As I write this, I’m suffering from a cold, so if I seem even more whiny than normal, you’ll know why. It’s difficult to feel sorry for oneself when one’s surrounded by so much poverty and hopelessness, but through perseverance and innate talent, I’ve managed to do it.
Through the mucus steaming down my nose, and the tears flowing from my eyes, I was glad to see the back of our hotel, in spite of the small family of beetles that came out from under the bed to say goodbye to us. I was also, I must admit, keen to leave Agra, and wanted to head away from Taj Mahal tourists into the Indian hinterland.
The trip took about five hours, and I amused myself by sneezing, blowing my nose and complaining to my wife about how sick I was. In between, I admired the lush countryside, utterly verdant in the monsoon season, and flat as far as the eye could see. It is an immensely rich agricultural zone, and small farmers use every inch of it to its full effect. India is still a land of small farmers and 60% of the population continue to live off the land. When you bear in mind the population explosion, with every woman bearing 2.8 children, it’s difficult to see how even lands as fertile as India’s are going to provide a decent living for all of them, or even feed them at subsistence level.
Even now many farmers cannot make ends meet, and get into debt just to buy seed, and year by year, the debts mount and mount. Suicide is a common cause of death in many rural areas, as impoverished farmers take the ultimate escape from hounding creditors. And below the small farmers and their tiny plots heaves a mass of illiterate agricultural labourers; landless, penniless and prospectless.
The agricultural revolution and mechanisation mean that this area could be far more effectively farmed by far fewer people. Perhaps only one in five of these people could be supported comfortably on the land, and although a farmer’s life may look pretty from your car window, it is in reality a backbreaking, repetitive grind, and one many will gladly leave for the slums of the big cities. At least you can hope for a better future there.
I put these thoughts aside when, about an hour outside Agra, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city, and possibly the only great folly of Akbar the Great. It means ‘city of victory’ and he built it to celebrate his many victories in battle.
With the overconfidence that comes from conquering northern India and building an enormous empire, he built a new city in an area that suffered repeated water shortages, and his canals and irrigation systems proved powerless against the drought that periodically befell his new city, and shortly after he died, the city was abandoned.
I was expecting something along the lines of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but all I found was a palace and a mosque, which although impressive did not look significantly different from the other palaces and mosques I’d already seen in India.
I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t had a cold. As I write up these notes, on a dull cloudy Sunday in Paris, I cannot believe how interesting Fatehpur looks in my photos. Indeed, as strange as it sounds, I cannot even remember having seen a lot of the places in the photos. A lot of my mind had turned inwards to the war being waged inside my own body between my immune system and the viral hordes, and the external world was barely registering on my consciousness mind, and a matter of complete indifference to my unconscious mind.
Most of what I do, however, is a matter of complete indifference to my unconscious mind. It busies itself finding things to obsess about and building complexes, like children build sandcastles, shaping them into anchors to weigh me down, and keep me stranded off the island of Malaise.
Apart from the internal struggles with viral invaders, there was also an external struggle with mercenary touts to contend with. If I had had time to sit and quietly contemplate it all, I might have been able to clear my mind of the flotsam and actually see what I was looking at, but as I’ve already mentioned, you cannot really stay in one place in India, partly because of the ever oppressive heat, but mainly because of the omnipresent touts.
Although they lacked the finesse and polish of Delhi touts, they made up for it in sheer numbers and perseverance. On the ten-minute tuk tuk ride up the steep hill to the city, an unwanted passenger sat beside the driver and insisted we needed him to fight off the other touts inside the city. The more I said that I didn’t want his services, the more emphatically he tried to sell them to me, and the more unpleasant the two of us became.
By the time I got to the city walls, I was already fuming. Shortly afterwards, having reached the mosque, it was hard to take 10 steps without another tout taking his shot at you, utterly oblivious to the amount of other wannabe tour guides you’d already fended off. No matter how many touts I dealt with, there were always more and more of them, coming at me from all directions, each one smiling at me, wanting to know what country I was from, and each one insisting they were not just a guide when, in fact, that is exactly what they were.
Throughout the holiday, Sandra said I should be a little more ‘chilled’ and ‘zen’ about the whole tout thing, and demanded that I stop snarling at anyone who even looked like they were about to approach me, but I’m just not a ‘chilled’ kind of guy. I simply cannot bear to have people in my face trying to ‘work’ me, trying to play me like a pipe, feigning an interest in me so they can later exploit me. And if necessary, I was prepared to let one billion Indians know this, even if I had to tell each one individually. I mean, all I was asking was that the rest of the world adopt the norms and mores of the society I was brought up in. Surely that can’t be too much to ask, can it?
Back in the bubble of the car, and a few hours into the drive, our driver wanted to bring us to a temple known as the monkey shrine, but thankfully I had the foresight to say no. I’d seen it on TV, and it’s full of aggressive monkey touts who want you to give them a banana, and they can get very upset if you don’t hand them one. They also have a penchant for stealing shiny objects, like jewellery and cameras. Most worryingly, they have been known to scratch and bite, when the mood takes them, and when we got the India vaccinations, we had been warned to avoid all contact with monkeys, as rabies is still quite common in India. In fact, India has been reported as having the highest incidence of human rabies in the world. I wasn’t having any of it.
Although it did occur to me that you could probably train a troop of monkeys to attack touts, but then I worried that the touts might become infected with rabies, and India was difficult enough to travel around without rabid touts to contend with.
Instead, the driver took me and my snotty tissues to our hotel, and tried to worm a kickback out of the reception staff, who treated him with undisguised contempt, no doubt feeling hotel receptionists to be superior to mere drivers. The driver treated the bell boys with disdain, and the head waiter liked nothing more than to throw his weight around in front of the waiters under him.
The caste system may have been officially abolished, but this is not a land of equality and solidarity. Over and over again in India, I was struck by how keen everyone was to demonstrate superior rank and station at every opportunity. People seemed to bark orders at each other, rather than politely request. Everybody looked like they were jostling for position, marking their place in the hierarchy.
In the West, we have gone to the opposite extreme, and everyone from the President or Prime Minister down likes to make out they are the same as everyone else. We are all men and women of the people now, or at least we must appear to be. Even the ex-president’s son manages to portray himself as an ordinary Joe, and Oxbridge educated Prime Ministers feign an interest in football.
To be different in the West is to be a snob. In India, people still like to show you their place in the pecking order, and to demonstrate status in a clear and obvious way.
The hotel, by the way, was the Holiday Inn, normally way outside my price range, and don’t ask me how Mr Kumar and his agency managed to wangle it for the pittance we paid him, but I was very glad he had. I settled on the sofa, cracked open a Kingfisher beer, blew my nose a lot, and dealt with weighty philosophical issues, like which of the hotel restaurant to dine in.
Sandra watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on TV, but I’m opposed to all forms of sport on principle, so I wrote day six’s diary entry instead.
Photo by Norma Desmond on Flickr