The train car begins to fall silent. Even the children in the berth next to us, three of them chatty and manic who spent the entire ride hanging off the top bunk, poking each other, giggling—they, too, become quiet. The sun is dimming, and in five minutes we would be almost enclosed in a grey darkness lit from the inside by orange light weakly shining from the fixtures on the ceiling. There is a reverence and a shimmer of apprehension. The passengers are preparing themselves. We roll slowly into the train station.
The streets of Agra have an ominous feeling. The bonfires light up the fronts of the houses strangely and the alleyways are hungry, like they are ready to swallow something. Someone. I see two boys emerge out of an alleyway and a strange feeling of relief flashes through me. It seems that they have escaped some uncertain doom, coming out of that dark, hidden road. Like they were almost a necessary sacrifice. Disturbed, I push the thought out of my mind.
If the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the fifth most populous nation in the world. I watch the train opposite ours stop at a station, the general seating cars just a pyramid of people, still more crowding in, walking on backs and heads. We pass person after person defecating on the tracks. The Agra station is a kaleidoscope of people, more bodies than floor. For the first time we are unnoticed by hawkers, but this brings me no respite from my troubling thoughts.
I was traveling with two of my friends through North India. I had just finished a semester abroad in a small south Indian town, and was concluding my trip in Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I had been through more during this week traveling than during my entire semester abroad. Food poisoning had ransacked my stomach in Mumbai. I had been threatened and followed and catcalled in Jaipur. I had learned how to stare straight ahead and ignore the legless man on the dirty floor of the Jodhpur train station begging for money, for acknowledgement, for someone to meet his eye. I had learned shame, and I was tired of it. So selfishly, I was tired of being barraged with poverty and sickness and sadness, I was tired but I was not done. Agra would be the end, but it would be the most.
When we rolled into the Agra station, it felt like the edge of the world, where a person could fall off so easily, tumbling into black space and no one would ever even notice. That’s what those alleyways felt like, like a magnetic vortex pulling people out into negative nothingness, in order to simply make a little room.
And now it is night, and night is a dangerous time for us. Our rickshaw driver is probably 13 years old; he bargains well, but not too well. He drives crazily, nothing new, but there is an added urgency. Normally I would tell him to slow down, but I don’t think I want him to. I want to get to the hotel we are staying at as soon as possible, so that I can forget the people roaming the streets that don’t seem to have a direction or a purpose.
Our hotel. Though it boasts cleanliness and Internet access, it unsurprisingly lives up to neither claim. Agra, we have read in our guidebooks, has nothing apart from the Taj Mahal. Spend your day there and leave, they say, because you will not want to stay the night. I don’t want to believe my guidebooks. I don’t want to think that this town is nothing but the tourists it attracts. But despite my best efforts, I begin to agree with the Lonely Planet. We find bugs in our beds, mysterious brown stains on our towels. We are here for one night, we reason. We will sleep in our clothes, since we’re planning to get to the Taj Mahal for a dawn viewing. We have arranged with our pubescent cabbie to pick us up at 5:45.
At this moment, I am tired of traveling. A mental exhaustion accompanied by a physical one consumes me, as a knee injury I sustained from being hit by a car a few months earlier continues to get aggravated. I am carrying fifty pounds on my back every other day. I am constantly sweating, never quite clean, never quite rested enough.
It is hard for me to be in Agra at the moment. There is a cynicism inside me that I’m not ready to confront—a nagging fatigue, a jadedness that disgusts me, and so I take myself out of this place. I look ahead instead of inward, ahead to my comfortable house in Chicago. I see Agra through a split lens. One eye sees what it’s meant to see, everything of Agra before it—the people at the train station, the tourists at the Taj, our young driver, the invisible barriers of the night and the sweat—while images of Starbucks and cut off shorts and neat traffic lanes dance in front of the other, a magical western capitalist ballet.
There are stops to make before the plane home from Delhi, though. We came to see the Taj Mahal, and we were going to see it. In the morning we arrive to find that the sun has already come up—maybe. The sky is grey but light. It is the smog of the UP. It envelops us; thick with pollution, it blocks out the sun. We see the Taj in an ambiguous fog, rather than the sunrisen splendor we expected. The sky is still bright, but still grey. I almost feel at home in the haze. It is not what I expected, but not wholly bad either.
I am supposed to be in awe. I know that. But I find that every observation is spoiled with cynicism, morbidity. Instead of reflecting on the beauty of the palatial structure, I’m caught by the shroud of mortality encasing the Taj Mahal. It is a mausoleum, built by a Mughal emperor, born out of grief over the death of his wife. It is the epitome of romance, but it is tainted by death. I see the beauty vaguely, but my mind is moving forward to our train ride out of Agra. I’m frustrated with my hideous apathy, but I can’t make myself stop. I turn away.
Outside the gates of the Taj Mahal things are different. Tourists hurry into rickshaws, walk swiftly past vendors. It is the Agra of the train station, although this time we are not invisible to vendors. Our teenage rickshawalla is nowhere to be found, and is not answering his phone. I am not especially surprised by his unreliability. I am not especially surprised by anything in Agra and this concerns me.
It wasn’t fair. India was beautiful and rich, many times over. The small southern university town where I stayed, the forts of Jaipur, the ruins of Hampi: all of it beautiful. I was simply angry at India, angry at Agra for making me look at myself and see how ugly I could be in the face of difference. It sickened me. I had felt this way throughout my time in India but Agra seemed to shove my face in my own privilege and prejudices, holding my head down in the muck until I could accept it and reason with it. Forcing me to swallow every experience and keep them inside my chest instead of trying to spit them out and turn away, always turning away.
It was only later—maybe while writing this—when I realized how much I took in. The train station, our driver, the long narrow lanes leading into the pristine white Taj Mahal, clouded by the population’s smog. Unable to spit them out, I kept the sights and smells of Agra in my mouth and tried to ignore them for a while, but they made their way down my esophagus anyway. And they were hard to swallow, coated in my prejudice and privilege. I kept them, though, for this. To show you.