Is it wrong to say that visiting the Taj Mahal isn’t all that great? I mean it’s alright but I didn’t have the transcending and life-changing experience that Gogol had in the “The Namesake” when he took his first glance of the elaborate detailing of the monument. This summer, I travelled through North India for my first time and before I saw the storied marble edifice, I sat stiff in the tour bus, congealed with excitement for an experience not too different from Gogol’s. Perhaps that expectation was unnecessarily high and maybe, I was only setting myself up for disappointment but at least that renowned tomb should have seized my emotions – the aesthetics and the mausoleum’s backstory should have, at the starkest of bare minimums, watered and fed my romanticism. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
My trip to North India consisted of a four day tour. On the first day, I got to hop from one tourist destination to another in Delhi, on the second day I wandered around the palaces and forts of Jaipur and Amer, and then on the third, I finally found myself standing in front of the Taj Mahal. It started raining torrentially before I made my way into the tomb so I spent an hour staring at it from the shelter of the Masjid. Although I don’t know much about Mughal architecture, the scene in front of me was gorgeous. But apart from my thinking at that moment, “Wow, it looks really pretty,” I failed to feel anything emotionally profound. I did feel a semblance of tranquility at that moment though – maybe it had to do with the solidity and the quiet but strong white curve of the dome amidst dark, churning storm clouds and the fierce rain. Maybe I underestimate the importance of this sense of peacefulness, but to the extent to which my emotions meant something meaningful, I left the mausoleum unsatisfied.
Somehow, the visit to the Taj Mahal was somewhat more enjoyable than the other sites I toured during the trip. A quick disclaimer here: I love to travel. But while I walked through the red sandstone ruins of Fatehpur Sikri and found my image reflected endlessly by the tiny mirrors that comprehensively cover the walls of the Sheesh Mahal in Amer Fort, I was more concerned about finding scarce oases of shade or checking the time to see how long it would be until my next respite at a dhaba or, even better, the hotel. So I know that I resemble the consummate nightmarish tourist but the reader must understand that those storied royal structures underwhelmed me, not due to a lack of, but despite my desire to see and try new things.
As evidence of this important distinction, I’ll share those moments that I actually found meaningful: watching schoolchildren frolic on the sprawling front yard of Nehru’s former residence, Teen Murti Bhavan, observing the toothy and cheerful old woman who cleaned the restrooms of a roadside dhaba enthusiastically ask a NRI tourist from London about her hometown and the ways of English life, listening to a middle-aged, lower middle-class tour guide who cultivated his English by giving tours ever since he was a young boy (and, by the way, his command of English was better than some native English speakers’), seeing a thin Indian farmer giving a tourist a fast ride down the highway early in the morning on his old TVS moped, and waving “hi” to a cheery conductor maneuvering a faraway freight train running parallel to the tour bus (I swear I could see the white of his smile). There were, as well, not as lovely moments but ones that I will remember nonetheless: being pursued by desperate street side hawkers of imitation marble sculptures and being harangued by young child “poets” and postcard-sellers who tried to woo tourists over with jokes and smart-alecky lines – children who often return from their peddling with paltry gains and disintegrating hopes for an education or comfortable life.
The word “tourist” has such an unfortunate rap. Consensus dictates that tourists are people with a castrated understanding of the world and are unaware of the lives of real people and oblivious to the real workings of the society they are sightsee. Perhaps “tourist” is so shamefully defined because it far too often is linked to ancient, rotting ruins or perfectly preserved masterpieces and not to those modest moments that truly speak of the nature of a society. My trip taught me a lot more by way of those humble, often-forgotten instances than through any of those other sites on the overrun “Golden Triangle” tourist circuit.
I saw people desperately trying to save themselves from the closing cave of poverty in addition to seeing those who have emerged victorious with ample prospects ahead of them for an improved life. Among Indian natives, I witnessed a new sense of cosmopolitan wonder and unity with those of different races and nationalities. Most saliently, I experienced the joy of witnessing the amiability and happiness of certain people who have many a great reason to be otherwise. I saw all this, and it was a lot more spectacular than the Taj Mahal.
A Real Tour
November 30, 2012
Consensus dictates that tourists are people with a castrated understanding of the world and are unaware of the lives of real people.