Cheng Chin Yuen

Friday, April 07, 2006

Agra’s Aggression (25th – 29th March)

While the entrance fee to the Taj has made astronomical progress from 5Rs in 1984 to 750Rs today, the attitudes of those in Agra’s tourist trade has sunk by the same measure, almost ensuring that we will never pay her another visit.

With the wonder of the world leading by example, everyone wants to make a quick and big buck off the tourists and strange things like EQ, PR, customer service or simply being nice are flushed down the malodorous Yumna River with the rest of the muck and sewerage.

Diversified and intensified touting constantly wears you down daily (and nightly). Cycle-rickshaw riders will tail you and lure you with a ’10 rupee anywhere’ offer that will take you everywhere before your intended destination. Auto-rickshaws barge into our path forcing us to skirt around them. Shopkeepers machine gun a list of necessities and when you shake your head, they just rattle off some more. Restaurant owners do likewise with their menu items, deaf to our rejections and blind to our body language and facial expressions. The laundry guy at Shanti Lodge tried to milk an additional 100 rupees out of what was originally an 80 rupee bill. True to its name, the drinks at Shanti took 20 minutes to arrive and food an hour more. Filthy children leech on to you, hoping you would give them something just to whisk them away. When ignored, they back off and throw pebbles at you from afar. Thankfully most are terrible throwers but one or two did find its way to my calf and Karen’s bottom. A boy at a restaurant asked, ‘Where is my tip?’ even after I discovered that he added 10 rupees extra to the bill. The list seem to go on and on…being short-changed at the cinema, being recommended the most expensive restaurant ‘specialities’ that weren’t in the menu, drivers ‘flying our aeroplane’, pesky postcard peddlers, shopkeepers selling an insect repellent refill which was supposed to come complimentary with the vaporiser. After some argument, his friend rationalised, ‘Hey man, this is India.’ I replied a little unfairly, ‘Ya, that’s why India will always be light years behind us.’

If we had decided to stay in the outskirts, we would probably be spared most of the Agra agony. But the enigma of the Taj reinforced by the build-up of praises from fellow backpackers made us want to stay near it. Shanti Lodge was cheap and had the best and closest view of the Taj from its roof top. To admire the mother-of-all-Indian-rip-offs, we had to first take the touting torture at the backpacker heart of it all – a deliciously illogical irony. It was also heart-wrenching to part with 750Rs for the only available serenity in this chaotic part of the city. So many reasons to leave all outweighed by one big massive marble tomb. Despite all our frustrations, we ended up staying in Agra for 4 nights, 4 too many for most travellers who see the Taj as a day trip form Delhi. Still, good things have a way of sneaking into the most trying situations. And this is the philosophical foundation my blog.

For those still constipated with bitchy blogs, get a life!

I think I have emerged from Agra infinitely more patient with people. On our first day, we offered polite smiles along with our ‘no thank you’s. After a while, all that faking took its toll on our cheeks and several hundred ‘no thank you’s made you very thristy. It’s hard to be civil every 10 steps down every street. So we somehow progressed to a ‘selective’ hearing phase where all unrelated blasts of ‘Hello Japan! Hello Korea! We have kimchi! You want mineral water? Chocolate? Toilet Paper? Oversea Call? Bus Ticket? Ganja?’ is instinctive relegated to the ‘buzzing backgraound noises’ of our sensory perception. After another day, we mastered ‘selective seeing’ where we just looked straight ahead and walked on. We could sense the energies of disturbed souls around us but don’t blame us for not respond to something we can’t see. We don’t mean to be rude but superfluous, senseless and superficial interaction with every other guy down the street is way too draining. In four days, I had to raise my voice only once to defend my personal space against 3 beggar boys who clung on to me for about 15 metres. It wasn’t pleasant to be the discipline master on the streets of India especially after one of the boys started sobbing but these kids got to learn as much as they got to survive. In a more residential part of town where kids greet tourists with small stones, it took a big rock in hand to stop the nonsense. Well, we did ignore them and it was their way of getting our attention. If we didn’t ignore them, we would become the Piped Pipers of Agra with a tail of dozen kids screaming ‘1 rupee? 1 Chocolate? 1 Pen? 1 Photo? 1 Biscuit?’ Tourists who succumb to this pressure really screw things up for both parties. The kids will eventually sell whatever ‘gifts of kindness’ you give to them back to the shopkeepers and hand the money over to their jobless parents who will remain so for years. Kids from OK families know how to behave and are just plain mischievous but most kids from the slums (easily distinguishable by their mottled hair and filthy clothes) really know how to test your limits. And it’s hard to keep the bias in check. If you can survive a few days in Agra, consider joining the teaching profession.

The next good thing Agra offered was our first Bollywood movie! I tried to compare the suburban cinema to the antiques where I watched classics like ‘Superman’, ‘Conan the Barbarian’, ‘King Kong’, ‘The Goonies’, and the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy but certain things make it hard to find the common ground. Firstly, there were 2 power failures during the short 3 hour movie. Secondly, there was no air-conditioning. Instead, large ceiling fans angled downwards from the sidewalls kept the audience from a mass asphyxication exercise. Thirdly, the reel decided to misalign itself so for a while, you got to see torsos atop talking heads. Fourthly, you could see silhouettes of men selling bottled drinks and chips while the movie was in session (they didn’t confine themselves to the 15 minute intermission) and they came back after a while to collect the glass bottles. For 32 Rupees which got us the best balcony seats, we expected no less. The cheapest ticket was 16Rs!

The audience played their part, laughing out loud at the jokes we didn’t understand, applauding the heroics, bobbing to the dance scenes, cooing at the ‘Vill you marry me?’ part, being somber later during the groom’s funeral and jeering when the numerous technical problems happened. All this freedom of expression made the Singapore cinematic experience very sedate and subdued. By the way, Rang De Basanti was the movie title and dialogues went something like this:

A : !@#$%^&*(())_+ No Problem.

B : !@#$%^&&*(())_+ I love you!

C : !@#$%^^&*(()))_+ Oh my God!

D : !@#$%%^&***(()_+ Vill you marry me?

E : !@#$%%^&**)(_^+ Kum letz go.

According to Rinku, a medical student we met on the train to Gwalior, Rang De Basanti means ‘accept totally that you are Indian’. I didn’t enjoy the show as much as Karen did but the scenes were shot beautifully in an avant-garde parallel-universe style. I was fishing for a 5 hour ‘traditional’ Bollywooder with heaps of bloodshed and 20 minute dance scenes involving a hundred thrusting pelvises around a banyan tree. Nevertheless, it was fun to be in a relic that screened only one show three times a day. There was even a kind uncle to light the way to your seats which could recline like the ones back home.

Amidst the tout tsunami, there are of course a few good souls. On a second safe storey perch one morning, I spent an hour or so watching life, touts and victims go by and got to witness a couple of Chicken Soup incidents: A man pushing a handicapped guy seated in his modified trishaw. Grown men strolling down the street, arms over each other’s shoulders. A biker stopped and offered a lift to a guy in crutches. A young boy found his new toy from the milky gutter – a tinted light bulb made clean with a wipe on his pants. A trio of rag-picker kids scavenging with their gigantic sacks slung santa-style over scrawny shoulders. Unsurprisingly, it was the kids and not the grown-ups who notice me as I snapped away from my hideout.

My morning reconnaissance trip around the Taj’s impregnable outer wall led me to a small secluded ashram and gave me my first up-close-and-personal encounter with Fakir, a sadhu or holy man. One guy I met later scoffed at sadhus, describing them as ‘the worst kind of people in India’. Those in Gita Mehta’s ‘Karma Cola’ were depicted as drugged out mountain hippies who raped women who come from afar seeking to fill void a rather place. But compared to the ash-covered Varanasi theatrics, half-naked Fakir looked very uncomplicated in his plain white longyi. He wore no shoes and carried a bamboo pole instead of a trident. Around his neck dangles the ashram key not a mess of melas. A motorcycle crash left him with an impressive scar on his left shoulder and half a jaw to mumble with. At 55, he looked really fit and healthy, something he attributes to the neem powder extracted from the leaves of the tree just outside the ashram compound. Over tea after the simple morning puja, he expounds on the miracles of neem and explains the extraction process as we sit in the central courtyard. Fakir whom everyone calls Ba Ba claims that the atmospheric ashram is older than the Taj. This I take with a pinch of neem. A pizza-maker from Goa was also putting up at the ashram and together over several beedis, they condemn the 750Rs Taj fee, finding the gawking difference insulting and debasing to the locals who pay only 20Rs. We end the morning session in a union of tout bitching, apparently even the local Indians are not spared the harassment!

I take my leave and promise to come back with Karen at 5.30 for dinner. Before I go, pizza man teaches me a simple meditation exercise. It goes like this:

1) Suck in all the air your lungs and stomach can take.
2) Exhale with a loud, constant and resounding 'OMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM' till you have no air left.
3) Repeat 100 times!

True to Fakir’s word, the scoundrel at the gate of the large garden compound (in which the ashram was located) wanted 20 Rs upon entry. We said we were having dinner with Ba Ba and he respectfully let us through. Fakir greets us and brings us on a medicinal tour of the large gardens. The guy who wanted 20 Rs appears. Fakir snaps at him but he denies wanting any ‘entrance fee’. Suddenly we are all dinner mates now. Before dinner, we go by the river to watch the setting of the nuclear sun.

The ashram in the evening was alive with 4 other men and another even older sadhu who did the evening puja. We found out later that he was a ‘family man’ and therefore did not stay in the ashram. Theoretically, sadhus didn’t have families but there was no fuss. The evening puja was more elaborate. Cotton wicks dipped in ghee made fuelled the little table lights that lit up the ashram. Family-man sadhu anointed everyone with a butter dot on the forehead with his last finger before drawing the OM symbol on a metal dish. The Om looks like the number 30 and is supposed to be the first word in the universe. Everyone stands in the singing finale in front of the main shrine. I can’t remember which of the three gods they are praying to today.

After the puja, we all sit around the courtyard and watch the sadhus and men smoke a round of tobacco or hashish stuffed in a fat clay funnel. Everyone has their unique style of holding the drag, inhaling and exhaling but and I feel that it is the smoke rather than the prayers that band the brothers. Almost immediately after the soul fuel is burnt out, the crowd disbands for home and dinner, leaving us alone with Fakir who quicky apologies that the cook that was in charge of our dinner had gone off. No cause for worry, Fakir has arranged dinner for us not in the ashram but with two watchmen who looked after the garden compound the ashram was in.

Dinner was awkward since the watchmen didn’t speak any English and Fakir didn’t speak much choosing to focus his attention on his whisky bottle. We got spicy watery mutton curry without much mutton. The watchmen were saving all the meat for the long night for themselves. We felt that they were having us for Fakir’s sake. Still we couldn’t complain. A huge metal basin was brought up and soon one of the watchmen was kneading the biggest lump of dough I have seen in India. His mate got the fire going and I was instructed to break a bunch of sticks. A couple of breaths down a bamboo pipe ignited our ‘stove’ and soon we were fed handmade chapattis cooked by campfire under the nightsky! Fakir introduced the chapattis as they came along. Chapattis stuffed with aloo came first then chapattis made with a roller, then hand-rolled ones, then landed chapattis with air bubbles and finally chapattis with roasted edges. The last took the cake. Just before they were done, they were lifted from the hot pan and placed standing in the sand next to the open wood fire. You were supposed to smack them clean off the sand and grit but we found out only after the second prototype. By the end of dinner at 10pm we might have eaten close to 8 chapattis each. Mr 20Rs came with his tiffin and joined us for dinner and told us that we are the luckiest tourists to have had such a splendid experience out here in the field.

It wasn’t the best of dinners but one of the strangest. I think I am convinced that all sadhus are more than less bums on a perpetual high.

Sometimes it is tough to talk to Indians. One American tourists got quite angry after waiting 20 minutes for his beer and ended up in an argument with one young waiter at Shanti Lodge. The waiter genuinely wanted to find out what made his guest so angry so he went up to him and asked ‘Excuse me, what is your problem?’ Needless to say the American got angrier…I could empathise with the American. It was impossible for a beer to need 20 minutes to move up a short flight of steps. Other guests including us were frustrated too. Food came more than an hour late and customers who were here first got their food much later. I thought I would be doing the manager a favour by explaining from past experience how the Singapore Country Manna system would work. It was all common sense but somehow ‘orders’ didn’t make their way to the kitchen below and when they got there, they got mixed up. ‘That’s why I need to be here you know’, beams the manager. After some further elaboration on the rocket science of the Singaporean restaurant system where drinks land 3 minutes after the order has been made, the Indian caves in under sensory overload. He cuts me off, ‘Look, it is not just our restaurant, if you go to any other restaurant in Agra, you have the same problem.’

‘Well, so be it Jedi. Now it’s time for you to die.’ – Emperor, Star Wars


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