Agra, Shit and the Mahal


I'm in awe of the people of Agra. This ancient city is famous for the Mughal palace of Fatehphur Sikri , theTaj Mahal , chemical factories, heavy pollution and is also dripping in raw sewage sandwiched in layers of plastic.

The taxi nosed down the road in the business quarter of Agra dodging black pools of liquid, refuse, street shacks , all the usual , then glittering in the weak light and heat steps out a vision in pale yellow, her sari floating above the sludge. This young girl is laughing and gesticulating with her friends, the three of them pristine. As we bumped past I wondered at them; just how do they do that? They were like fairies fluttering out of a dystopian gloop. Beautiful long plaits of hair draped over lengths of grass green, primrose yellow and white gauzy silver edged gorgeousness, all laughter and light, twinkling against a background of chemical and human effluent.

Our kind but serious Indian guide is tremendously interested in us “Britishers” , he wants to know how much our schooling costs, what are British roads like, do I drive (I haven't seen any women drivers so far). So in the course of the day the questions are reciprocated- he seems more than happy to answer us. When I asked him in about the organisation of basics , like rubbish collection and road building, and the patent absence of this he looked at me with a mixture of bemused puzzlement. I tried again- ' Do Indians demand a level of public services- like drinking water, schooling. If this doesn't happen what do Indians do, make a protest of some sort? ' Our guide, who is an educated man, looks at me with a weary cynicism .' Indians pray to their Gods and they also ask the people in charge to make these changes to our country. But if nothing happens Indians then think that is the way of God. No protest, no right to make demands. ' End of conversation.

Marble against a misty pale blue sky, fountains fizzing, green manicured lawns. We've reached the Taj Mahal, and so has a couple of thousand Indians plus a smattering of westerners. The event feels festive, like a bank holiday, big families, couples, everyone's wearing their best and having their pictures taken. The scale of costumes to gaze at was sumptuous, violently coloured sarees to delicate tinted concoctions, some so dazzlingly sequinned we were blinded in the reflected evening sun. I was hovering in the sidelines watching the crowds with camera poised trying to take clandestine pictures when a visiting group stopped and looked at me quizzically. Much to my surprise they all wanted to take pictures of Paul and I with each taking turn to sit next to us…… Since landing in India I've developed an unsightly red rash from my face downwards plus my face has ballooned so that it looks like chapati …. So I was feeling keenly self conscious and now dozens of people are focused on me with cameras! I grinned and it was over. Our guide told us that this happens as apparently, the Raj is not dead.



Author: Ellen Watson

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