March 01, 2005

By moonlight it is

Simply classic bureaucracy. Given that we have two kids with us, one who needs carrying, we have chosen our Agra hotel specifically for its proximity to the Taj. And it is certainly proximate (proxy?): no more than 50 metres from the entrance to the magical structure. We have asked someone to buy us tickets to view the Taj by the light of the full moon, and we have those tickets. We have even got a good viewing slot: the half hour starting 830pm, well after sundown, not too late for the kids.

So at just past 8, we present ourselves at the gate. The men there tell us to go to a post, back down the road and opposite our hotel entrance, where we will be security-checked. A gaggle of uniformed men and women are hanging around there. They look at our tickets uncertainly and say they can't let us in, but perhaps we can speak to their boss, a stern man who is marching across the road towards us even as we turn towards him.

This man says, I cannot allow you in. You are supposed to show up at Shilpa Gram with these tickets! Said Shilpa Gram being an exhibition ground about a kilometre away. Said Shilpa Gram also being the closest that petrol-driven vehicles can approach the Taj. From there, battery-operated buses bring Taj visitors to the monument. (As we had come to our hotel, earlier in the day). This man wants us to make our way there, show our tickets to whoever is in charge there, get into a battery bus and return here to pass through his security mechanism -- all within the next 20 minutes.

But can't you simply check us here, I ask. No, comes the reply, you must go there. But how are we supposed to get there, asks my wife, especially with our children? There's no transport here! That's not my headache, says the man.

Left with no choice, but left fuming, we grit our teeth and set off on foot for Shilpa Gram. We reach, pass through a security check, are waved onto a bus, and silently (it being battery-powered) turn up at the same post, just as the clock touches 830. We pass through an identical security check, conducted by the same men and women and their boss who, only minutes ago, professed no headache. What was the sense in this? Are officers not allowed to use their brains?

But only more minutes later, it's hard to even recall this madness. Because I don't know how to tell you what a mystical, sensuous sight this is, this building in the light of the full moon. It is a ghostly grey-white, its dimensions and form reduced to a misty plane. Dome and platform and four minarets seem etched on the night sky, all on that same plane. It's hard to shake the impression that it's one large canvas, all its features at precisely the same distance from us, sequestered as we are, inexplicably whispering at the entrance.

I say "reduced", but I mean no reduction in appeal. Shorn of a sense of body and depth, there is a wispy new beauty here, one we could not have sensed when we marvelled at it by daylight, just hours earlier. (Newness like this, the explanatory Archaeological Society board outside tells me, is the "secret of the beauty" of the Taj).

Mumtaz died at 38 in 1631, giving birth to her 14th child, fertility that I find hard to comprehend. On this moonlit Taj night, I know that it's not just love that this place is eternally a monument to. There's also a fluttering sadness. Love and tragedy, that duet more eternal still.

So the question. Is it worth the steep fee, the nutcase security boss, the touts who start up pestering you the minute you step onto Agran soil and keep at it continuously until you leave?

No doubt about it: Yes. But why am I whispering?


Anonymous said...

Nicely written. Your ending lines made me forget the frustration in the beginning of the post.

Sudarshan said...

Congrats on the Outlook Picador prize. "Riding across the river" is a great piece :-0

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thank you. Patrix, that was the point -- the view of the Taj made us forget all the nonsense that went before. Go see it by moonlight. Highly recommended.

Sudarshan, thank you too, as also Jahnvi earlier. The essay will appear in Outlook's next issue.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see other side of Dilip. nicely written Dilip.