We arrived in Bhopal from Bombay to the
chilliest winter in 40 years, to be met by a second cousin I hadn’t seen in
He took us to his home in the Shamla hills
where five families—all related—live in separate homes surrounding a
courtyard, an ideal mixture of modern and ancient, of independence and the
security of a joint family.
The days have a quiet rhythm punctuated by
mealtimes whose formality and good manners are strictly observed.
At night, we sit by an open fire and listen to
satellite radio, and during the day take drives deep into golden woods where
people still hunt and you can see a deer or panther dart across the road.
Just outside Bhopal, we visit a Buddhist
settlement that is more than 2,000 years old. Atop a hillock, it is a
complex of temples and carvings and where a medieval calm persists.
We picnic with hot tea and sandwiches, while
looking at a fiery red sun go down over the vastness around us.
There are infinite images of humanity here, of
resilience, industry and beauty: a group of small girls playing hopscotch on
a rooftop at sunset, boys playing cricket with makeshift bats on the street,
a woman dressed in wedding finery, her sari floating behind her as she sits
holding her child, behind her husband on a scooter.
I am now on a six-hour train journey from
Bhopal to Agra, through the Deccan plains. I remember noisy train stations
and bunks and steaming cups of tea being passed from the platforms through
the train windows, with coolies carrying loads on their heads for nothing,
families carrying tiffins and elders screaming last-minute instructions.
Now, the coolies remain, but demand a decent
wage. The carriages are all air-conditioned, with sanitary meals, background
Bollywood music and people stuck to their cellphones and iPods.
The dizzyingly changing landscape pushes you
in the realm of the surreal.
Rural India, where more than 70 per cent of
Indians live, took us past deep dry rivers, vast green fields with shrubs,
where you catch glimpses of women in bright saris carrying firewood on their
heads, groups of men with worn faces sitting under a tree drinking tea, a
man with a pickaxe bringing it down on a boulder, villages with small huts,
and even smaller settlements where the untouchables live.
No other caste will touch the untouchables.
The caste system still exists in places.
Agra, capital of India under the Mogul
emperors, is cold at night, thick with people, ancient buildings and
confusion, fog and pollution.
A growing industry exists around the Taj Mahal:
vendors, tour guides, photographers vying with throngs of beggars and slum
dwellers vying for visitors’ rupees can add to a sense of disorientation.
Still, nothing prepared us for, or distracted
us from the first sight of this wonder of the world seen in bright morning
Rounding the corner from the brick red arched
facades built for the workmen of the walled complex, the tomb, with its
perfectly symmetrical minarets, appears to rise out of the clouds.
Its marble appears translucent, alive. No
photograph can ever replicate it. A young girl captures our mood, remarks in
Urdu that there is no greater monument to love than this one.
The Emperor Shah Jehan built the tomb and vast
mogul gardens by the River Yamuna to enshrine the body of his most beloved
wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died after childbirth in 1631.
Tragically, the story goes, when Shah Jehan
was imprisoned by his own son, he was given only a tiny mirror in which the
Taj was reflected.
His fate reflects the many contradictions that
Next week: Jaipur and Delhi