Saturday, May 26th, 2007

We’ve eaten Indian for years but we quickly establish some favorites in Delhi: stuffed tomato, palak paneer, vegetable pakora, vegetable korma. Biryani, fried rice, goes with anything. Garlic naan is a staple. Kheer, rice pudding, for dessert. Lemon sodas morning, noon, twice in the afternoon, and night. Everywhere in India the budget set menu is called a thali and in the first four weeks we don’t have a bad one.

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In Agra we visit the Taj Mahal, our third potential Wonder of the World (after the Sydney Opera House — yeah, right — and Angkor Wat). We watch the morning sun shine off the white mausoleum and its marble spires, dancing on the black Koran script adorning the high, smooth walls. The closer you get to the Taj the less white it becomes, the less uniform, until all the disparate shapes and shades of color – blue, grey, pink, yellow, green – leap out. Closer still and the semiprecious inlay of varicolored flowers emerges. Malachite, jasper, amber, turquoise. Geometry and gold and silver filigree cover the remaining uncovered spaces. Carven flowers and fleurs-de-lis leap out. Spouts for water runoff cover the structure like spines, though the mausoleum itself, reportedly, leaks. Inside, the echo of voices and chanting reverberates off the cupola in a yellow half-light: whispers loud as shouts channeled through the delicate marble jali screens. We wander in the gardens, the charbaghs, and sit on benches in the shade of small trees. Later we cross the river and gaze at the Taj from the far side, the only tourists at that early afternoon hour to enjoy the tranquility of the orchard in the Mehtab Bagh. We visit other sites, the Baby Taj, Itimad-ud-Daulah, the Agra Fort, and the crumbling Chini-ka-Rauza, where we speak at length with the caretaker, a small man in white who sits on the doorstep in the quiet shade, waiting for the few daily visitors. He shows us the remnants of his charge, the tomb of a poet and high official in the court of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj: cracked, crumbled, blue tile fading, frescoes dim: a far cry from its more famous neighbor. But surrounding it, a beautiful green garden free of wasps and flies, garlanded with yellow flowers, and a small beach of white sand on the banks of the Yamuna River. A herd of water buffalo lounges in the shadow of the Chini-ka-Rauza, part of the peaceful indolence that fills the air.

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Later, wandering around “downtown” Agra I lose my watch. Got that watch in the Laramie Wal-Mart for ten bucks. It served me well for more than six months.

I put quotes around the word “downtown” because no part of Agra resembles any place to which I have ever before applied that definition. Nor does most of India for that matter. A place called Shanti Lodge in downtown Agra — really just a fortunately wide intersection of labyrinthine alleys — has terrific rooftop views of the Taj and we spend a late afternoon watching the warm orange light play on the white face of the mausoleum. Mostly though we watch the monkeys play in a neighbor’s rooftop water tank. Some just come for a mouthful but one miscreant decides he needs a bath, followed by an extended soak. This provides much amusement for our rooftop full of tourists. The proprietor of Shanti notes the monkeys with a laugh. “Are they trouble monkeys?” Lisa asks. “Trouble monkeys, oh yes. O yes.” Monkeys are in force here and they sometimes chew through power lines – one of many sources of India’s famed regular blackouts – and they are famous thieves. They have been known to cause havoc by swarming railway platforms en masse, as we see later during our four-hour delay in leaving Agra.

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The plundered walls of the Chini-ka-Rauza; the Itimad-ud-Daulah, or Baby Taj; looking out from the Baby Taj

The monkeys so far have let us be. They crowd the far side of the train platform but don’t seem to be the reason for the long delay in the arrival of the westbound train. When we finally get on the train, we cram ourselves into two stuffy upper bunks for a short six-hour jaunt to Jaipur, a very large city of some two millions, out in the desert of Rajasthan.

In Jaipur we see the Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal, the Jantar Mantar Observatory, the City Palace, a few streets of the vast bazaars. Occasionally we ask people to explain what we are seeing but mostly we just wander, winging it. Jaipur has a wonderful energy. The monkeys here have a pinched, emaciated look. It is dry, there is no water anywhere, no fountains, nothing but the desert lapping the city limits, swallowing the surrounding farmsteads. We move around at night to avoid the daytime heat. I buy a new watch for about $2.

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Hawa Mahal; elephant and rider at Amer Fort

hessephoto.jpgPerhaps after the longing for experience, man’s greatest longing is for forgetfulness.

The greatest threat to our world and its peace comes from those who want war, who prepare for it, and who, by holding out vague promises of a future peace or by instilling fear of foreign aggression, try to make us accomplices to their plans.

Paradise does not make itself known as paradise until we are driven out of it.

The more sharply and unswervingly we pursue a thesis, the more irresistibly it will call for its antithesis.

— Herman Hesse