Notes of author’s Indian travels back in 2001: (7) Agra

Trains, drains and one of the wonders of the world.

Rajjan drove me to Jabalpur next morning, and insofar as a four hour journey on Indian roads in an Ambassador can be uneventful, this was. Having time in hand before the 3 o’clock train to Agra, I thought I’d nip into the bank for money. This was a mistake. I staggered out over an hour later with a tic in one eye and a left shoulder that twitched intermittently, as if trying to dislodge an invisible parrot. These were the scars left behind from watching every person in the bank, qualified enough to wear a tie, hold my traveller’s cheque suspiciously up to the light, begrudgingly scribe its details into an ancient ledger, and then pound it three times with a stamp. When the first fellow went through these manoeuvres, I thought nothing much of it. It was only when he dropped my cheque into the in-tray of the clerk down the line and it just sat there, that I had my first inkling that this might be one of those occasions when twitch-control would be important. I was not wrong. My simple traveller’s cheque proceeded at the speed of a comatose snail, from one rigorous inspection to another, down a long line of clerks, towards some ever receding metamorphosis into coin of the realm. I had just about come to terms with the fact that I would probably remain in this bank for the rest of my natural life, and miss my train, when I was summoned by a man counting money. I went up to the desk, winked at the cashier insanely with a left eye that was now in convulsive spasm, grabbed my rupees and ran. Rajjan asked me if I was OK. I gave him the sort of look that Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector reserved for anyone who mentioned the name, Clouseau.

Rajjan left me outside the Jabalpur terminus. We shook hands and some of my hard won cash passed in his direction. His last act was to select a porter from the colourful crew which had gathered around me expecting employment. Wisely, I thought, he chose the one that had the firmest grip on my holdall. The place was heaving, which perhaps wasn’t surprising since it seemed to serve as both train station and place of repose for that (substantial) proportion of Jabalpur society that had nowhere else to go. I showed the porter my ticket and he mowed a path through the crushing throng, across a ‘foot-over bridge’, down one overrun platform and onto another, with me sticking to him as tightly as a hungry leech. When he turned around unexpectedly, I was concentrating so hard on staying close that we had a slight shunt, which resulted in us rubbing noses, like a pair of Eskimos. No damage was done. He put my stuff down, gave me a sign which I took to mean that I should stay where I was, and left.

The platform was mobbed with a million people. I felt like a little boy on his first day at school. Lost, and a long way from home. No friends, and no idea how to find classroom E1, where Squelch would be waiting, a cane flexed between his bony fingers. Well, perhaps not quite that bad, but I would definitely have felt better if there’d been a single shred of evidence to confirm I was on the right platform. There was a loudspeaker but, for it to have been of any use, somebody really needed to tell the announcer not to munch digestive biscuits while holding forth. There didn’t seem to be a notice board either, not one that I could see anyway. My options were either to charge off, bags in hand, to make enquiries or, in the best spirit of oriental detachment, to stand pat and trust the porter. I plumped for the latter. It would demonstrate spiritual progress if nothing else, but it wasn’t easy. Placing your faith in a complete stranger, even one whose nasal hairs have brushed against your own, rarely is. Nevertheless I remained where I was, went through my deep-breathing exercises and thought calming thoughts, until, by and by, a train with rusty brown carriages and iron bars across the windows pulled in. Was it, I wondered, going to Agra?

At which point, the porter materialised, bless him. Faith is a great thing. He checked my ticket once more, just to make doubly sure, and led me to my seat. We looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, each wondering whether this Eskimo thing between us had further to run. No, I thought, rather than hand over that tin of seal blubber I always kept with me for emergencies, I would pay in simple rupees. Which I did – 70 rupees in fact (£1). Now this may seem mean, but 70R, as I happened to know, would secure a week’s supply of bananas, with enough change left over for a candlelit dinner for two.

Inside, the carriage wasn’t bad at all. Much better than it looked from the outside. I was travelling 2nd class, so it wasn’t the Ritz, but it was clean and functional. The seats, which cleverly folded down to make beds when the time came, were a sturdy blue plastic, and the walls that light grey colour that, to me, will always mean ‘formica’. Apart from curtains which could be drawn when a modicum of privacy was required, the carriage was open plan and something of a challenge to the homemaking instincts of the ladies present – a challenge they rose to with aplomb. Little nests of suitcases and blankets sprang up out of nowhere as my fellow passengers pitched camp for a long stay. I asked the guard what time the train arrived in Agra. He said 6 am, and then gave a left/right shake of the head which meant ‘could be 7 though, or perhaps 12.30.’ A boy came through the carriage trying to interest us in one of the six cups of coffee, which he was carrying on a tray. As the train moved slowly off, he was still onboard, not looking unduly perturbed. Finally, he went to the door. I watched him jump out and then swivelled round to see how many cups of coffee had remained upright during the descent. All six. The fellow was a pro.

I spent the first hour with my nose pressed against a dust covered window peering out absent-mindedly at the scrubby, hard-working landscape I was coming to regard as an old friend. Deep woods went scampering past. Buffalo drank from a sandbank in a winding river. Tall white birds with long beaks followed the plough. Three haystacks glided across a field. (Either their owners were buried within, legs pumping, or something very strange was going on.) Boys played cricket. Elegantly dressed women worked the land, wearing saris that in the west would be classed as evening wear. It was infinitely watchable. The train was in no great hurry either, stopping every now and again like an overweight jogger desperate for a quick drag. It probably averaged much the same speed as the Ambassador, but at least I wasn’t staring up at the grill of an oncoming lorry thinking that Rajjan really had cut it a bit fine this time, or being launched out of a tarmac crater. I’d given Rajjan a generous tip when we had parted company, and I idly reflected on why. I think it was relief. In spite of having cranial indentations you could serve soup out of, I’d made it through. He’d delivered me safe and sound and this, trifle though it may have been, was not something I was inclined to undervalue.

An enormous Sikh was sitting on the other side of the compartment. He couldn’t have been an ounce under 20 stone, and was chatting to his companion, a little Indian man whose waist was no wider that the Sikh’s forearm. They had in front of them a huge mound of peanuts, and they were each consuming amounts proportional to their body weight. The thin man had six. Unbeknown to them, a mean and ornery insect, of dubious parentage and, if I knew anything, every inch a carrier of Dengue fever, was crawling menacingly along the carriage floor. I kept a close eye on it in case it decided to come my way but, no, it turned towards the big Sikh and, before long, was in the shadow of his enormous toe. It was clearly contemplating its next move. It decided to attempt the ascent. In vain. It tried once more and again it slumped back exhausted. It hadn’t brought oxygen. It was lying there thinking ‘I could try and bite through his hard pad from here, or perhaps I should wait for reinforcements,’ when the Sikh, unaware, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, reached for another bucket of peanuts and, in so doing, adjusted his foot. The little fellow was squashed flat, like a pancake, its murderous intentions with it. Awash with deadly diseases it may have been but, in anyone’s language, this was a sad end. The Sikh munched on, impervious to the tragedy beneath, and then tiring of the effort required to down handfuls of nuts, decided to clean out his ear instead. He did this like no one I have ever seen. It may be that the diameter of his forefinger was badly sized in relation to his ear hole, but his method was to force the digit in and twirl it round, while simultaneously trying to rotate his head in the opposite direction. This had a curious effect on his eyes, which began to bulge alarmingly, as if about to pop out. I couldn’t watch and I couldn’t not watch, knowing what he was doing to himself, so I got up and went for a walk.

I decided to investigate the train’s plumbing. Was there a lavatory worthy of the name? There was, and it had a seat (hallelujah). When I lifted the lid, I found an extraordinarily wide chute dropping vertically downwards towards the track. Of course, I had to try it out. Not unpleasant, irrigating Mother India at 40 mph, though it did induce a slight feeling of vertigo. At the same time, it also began to explain a few things. One of the more macabre happenings in Indian history is that the occasional head has been chopped off and chucked into the medieval privy.[i] Which does, to my mind, raise the question, ‘what happened next?’ If you were considering this from the comfort of your armchair, your first thought would be that it would get stuck. It would be too big. It would lie there, in the pan, staring upwards through sightless eyes, ready to induce terminal heart failure in the next fellow who came along to relieve himself. But, now, with this wide hole beneath me, I started to realise that a head could have fallen through. In which case, lavatorial expulsion would become a convenient method of disposal. ‘What do I do with this fellow’s upper storey, guv?’ asks one. To which the reply comes back, ‘Oh, chuck it down the khazi would you.’ Feeling glad that I could now strike one of life’s eternal questions from my list, I returned to my seat, glancing across at the emaciated Indian as I sat down. I sized him up wondering whether his shoulders were narrower than the diameter of the hole. It would be tight, I could see that, but not impossible. When the moment came for him to obey the call of nature, I just hoped he wouldn’t stumble. And I kept a watchful eye out to check that he hadn’t disappeared between stations.

A man came through the carriage handing out sheets, pillows and blankets. Night had fallen. It was 5.30. I finished what remained of my bananas, read for a while and decided it was time to retire for the evening. I assembled my bed, drew my curtains, lay back on my pillow, kissed teddy goodnight and closed my eyes. The Sikh had also decided to turn in but, for him, getting off to sleep involved switching on the radio. Pretty soon, he started to snore. Well, either he was snoring, or he had a motorcycle stashed and was practising his traffic light getaways. This was accompanied by rather Arabic sounding music coming from his tranny, and as I lay there quietly listening to this ghastly cacophony, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a hope in hell of ever getting so much as one wink.

I went for a wander instead, peered at a pleasant-looking lady discretely rearranging her sari, and found myself in conversation with an Indian ex-army officer who thought that the problem with India was that the big criminals went unpunished. I couldn’t think how to reply to this, short of saying that they had also had a job pinning one on Al Capone. However, since I wasn’t sure whether American cultural imperialism had spread this far east, I nodded rather feebly and returned to my cubby. There I spent the rest of the night reading, and listening to the entertainment laid on by fatty next door, for whom I was beginning to conceive an implacable loathing. I came to realise that I had underestimated his repertoire. There was a second, more irregular snore, which accompanied the motorbike. This began with a sudden pause, then a long ‘kaaaa’ gutturally exhaled, followed by silence. I christened this, somewhat prosaically, snore 2. Snores 1 and 2 took it in turns to vibrate my ear drums, but every so often, like a false dawn, there was silence. So golden was it that I lay in rapture and listened to the small miracle of an entire carriage sleeping happily – everybody that is, except me, of course, who about now was wishing he had taken the plane. 15hours, 40 minutes after boarding, I crawled out, took a cab to my hotel, found that my pre-booked room wasn’t ready and burst into tears. Actually, I’m too resolute for that. I went and had breakfast instead.

On my way to the hotel, I couldn’t help but notice that Agra is a large, smelly city, with pollution that makes your eyes water. That doesn’t stop it being very special because, you see, it was for many years the Moghul capital of India, and if there was one thing the Moghuls liked – apart, that is, from booze, opium, women and fratricide – it was erecting magnificent buildings. They chucked money into architecture like it was going out of style. Babur[ii], the first emperor, set up shop here after his swoop down from Afghanistan in 1526 and Agra continued as the seat of government (with a few interruptions), through the imperial reigns of his grandson, Akbar and his great-grandson, Jahangir. His great-great-grandson, Shah Jehan upped sticks and moved to Delhi in 1648, but not before he had put in hand the creation of the world’s most magnificent building.

There are two things in this life that I have always wanted to see and one is the Taj Mahal. The other is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They were both on a jigsaw puzzle called ‘the seven wonders of the world’ that I had with me in hospital, aged six. I was imprisoned, if memory serves, for a fortnight. Nowadays, spending that long in a British hospital would imply something terminal and probably notifiable, like a lingering attack of Dengue fever but, in the more leisurely years of my youth, that was the sentence handed down for the removal of an appendix. I was recuperating and, since there was nobody of my age to talk to, and because computer games had yet to be invented, I whiled away the endless hours doing this jigsaw. I haven’t a clue what the other five wonders were, but the Taj and the Hanging Gardens have been tattooed into my memory ever since. And here I was, approaching the former, wondering what on earth had become of the latter.

That was before I came through a gateway, and there stood the Taj Mahal in the distance, carving its familiar silhouette out of surrounding air too reverential to lay a finger on it, and giving no sign whatsoever that all its pieces had come out of a box. The first glimpse was magical. A vast marble structure, but it looked like embroidered white lace, with edges sharp enough to shave by. What can I say? Go and see it. It will take your breath away. If there is a doubt about the Taj, which there probably isn’t, it is its symmetry. It is wonderfully perfect. All problems have been solved. Allah has spoken, and the answers to life’s eternal questions have been revealed. Anything further away in spirit from those higgledy-piggledy temples in Hindu Khajuraho could not be imagined. If I hadn’t been to Khajuraho, I wouldn’t have worried, but I had, and as I wandered around one of the world’s great wonders, I did feel a slight niggle somewhere. As Captain Corelli put it, while tuning his mandolin, ‘the human heart likes a little disorder in its geometry.’[iii]

According to the guidebooks, the Taj was fashioned by a grief-stricken Shah Jehan as a memorial to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in childbirth. The Emperor was said to have been so distraught at her death that he mourned for two years, ‘rejecting all indulgence and going without gorgeous clothes, or rich food, or music.’[iv] Well maybe, but I have to say I have my doubts about this broken-hearted lover stuff. Here was a man who had bumped off his brother, two nephews and two male cousins just in case they interfered with his succession, who kept several baskets of poisonous snakes at court and liked to watch his bitten officials expire in convulsions[v], and who, in spite of having some 5000 women in his harem, spent his evenings seducing the wives of his nobles, not excluding his sister-in-law[vi] and, gossip had it, his own daughter, Jahanara[vii]. This doesn’t sound exactly like the kind of person who would be rendered incapable of downing a square meal or saying yes to just a teeny weeny bit of indulgence merely because a wife had passed away. If you ask me, it was the classic case of the husband who brings home flowers because he’s been fooling around with his secretary. The Taj was the imperial equivalent of a dozen roses. Not that it matters much. The whole magnificent structure is a marvel, even if the chap in charge was a murderous, two-timing, old snake-charmer.

Not far away, downriver, is the fort built by Akbar, with enrichments by his grandson, Shah Jehan.[viii] It was here, ironically, that Shah Jehan came to an extremely sticky end. It’s a gruesome story, and it starts with the aging 61 year old emperor worrying about his declining powers and reaching for the seventeenth century equivalent of Viagra. Problems ‘down below’ resulted, or as they say in my part of the world, ‘his winkle wor knackered.’ His four ambitious sons assumed that the old man was about to pop his clogs, and started to fight over the carcass, which they continued to do even after the carcass had made a complete recovery. Of the sons, the two that mattered were Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb. Dara was tolerant, inquiring, interested in the arts and naïve. Aurangzeb was a Muslim bigot, ruthless, treacherous and a skilled general, hardened by years of relentless campaigning in the Deccan. Guess who won? Dara’s severed head was brought to Aurangzeb on a dish. Rumour had it that Aurangzeb called for lights so that he could inspect it properly and then stabbed it three times with his sword. It was then put in a box and sent by runners to Agra with orders that it be delivered to Shah Jehan when he was sitting down to dinner. The eunuch guarding Shah Jehan waited until he had begun to eat, and then brought it in, saying, “King Aurangzeb, your son, sends this dish to your majesty, to let him see that he does not forget him.” The old Emperor was overjoyed that his son still remembered him and ordered the box to be opened. ‘Suddenly, on withdrawing the lid, he discovered the face of Prince Dara. Horrified, he uttered one cry and fell on his hands and face upon the table, and, striking against the golden vessels, broke his teeth, and lay there apparently lifeless.’[ix] Who could blame him? This, however, was not the end of the old and, by now, knackered all over ex-emperor. He struggled on for another seven years in captivity, looking across the bend in the River Jumna towards his finest achievement, the Taj, and being nursed by his daughter Jahanara. When he died in 1666, (the same year, incidentally, as the Great Fire of London), he was buried beside his wife and Dara’s head.[x]

While Shah Jehan was lingering unhappily, Aurangzeb was doing away with a substantial chunk of his surviving relatives, including his other brother, and former ally, Murad. This poor fellow was fed poison while in prison, and every month Aurangzeb had his portrait painted so he could monitor the rate of deterioration.[xi] Dear me! All I can say is that something must have gone seriously wrong when the Jehan kids were growing up. They probably missed Mum, good old Mumtaz. Aurangzeb went on to rule until 1707, doing his best to turn the country into an orthodox Muslim state and draining the exchequer to the last drop by pursuing an unending series of fruitless campaigns, not least against the charismatic Hindu resistance leader, Shivaji – but that’s another story. The upshot of nearly fifty years of religious intolerance and incessant war, was that the Moghul Empire, and indeed India, never recovered. The British were to be the major beneficiaries.

… to be continued.

© Michael Tobert


[i] Abul Fazl, The Akbar Nama, vol. III, p.1220

[ii] Interesting bloodline, Babur. He was descended on his mother’s side, from Genghis Khan, who needs no introduction, and, on his father’s, from Timur the Lame (Tamburlaine), who had descended on Delhi in 1398 and laid it to waste with such aplomb that ‘nothing moved, not even a bird, for two months’. It must have been like having Hitler as a grandpa, but actually Babur turned out OK. He became a tolerant sort of fellow, a patron of the arts and a keen gardener. And a warrior, of course.

[iii] Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, (Minerva, London, 1995), p.179.

[iv] Gascoigne, op. cit., p.181.

[v] Nicollao Manucci, Storia Do Mogor 1653-1708, trans. William Irvine, (John Murray, London, 1906), vol. 1, p.197.

[vi] Manucci, op. cit. vol. 1, p194.

[vii] Manucci, op. cit., vol. 1 p. 217 (see also Bernier).

[viii] Craven, op. cit., p211.

[ix] Manucci, op. cit., vol 1, pp 359-60.

[x] Manucci, op. cit., p. 360.

[xi] Manucci, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 339 and p. 382