indicating that we were to stay while he found someone in authority who could bridge the language barrier. When he stepped back into his office, Van and I looked at each other, nodded, and made a mad dash down the street away from the Taj. We heard yelling but didn't look back as we turned the corner. We ran another block before slowing down and mixing in with the morning shoppers. A few more detours up and down side streets and we began to relax. Then, we were laughing. People walking alongside us on the street smiled.

"What would they have done to us?" I asked.

"Who knows?" Van said. "Probably yelled a lot. Maybe called our parents. At worst, our folks might have had to come down and spread around a little baksheesh."

"Jesus. My father would have killed me."

But Van was probably right. That likely would have been the extent of it in those years so far removed from the destruction of the Twin Towers, the assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the bombings of the Bali night clubs, the Madrid train, and the London Underground, or the locking of the gates to the Taj at night.

Now, once again at the Taj, so many years later, I stand up in my former garden bedroom and dust off my trousers. I knew that returning to India after so many years would bring back many memories. But, as I climb back up on the path, I'm shaken by the intensity of these recollections. As the taste of Proust's petite Madeleine transported Swann, my hand tracing the imperfect mark etched into the cool marble of the Taj has opened up a rush of memories a half century old, when a young boy was lifted from the increasingly mean streets of New York and dropped into the chowks and margs of India.

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