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the end of chet



leaving agra



the sun was sinking into agra’s smoggy sky

the iconic monument of love standing before me in all its glory

its shining whiteness slowly fading into a soft pink.

my mouth was dry and the evening air was thick.

i squirmed on the stone bench as my eyes focused on the mass of marble

undistracted by thousands of tourists

moving like grazing cattle throughout the grounds.

the scene was striking and yet something was amiss.

my heart was unmoved   unimpressed.

i fidgeted   clearing my throat and wiping at the sweat on my neck.

it was all less than i had expected   far less.


i had seen the taj mahal before in pictures

and for years dreamed of seeing it in person

of savoring its towering beauty  

of being mesmerized by its intricate handiwork.

finally in its presence   my mind pleaded with my heart to engage

to succumb to the wonder

but it wasn’t to be.

maybe the pictures had done it justice after all.


as darkness prowled in agra

i stood to face the taj and spoke out in a clear voice

“you’re nothing but a famous building.”


turning my back   i began to wonder if my dad had been right

that perhaps this trip was really meant to be

more than a backpacking adventure.


he was the one who had sent me to india

the round-trip airfare a graduation gift from my parents

(though i knew that my mom had absolutely nothing to do with it).

it was all a big surprise   sort of.

really   my dad had been priming me for it for years

his fascination with india readily apparent from my earliest memories.

as a child   he had tenderly imparted his vision to me

in bits and pieces over time

through stories from the jungle book that he read to me

as i drifted off to sleep

through random facts about tigers   about mangoes  

and about the great himalaya.

india was served to me as a delicacy of beauty and mystery.

as i prepared for my trip   my dad was giddy with secondhand excitement.

increasingly he talked about india like an old friend

always speaking of her in the feminine third-person  

as in   she will be good to you.

strangely   my dad had never been to india.

that was perhaps one of the problems as i sat in the shadow of the taj mahal:

the expectations sitting heavy on my shoulders   incredibly heavy.


and it was just the beginning

only seventeen hours earlier my flight had landed

my body still reeling from the hurried journey half-way around the world.

already my early morning arrival into new delhi was in a cloud.

somehow after solving the airport i had made my way by taxi

to the nizamuddin train station where i boarded the taj express.

despite the buzz of activity all around me

i had moved like a robot through the city   my senses dulled by jetlag.

at every idle moment   whether in the taxi or against a wall in the station

my eyes blurred and my head bobbed and i grudgingly surrendered to sleep.

the only thing i remember feeling as i journeyed to agra

was a swelling suspicion.

ignorantly i was leery of my new hosts  

watching them without engaging them and judging them harshly

all the while clinging neurotically to my backpack  

as if it contained my very being.

by noon   i reached agra and locked myself into a dingy hotel room

immediately collapsing into slumber on a rickety bed

(even then my backpack was chained tightly to the metal bedframe).


but after a six-hour afternoon nap   i snapped to attention  

raced the sun and found the taj

where my lingering suspicion gave way to something worse – disappointment.


the next morning   when i woke up   i gazed into a grimy mirror

picked up an imaginary phone and spoke to my dad.

“i’m thinking about coming home early.”




“no i’m not sick.”

i looked deeply into the reflection of my face.


“no i didn’t get robbed.  

it just…   it just doesn’t feel like i thought it would feel.”




“i don’t know.

maybe backpacking isn’t my thing.

maybe india just doesn’t agree with me.

maybe mom was right.”


within hours  

i was boarding a train headed back to delhi  

unsure of my plans  

unprepared for the encounter just around the corner.



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