the end of chet
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.”
i was boarding a train headed back to delhi
unsure of my plans
unprepared for the encounter just around the corner.