“Magnificent, isn’t it?”
It was no surprise to Harry that others came to this place to see this unique sight, but he was deeply disappointed that others had come right now. He did not want to share this moment, it was his and his alone, he’d put in so much effort to get here. He had taken two flights lasting eight hours each, with a tedious four-hour stopover in between. He had waited almost a year – since the moment he’d first heard about it at the Society – to make this trip. He’d spent months scraping the cash for the trip together, eating bread and peanut butter for most of two weeks when the flights suddenly started to get more expensive. He’d made it through, and here he was, in Agra, India, for what would probably be the most profound experience of his life. He wanted to savor this moment, without distraction.
Harry mumbled a barely audible “uh-huh” in response.
“Truly magnificent. It is a sight like no other,” the man beside him continued in pristine Oxford English, and a distinct Indian accent. “I have traveled two full days for this occasion. And it was most certainly worth it.”
“Indeed,” Harry answered after a few seconds of inner fuming, with a tone any Londoner would recognize as meaning ‘leave me the fuck alone.’
The man, who was not from London but from Alappuzha, continued undeterred. “Indeed, indeed, good sir. It is astounding. Not only for it’s beauty, but also for it’s story. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Something about the man’s words registered as being off with Harry, but he was too annoyed to give it much thought. While the man continued to prattle his opinion, he’d also moved closer and invaded Harry’s personal space. Harry replied with another “uh-huh,” putting as much venom in it as he could (and his British heritage allowed).
The man, who was from India and had never heard of the concept of personal space, continued undeterred. “It is something every man must see at least once in his lifetime. I have heard speak of it all my life, and now I am finally here.” The man paused, overcome with emotion. “And now that I am seeing it with my own eyes, I am in awe. I believe it is man’s greatest architectural achievement. I feel unworthy to approach it.”
The man’s completely irrelevant and illogical comment distracted Harry from focused observation. Harry cast a quick sideways glance at the man, the Indian wasn’t even looking at the Funambulus Palmarum Noctis perched on the side of the tree.
Shockingly, no. The man’s eyes were focused at something in the distance, something hidden from Harry’s sight by the tree. He tore his eyes away from the majestic squirrel hugging the tree bark – the rarest species of squirrel in the world – and stepped two paces further away from the tree so he could look around it. Deathly afraid the Funambulus P. Noctis would bolt, they were the slowest, most controlled paces he ever took.
He glanced around the tree.
In the distance stood a white building with a big dome on top. There were a couple of other, smaller domes on the roof also. Around it stood four pillars. A decorative design surrounded a large alcove which Harry assumed housed the front door. There were a lot of alcoves on the outside of the building, Harry now saw. Or maybe that’s not what the shapes where called. Harry didn’t know much about architecture, and not much was actually nothing at all. He supposed the building looked kind of beautiful. If you were into that kind of thing.
Harry resumed his study of the Noctis. It had moved a few inches down the tree, nose pointing to the ground, slightly curved tail flat against the bark. It truly was a magnificent species. Harry felt tears of joy well up in his eyes at the sight of it.
The man, who had not even noticed the Funambulus P. Noctis, continued undeterred. “Such exquisite design. Such detail. Such astounding vision.”
“Yeah, it looks kind of nice.” Harry said, his words fading as his attention was grabbed by the Noctis turning around and speeding up the side of the tree, and onto a low branch. He moved a few steps further away from the tree, so he could observe it better.
The man remained silent. Which at first delighted Harry, but as the silence dragged on, it started to feel oppressive. Harry risked another quick glance at the man. The man, a short, rotund Indian with venerable manner had not moved from his previous position and was staring at Harry with what he could only describe as a look of extreme dismay. Their eyes locked, and the man spoke again.
“Nice,” the man said, with a tone that implied that things were as far removed from nice as they could be.
“Nice,” the man said again, with harsher, louder tone.
“Nice!” the man repeated. The sudden violence in the man’s voice reminded Harry of the time – the only time – long ago when his father had slapped him. His head drew back involuntarily.
“Uhm. Yeah. It’s nice,” Harry stammered, “It’s one of those muslimy thingies right, a Muskee or something?”
Impossibly, the man was able to look even more shocked. His eyes seemed in danger of popping out of their sockets.
“A thing-y! This?
“This is the greatest testament to love ever created in the history of mankind. Close to four hundred years it has stood here, in honor of Shah Jahan’s soulmate. It is one of the great wonders of the world. For centuries, people have crossed the globe to gaze upon its magnificence. There is nothing like it on this earth. This? This is the Taj Mahal, you ignorant lout.”
Harry took a step backward, as if he had indeed been slapped. “oh, it’s very—” He tried to come up with suitable praise, but all his mind could come up with was “—nice.”
The man inhaled, deep and loud, puffing himself up, getting ready to pelt Harry with his words.
“It took twenty thousand artisans, eleven years and fifty-three billion rupees to build this mausoleum. It houses the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the Shah’s favorite wife. They fell in love at fifteen and waited through five long years of engagement until the date the astrologers considered most fortuitous for a happy marriage. Their great love inspired the King of the World to be the most competent ruler in Mughal history. His reign was the golden age. Mumtaz died young, after giving birth to their fourteenth child, leaving the Shah paralyzed with grief. The Taj is her tomb, a sacred monument to her and their eternal love. It is an inspiration to us all.”
Harry considered this. Something stood out to him. “His favorite wife you say? How many did he have?”
“Three others,” the man said, as if this was inconsequential.
“Four wives, eh. Doesn’t sound like true love to me.”
The man regarded Harry in stupefied silence for long, stretched-out seconds. His features turned from shock to anger. “You sir, are a Soower ke Bachche.” The man pivoted, made a showing of turning his back to Harry, and walked away. After a few paces he stopped, turned his head and spoke once more: “No sir, you are even lesser than a Soower ke Bachche. I would curse your offspring, were we not on these blessed grounds.”
He spat the words at Harry, like a Neotamias Umbrinus spits out seeds when caught pilfering.
Harry watched the man stomp away. He felt somewhat unclean. He assumed a Sower’s Babchee was not something very friendly. He glanced at this supposedly world-famous Majal place, shrugged, and returned his gaze to the tree branch.
The majestic Noctis was no longer there. The huffy Indian’s loud drivel had driven it into hiding.
Harry’s heart sank. He let out an anguished sob. THE moment, ruined. Lost because of some stupid person drawn to some stupid building some stupid people built stupid centuries ago. How could a stack of bricks ever compare to the sublime beauty of the Tamias genus?
Please come back, he willed the Noctis. He stood by the tree and willed the entire afternoon and evening away.
The Noctis refused to show itself again. Harry returned to his hotel defeated. He lay awake deep into the night. Finally fallen asleep, he tossed and turned during the few hours that remained until the dawn.
The first rays of light woke him. Tired, but spurred on by renewed hope of seeing the Noctis, he jumped out of bed and rushed back to the tree. He waited by the tree all day, foregoing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And water after the first hour, when he started to feel a pressure on his bladder. He waited, and waited, and waited, but the Noctis did not return that day.
Or the next day, or the one after that. Or the two days after that.
Harry was supposed to fly back home the next morning. He lay awake the whole night this time, debating whether to miss his flight. He couldn’t afford it, and he’d get fired. But…. the Noctis….
The sun rose, and Harry rose shortly after. He wanted nothing more in life than to stay in Agra one more day and spot the Noctis, but he couldn’t. He packed his suitcase, checked out, and made his way to the airport. He felt empty. Defeated.
He boarded the plane to New Delhi, and there, he boarded the plane back to London. The flight took ten hours. Harry did not move from, or in, his chair the entire time. He was paralyzed by heart-break. Back home, as he closed the front door behind him, and knew for certain the tremendous loss of never being able to see the Noctis again, he thought back on the words of the crazed Indian man, and he understood completely how this grieving Shah person must have felt.
My own story of Agra
Have you ever seen or visited something that everyone’s ecstatic about, and when you see you’re like “Uhm, what’s the fuss all about?” This happens to me quite often, and also happened when I visited Agra. The Taj Mahal is famed the world over and is considered a must-visit for anyone going to India. Every foreigner I’ve ever spoken to who’s seen it called it very impressive. Every Indian I’ve ever spoken to speaks even more highly of it. I’ve seen people crushed by my words of disappointment about one of the (new) seven wonders of the world.
I didn’t come near Agra during my first visit to India, so I felt I should put it on the itinerary for my second visit. Like any place in India, getting there is a Journey (yes, with capital J). A long train ride to get there, and an even longer train ride to get out of there. All in all, a three-day trip just to see the Taj Mahal.
I entered the grounds among the day’s horde of tourists. And once I lay eyes on the Taj Mahal, I was seriously unimpressed. The building did not move me at all. Though I did find the stories and myths behind the Taj interesting. And I saw a cool-looking squirrel on a tree.