The People Around the Taj Mahal

The iconic shot of the Taj…
…and the crowd shooting it.

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE TAJ MAHAL AND AGRA FORT there is a quiet little town—quiet by Indian standards—and somewhere therein live quiet people, normal people, people not out to get your money or impress you with Mughal legends but rather who are interested in speaking to you. These are friendly people, too polite to be easily found, and to meet them requires you spend time in Agra beyond the Taj.

We found a hotel in the dully named Tourist Complex Area, a neighbourhood as overpriced as anywhere on the subcontinent. But it helps to make friends. We met Vijay, an auto-rickshaw driver, 45, with specks of white in his grizzle and a large orange dot between his eyes. He is a chickpea and mustard farmer somewhere five hours north of Agra, but only goes home once every month or two. He promised us a good homemade breakfast, which he delivered: the surprisingly quaint Garden Park Restaurant, which is really just the gated yard of a small family with several friendly dogs.

The father behind the Garden Park was a cook at a five-star hotel until incoming management pissed him off, which is when Vijay convinced him to open his own place with his wife. They brought our table out into the wide and empty lawn in the chilled 8 a.m. air, and spent a half-hour cooking a real breakfast, fried nuggets of cottage cheese and paratha with fresh curds. (We returned that night for what is advertised as a cooking class, but which was in fact just the wife cooking while we stood awkwardly in the dim kitchen swatting mosquitoes and trying to follow her recipe, wherein every voluminous amount was ambiguously measured as “little”—”Little water, little salt, little flour.”)

Vijay was, of course, after our money, too, but was at least incredibly polite about it. We over-tipped him in the morning, under-tipped him in the evening, and paid him well after a full second day spent browsing shops for children’s gifts. He first brought us to a friend’s clothing store where a man tried desperately to sell us four pairs of pants.

“Sweets, they eat and they’re gone. These will last forever.”

“Until they grow up,” I said. “I was just thinking of a small toy.”

“Toys break! Pants never break.”

We left the shop empty-handed and found, instead, a local petha specialty store, loaded with colorful desserts of sweet pumpkin, coconut and saffron that are unique to Agra. We bought a box and expected to be driven back to our hotel, but Vijay looked pensive. He asked what time our train left. I told him 7 o’clock.

“Good,” he said. “You have time. Let’s have chai.”

He had already proven to know his way around the city (when I explained how we were charged 60 rupees each for crappy street food, he hid us in his tuk-tuk and secretly brought us a massive 40-rupee dish of naan with sliced onions and three types of curries), so we trusted his judgment in chai stands. We picked up a friend of his, a scholarly looking man, slender and dressed in tan pants and an oversized shirt, with thick spectacles magnifying his gentle eyes. As we sipped our milky teas, we listened to him complain about the obnoxious wealthy tourists they deal with.

“Rich people, they no like poor people.” He gestured to himself. “They no want to talk to people. You no talk to people, how can you learn? You talk to people, you learn culture, you learn language.”

We finished by 4. Vijay said we still had time, and drove us down the street to a shabby looking placed with large green font: MUGHAL CARPET COMPANY. Agra is renowned for its carpets, a remnant of its days as a capital under Persian influence. We had no desire or money or even homes to buy carpets, but he insisted, “Just look. You don’t have to buy.”

I’ve always wondered if companies make carpets with machines and turn on the hand-weaving show for tourists, but Mughal’s owner, Adil, smiled and confirmed that they did not. His English was the best of anyone’s we met in India; he spoke quickly and fluently, moving from one topic to another, justifying his employees’ work ethic as their love of the art and unrolling for us many intricate Indian designs. Adil himself inherited the company from his father, who took it over from his father, and so on; but he doesn’t want to give it to his kids. “There’s no justice in this work,” he said, shaking his head. Instead, he wants to devote himself to his Islamic faith and become a “physical and spiritual healer”, which I did not understand nor did I ask him to explain for fear that he would. He believes in energies and a kind of karma, that good work will be rewarded—for instance, a finely-made artistic carpet.

Vijay dropped us off at Agra Cantonment Station, and asked us again what time our train left. “You have time,” he said, and gestured to his ride. “Chai, chai.” We politely declined his offer, knowing too well how nightmarish Indian rail stations can be. Instead I promised to keep in touch, and handed him my business card. He looked down at it, looked back at me and smiled. “Will you remember me, then?”

I told him I would, and felt a pang of guilt and sadness that we had ever under-tipped him and that we could not do more to help him. It seemed wrong that he had to stay in this country while we were free to come and go, that we were young and he was old, and he would only grow older here, in this city of transcient affluence, from mighty Moghuls to snooty Europeans, and I had not even a photograph of his face—only the fading memory of his bristled beard and the wrinkles under that big orange dot.

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