Agra Without The Taj Mahal

29 January 2013

From the rooftop restaurant of the hotel, and all the others, monkeys played and fought on the window sills and pipes of the apartment buildings. Just to the left was the Taj Mahal, but only a quarter of it. Below the monkeys, Indian life went on as normal–honking and idle sitting and spitting.

So Agra is the town where the Taj Mahal is, and of lesser fame, Agra Fort. I didn’t have enough time the day I arrived to see either, so I went walking around old town where all the tourists and locals all co-exist. Actually you wouldn’t really know that from the number of stares I got from the children playing badminton and tip. That said, the cows lounging in the courtyard weren’t interested in the slightest. It was quiet around here. The sound of bare feet or sandals sliding against the dusty paved ground made the place feel typical of a place I don’t know at all.

Later I met Asif, who is a tour guide for the Taj. He meets poeple outside then meets again with them inside. How can he afford to do this, I gestured; a ticket costs 750 rupees for just one entry. He smiled at me and he knew something I didn’t know: just 20 rupees for an Indian. Even at the western gate where I met Asif, there’s nothing really so chaotic going on. There were just lots and lots of Indians sitting down doing nothing at all except speaking to their friends or colleagues or whatever. The other group of Indians were squatting and chipping away endlessly at red rock, forming a fine grid texture so it looks nice against the original materials of the other palaces. All were young men. But then, so was I… doing nothing, sitting down, and with a red dusty arse to prove it. I had been there for hours, so I organised to meet Asif later and walked to the park.

It didn’t look much like a park from the outside, and a few times touts would try to to tell me that it was closed. Why would they do that? I would ask if a park was here, then they would say yes, but it’s closed. Some would try and get me to go to a different park. Why would I go there when it was just twenty paces through the gate in front of us?

Through the broken metal wire, inside the park, there were lots of monkeys. They easily outnumbered the people two to one. Some schoolchildren saw I was out of place and came to say hello. They couldn’t say too much more though, apart from where they were from (Two from Agra, one from Assam–Assam! What is he doing so far away from home?!). It didn’t stop us playing–no, just mildly interacting–with the monkeys until one opened its mouth wide. It showed us its huge teeth and made this amazing hissing sound. We couldn’t play with them anymore, so they showed me some big trees in the park. They had names, and they were trying hard to explain something about their names. They couldn’t so we stood smiling for a while, a little dumbfounded still at the mannerisms of each other. They young one got a tennis ball out, and we played catch and ‘high ball’ (catch, but throw the ball as high as you can). They looked young, but threw the ball damn hard and fast. The boy from Assam would do a forwards handspring and then have the ball in his hands when he was back on his feet. Amazing for such a young kid, but maybe they weren’t that young. Malnutrition can make them look young, and also I may have just forgotten what I looked like at that age.

I had to go back to Asif so said goodbye. Walking back to the Taj gate, I heard some small quick footsteps behind me. I turned around and there were two of the boys standing there smiling and panting a little; they had run the couple hundred metres to catch up to me.

Asif wanted to see a movie, and he persuaded me that even though there weren’t any subtitles, I could understand because it would be 50/50 Hindi/English. I didn’t believe him, said I did, and paid for his ticket because he couldn’t afford the 150 rupee ticket (less than $3). I thought back to the kids at the park and just couldn’t make any sense of any of it.

We went in a rickshaw and there were six of us inside. Two koreans, and a very very cramped driver. His elbow was ramming into my leg which didn’t help my balance, which was especially needed since I was hanging out the side already. The Koreans unknowingly paid for our real Indian price rickshaw fare, and I thought back to the kids at the park again. Asif badgered me to ask the Koreans to come see the movie. I did, but they said together, as if in synchrony that they didn’t want to.

Good and bad for them that they didn’t end up experiencing the sequel to the hit Bollywood film Race: Race 2.

It was an action film for guys, but this is for Indian guys, I kept reminding myself. It was unbelievably tacky. Bollywood has just discovered slow-mo cameras so they love watching the skin and muscle ripple as someone is punched. The girl falls for the guy for absolutely no reason, but you never see them kiss, because it’s taboo.

The female Indian actors don’t wear bikinis, but the white extras (obviously from Eastern Europe somewhere) do. Of course they randomly broke out in song and had hordes of people doing amazing funny moves. There was even a damn intermission after two hours.

Outside I explained to Asif what I understood so far. The only English is at the beginning or end of some sentences: ‘yes, I like it a lot’ or ‘are you up for it?’ (that’s how the girl told the guy she wanted to sleep wit him!). Apparently I understood a lot, but luckily it’s through the acting and shooting being so animated that it’s like watching a silent film.

The pinnacle of this action extravaganza was when they were in the plane, falling hopelessly to their death. Their best friends and brother turned enemies had escaped. The plane kept falling. A door burst open and a convertible broke through and also started plummeting. I have no idea how the gar hot in this private jet, or why, then, suddenly, it activated its parachutes–six of them. The cinema went wild, cheering and gasping as they floated down to safety.

The film ended after three hours.

Back in the hotel, I lay in my bed with no mattress, in a room that barely even fit this little wooden frame. I lay there thinking about why this happened in the day-trip town that is famous for the Taj Mahal, and thought that I should go see that tomorrow.

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