Daily Archives: May 31, 2009

A moment of silence, please

We hired a car to take use from Agra to Kanpur, where I would be visiting the Indian Institute of Technology doing some work for CReSIS for the next week. I was excited to see the countryside. The train had come too late to the station that all we had seen during our ride were the fluorescent lights of houses and passing cities.

Except, there really is no “middle of nowhere” in India. Some is always selling something or chugging along on their bicycle, carrying impossible loads of everything. Even when cities seem kilometers apart and clearly we are speeding past farmland at 80 mph, shacks line the road. Along the way, it was obvious that the rural isolation of Kansas doesn’t translate here. And I have yet to count beyond 10 in between car horns, even in the countryside.

This part of the highway was called the Grand Trunk, or GT Road. It begins in Pakistan and extends all the way to Calcutta. The government recently renovated this road as a part of its Golden Quadrilateral initiative. Last year, I completed a semester project for my metaphor theory course on this road. Riding on the highway completely edified that all-nighter. The term “commuter village,” which Western media coined to describe mass amounts of people commuting on the highway between cities each day for better work, took a new meaning when a multiple buses crammed full of Indians careening between the roadway lines nearly hit us, or us them.

All the way, we saw women sitting side-saddle on motorcycles behind men. They steady themselves with poised, straight backs and dainty hands placed on the motor in back. They remain motionless even as their hair whips from their golden berets and their drivers weave between everyone. Farther off, in the fields, two or three figures in bright red, pink, blue, move through corn or lounge in the shade of a tree. These solid drops of beauty against the red clay brick masonries, the dull brown of the fields, and the cracked grey buildings appear unexpected but not out of place.

While in Kanpur, we took the highway again, this time on a day trip to Lucknow which is a city about 2 hours north. On our return, our driver suddenly stopped. Although the road congestion seems awful everywhere, we have only gotten stuck in an actual traffic jam one time before. Now, a train was coming.

I have never seen this place so silent. Cars idled. A few people roamed about, bored. A beggar in red tatters sat near an intersection, hand extended. When we returned to Lucknow a few days later to catch a flight, he sat in the same place deserted.

The train whizzed past in no time. The minute the tracks bars lifted, every single vehicle started honking, as if on a laugh track. Those unencumbered in the front lines honked for the sake of happiness. Those at the very back honked in frustration. All those in between honked because suddenly they couldn’t wait idle another single minute. We joined into with our own beeping refrain. We twisted into some impossible space between two large trucks, and it was off again into the loud, mad journey of India.

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Taj Tourism

Agra feels like a tourist town. The first thing anyone asks you is, “Have you seen the Taj Mahal yet?” Marble shops selling miniature Tajs (usually fake alabaster, be warned) are a dime-a-dozen, and everything Taj as a prefix. Taj Inn. Taj Restaurant. Taj Oil. Taj Tailors. Taj Taj.

The city has shut down all of the factories around the Taj because the pollution is tarnishing the marble. How much this contributes to the poverty in and around the city, I cannot tell. Factories would provide jobs for more thousands, but preserving the pride of the city takes precedence, even as its foundation crumbles. Piece by piece, the marble is replaced in the Taj every year. From the platform of the Taj, you can see the river and field below as they must have existed for thousands of years, until the Taj imposed, and later the Agra Fort beyond. A farmer herds his cattle along the banks. Men bath and wash their clothing. It’s a toss-up between survival and spirit. People must live and eat, but the Taj glows on the outskirts of the city and in the glint of every shopkeeper’s eye.

One way they have revived employment is through the “Save the Taj” project. We visited a carpet-making factory involved with this system. Artists in the city sketch and color the designs, and then send them to women in surrounding villages, the “weaker sector” as our tour guide called it, for creation. Every string is tied and cut by hand on a loom by these women. Months of work day in day out.

We also toured a marble shop. When the Taj was being built, marble carvers from all over the country migrated to Agra to contract out their skills. They stayed in Agra after the fact, and descendants from these families continue in the same fashion. We watched as a carver shaved down stones of alabaster, ruby, and turquoise to millimeters. He formed them into intricate shapes. Afterwards, he will apply a clear film of tape to fuse together all the parts of the peacock, the flower, or whatever shape he was creating. Another carver was chiseling out the spaces for these pieces in the marble slab. “It takes 10 years to become a master of this,” our guide said.

“What happens if the hole is made too shallow and the pieces stick up roughly from the surface?” I asked.

He didn’t seem to get the logic of my question. “It never happens,” he stated.

He led us through a gallery of table tops and boxes and I wanted it all. But, I knew knowledge of process and the group of all the designs made them more beautiful than they would be in my living room. He divined our birth stones. Mine was the black star stone – a symbol of love, peace of mind, and success. A fine progression, the last one especially good for his business.

In true tourism form, we scurried out after taking pictures, giving our insincere apologies for not buying a single thing.

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Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal looks photo shopped even in person. Its creamy imposition seems impossible; a mirage. Then the sun opens up on it from the clouds, and you think, I wish I would have brought a hat, it sure is hot out here.

The building’s pieces are as varied as its visitors. The builders used marble from all edges of the world to construct its looped flowers and indecipherable script designs.

I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it even though I knew all of my photos were false ideas of the thing. It’s maddening to know you can only capture something amazing in its purest form with just your shoddy memory. Perhaps this what drove Shah Jahan to spend 22 years reconstructing his love for Mumtaz Mahal in building form. Then again, the pixilation on my camera is also pretty awful.

I will add some pictures once the internet connection here stops rejecting me.

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