When you return home from overseas you relax, gradually settling back into your home comforts. This resetting is just taking hold when, before we know it, we’re back at Heathrow. After a stopover in Helsinki and a second leg mostly spent kipping, we find ourselves sitting on the swanky metro to New Delhi station for the 10.55am train to Agra.
By way of welcome, India extends one of those over-excited handshakes that means well but crushes your knuckles and nearly shakes your shoulder out of its socket. Building works on the station platform, the long trudge across endless overpasses under heavy backpacks beneath blazing mid-morning sun. Hawkers everywhere trying to sell things I’ve no interest in then, typically, when I decide to buy an Agatha Cristie from a book stand the seller is nowhere to be seen.
Glad you’re back, guys, we missed you over here.
ZigZag hostel in Agra is run by two brothers, John and Moses, who between them are two of the friendliest people I’ve met. Moses especially seems to spend every waking minute trying to make the people around him happier, frequently returning from the market laden with fruit that he shares out among he hostel guests. Having both worked for major hotel chains they opened their own place back in November, and are nailing it. We feel very lucky to have found such a great place to stay so early in its existence.
From the hostel rooftop the main dome of the Taj Mahal is visible between two apartment blocks. In the evening, after dumping our things and showering off a journey that began in Surrey about twenty four hours ago, we join John and a few other guests on a bike ride down to the river for a closer look. We sit in the shade of an arched pavilion, drink in the view and take photos. Or at least, we try to.
The trouble is that a pair of Instagrammers, with a local dogsbody-cum-photographer in tow, have beaten us here. Politely but insistently, they ask anyone who gets between their tripod-mounted camera and the plush view of the Taj to move. Much of our evening is spent watching them assume a variety of clichéd poses, as people who are big on social media do when confronted with one of the seven wonders of the world. They perform: Gazing Adoringly at One Another; Woman Leans Backwards Supported Tenderly by Man; and Sitting, Looking Into Middle Distance Wistfully. Between shots they look miserable.
The view is great though. You probably know the one I mean, with the river on the right and the back of the Taj on the left. It’s very pretty and deservedly gets a lot of mileage. What you never see in the photos is the enormous pile of rubbish that cakes the riverbank and surrounds our pretty little pavilion. Indestructible plastic is dotted through decades’ worth of more degradable refuse that have solidified into stratified layers. A murder of crows pecks at the body of a dead cow. It is heartbreakingly typical of India that you can stand in one spot, look in one direction and see the world’s generally-accepted most beautiful building and, in the other, sprawling landfill.
I snooze and snooze through the 5am alarm, leaving myself just a few minutes to throw on clothes and join the rest of the crew from the hostel to trudge into the darkness. A bit of a queue forms outside the entrance to the Taj Mahal compound, but once the doors open it moves through ticketing and security quickly. Minutes after daybreak, we step inside.
The view from the front, classic and iconic, is marvellous. This early in the morning it’s neither too hot nor too crowded; there are lots of people here, but the grounds that contain them are enormous. Rebecca and I gleefully take a few pictures of each other and the others from ZigZag. Then, we overhear a familiar voice.
“There’s too many people here. How are we supposed to take pictures? I want to go over there.”
Our Instagrammer friend from last night is haranguing her dogsbody, who spreads his hands helplessly and explains that visitors are not allowed beyond the barriers. Her partner – boyfriend? fiancé? husband? colleague? – who skipped past me on the way in earlier via the separate queue for Indians, looks embarrassed. And miserable.
“But I saw people in there! I saw the pictures!” Judging by where she’s pointing I genuinely think she means those of Princess Diana.
Eventually we head inside to see the mausoleum itself. This might be the prettiest part of the whole thing, but because there’s no photography allowed you never see it. A marble path leads towards a square plinth, surrounded by incredibly intricate marble latticework that obscures the view inside. Through an archway one marble sarcophagus is clearly visible, and to the left another, slightly raised, can be seen through the lattice. At the time I wonder which of these houses Shah Jahan and which his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, though later Googling shows that these sarcophagi are representative; the graves themselves are underground.
After soaking up the vibes of the Taj Mahal gardens, we walk with Greg, a laid-back driving instructor from Sydney, towards Agra Fort. In its way, this is more varyingly photogenic than the Taj. From no angle is it as beautiful or majestic, but its size and multifunctionality give it a much broader range of moods, from the austere brutality of its outer walls to the subtle details on much of the royal, residential parts of the citadel.
It was in these shaded marble hallways that Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal as well as much of Agra fort, was imprisoned until death by his son Aurangzeb. It’s a strange thought that these few small rooms were a man’s entire world for the last eight years of his life; a man who had ruled an empire and built a Wonder.
The Taj itself is visible from the fort (and vice versa), but is shrouded in thick smog. Greg helpfully points out that walking around India has the equivalent impact on your lungs to smoking twenty cigarettes a day. Glad I quit.
Moses and John are Goan by descent, and their family name is Rozario, though they have links to Kolkata. I find this interesting as my uncle is from Kolkata but his last name is De Silva, so I’ve always wondered if he has Goan ancestry. When I ask Moses about the links between Goa and Kolkata and explain my uncle’s surname he reminisces about the village fishing quotas while he was growing up: “First thing in the morning the de Sousas would fish, 4am-5am, then 5am-6am the Rozarios, then the De Silvas…”
Like my uncle the Rozarios are Catholic, and through their church are friends with Steffi, who lives in Agra with her mother. An English graduate and primary school teacher, Steffi also gives cooking classes, so Moses arranges for Rebecca and I to visit.
We’re greeted with lassi and cold water in a front room whose décor reminds me of Kerala. Indian Catholicism has a distinct look and feel to it. Compared to Protestantism, Catholicism is famously more visually gaudy and this lends itself to the colour and imagery that typifies Hindu temples and homes. Of India’s c. 24 million Christians, over 11 million are Latin Catholics, making it by far the largest denomination of Christians in India. This strikes me as odd in a nation that was part of the British Empire at a time when Britain was emphatically C. of E., and I can’t help but wonder if Catholicism – with its litany of saints, its vibrant colours and affinity for shrines and sculptures – historically found it easier than drab Protestantism to win converts from Hinduism.
The two colourful religions side by side look more like distant cousins than total strangers. Driving through Kerala, a bright Hindu temple with a statue of Ganesh would often be passed in close succession by a bright Catholic church with a statue of Mary. Often an icon on the wall requires a second look to tell if it depicts a Hindu god or a Christian saint. Steffi’s front room is decorated with images of Jesus and Mary, and a calendar from the local diocese.
After ensuring we’re fully refreshed Steffi takes us through to the outdoor kitchen, where we make paneer subzi, black lentil and kidney bean dal and a batch of rotis and parathas. Then we eat it. It’s hard to know if we’re praising Steffi or ourselves when we say it’s excellent, but it is. We natter with Steffi over lunch. She asks if we’re going to Rajasthan during our stay.
“They have all sorts of rituals there,” she tells us, “for making sure mothers give birth to boys, not girls. You have this in Britain?”
Unsure exactly which bit of what she’s just said “this” refers to, but confident we can rule it all out, we shake our heads.
“It’s different in India,” she says wistfully. “Here, people don’t want to give birth to girls. Girls are expensive, with dowries…” she trails off, looking thoughtful. We’ve established already that her family are arranging her marriage to a Bangalorean for next year, and when it happens she will have to move to the South to live with him. She doesn’t give the impression this is exactly how she would have it, if the decision were hers.
After taking our order, the waitress dims the lights and puts a video on the screen on the opposite wall. The café, Sheroes Hangout, is run by a charity that supports women who have been subjected to acid attacks. It provides them with employment – the staff are mostly acid attack survivors – and profits go towards the charity which, as well as supporting women in finding work and regaining their confidence, lobbies for enhanced legal protections (in the form of more severe punishments for offenders, and restrictions on the sale of acid) and raises awareness of the issue.
During the fifteen minute film a few of the survivors recount their stories and explain how the charity has helped them. It’s harrowing to hear first-hand accounts of attacks from cousins, husbands, mothers, and in one instance total strangers. One woman faces the camera and describes graphically the horror she felt as she watched her skin dripping onto the floor, after being attacked by a disgruntled customer at work. Another explains that her in-laws pressured her husband to throw acid at her after she gave birth to two daughters and no sons. Especially after our conversation with Steffi yesterday this hits home with sickening force.
I wrote a first draft of this post that tried to find some positivity in all of this, portraying the Sheroes campaign’s work in restoring the life chances and confidence of these women as another example of the light-besides-darkness nature of Indian life. My editor (Rebecca) rightly tore it to shreds. For all the good work Sheroes does, there’s no bright side to what these women have been through.
We’re reflective as we trudge back towards our hostel, along a dirty, busy main road. This is exactly how I pictured India before coming: thick crushes of auto-rickshaws, motorbikes and mopeds weave like flocks of starlings round idling cows and piles of rubbish. It hits me that every film crew that visits India comes to Agra for a shot of the Taj, so this grubby high road through town is the same they’ll go to for their image of the “real”, everyday life of the country. Film and, especially, TV have conditioned us to picture all of India as like this dusty stretch of highway.
There are men pissing all along the side of the road. Men can urinate quite publicly in India without fear of reprisal, or even raised eyebrows. Women, by contrast, across much of the country before and since Modi’s Swachh Bharat (“Clean India”) campaign, face the real danger of rape as they leave the security of homes with no toilets to defecate in fields.
Shopkeepers are almost exclusively male. Same for hoteliers, tour guides, taxi drivers, and every other profession we come into contact with on a day-to-day basis. Our conversation with Steffi yesterday was one of a tiny handful of opportunities we’ve had, in more than two months in the country, to talk openly with an Indian woman.
India has a shocking amount of ground to cover in gender equality. In 2017 the country ranked 127th out of 160 countries in the UN’s Gender Inequality Index. It isn’t a huge stretch to say that women here are second-class citizens. The law is catching up, but pervasive and highly misogynistic attitudes die hard.
Last night, over a mango Moses brought us from the market – our first of the season – Rebecca and I booked ourselves onto today’s 11.30pm night bus to Varanasi.
When it arrives and we board, there’s nothing to do but burst out laughing. Our berths for the night are a shared, coffin-like space too short for either of us to lie down with our legs straight, into which our backpacks and day bags are stuffed. We get ourselves as comfortable as possible, limbs arranged awkwardly around our possessions, and between frequent blasts of the driver’s ear-splitting novelty horn grab what fitful bouts of sleep we can on the road to Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city.