Have you ever wondered what it feels like for a fish looking outwards from a goldfish bowl?
Well travel across India on a sleeper bus and maybe you will begin to understand.
My first experience on an Indian sleeper bus was years ago, I vowed after that trip never to set foot on another. Rather peculiarly a little earlier this year what do I do?
I book a ticket on another sleeper bus for a fourteen hour journey across Rajasthan.
And where am I going, on that sleeper bus I said I would never go on?
Well to the Taj Mahal of course, a place that also years before I had stated with utter conviction that I would never visit.
The thing is whilst over these last few years I may not have found the meaning of live the universe and everything one thing at least that I believe I have come to understand is that the strongest memories when revisited are never ever the same.
So let me explain, why this aversion to Indian sleeper buses? First of all its the little berths that you sleep in. You have to climb up an awkward ladder to get to them, they are cramped, and not built for larger types like me over six feet tall. The only way I am comfortable when sardined into a sleeper bus berth is to place myself diagonally, from corner to corner, but this is just one of the problems. That first sleeper bus taught me that whilst people across the length and breadth of India speak English that the exception is sleeper buses, where nobody other than you does. Thus you have no idea whatsoever where you are on your journey, what is happening or even where to get off. In short there is no way of communicating.
On my first trip I shared my berth with my partner (at the time). In the middle of the night I realise I need a pee, but there are no clear stopping points, as hour after hour we bump and career along Rajasthani roads my bladder becomes more and more uncomfortable. Eventually when it becomes unbearable I make my way out of the cramped berth and awkwardly climb down the ladder, forlornly I try to ask the drivers assistant if we are going to stop, he babbles back at me in Hindi, and I am clueless as to what he is saying. I try that perennial British way of communicating in foreign climes and repeat the same thing only much louder. Unfathomably this is unsuccessful.
I am outraged when he doesn’t understand me. I decide on sign language. Holding my index finger in front of my trouser fly and waggling it rather furiously, aping a penis whilst making whooshing water sounds. Still the drivers mate doesn’t register. He babbles back at me and I understand nothing. By now I am incandescent with rage, I stomp off repeating the word imbecile plus a few other ripe anglo-saxon expletives for good measure loudly so that as many people on the bus as possible will hear me, despite the fact that nobody will understand a word I am saying.
My distended bladder and I struggle back up the ladder more clumsily than ever. Back in the berth I close the glass window and draw the curtain to my fish tank. My partner suggests peeing in an empty water bottle. Eureka! yes, that’s a bloody good idea.
The thing is peeing into a water bottle crouched on all fours whilst you are being rocked around in a fish tank on a bumpy Indian road is no easy task. To steady myself one of my hands rests on the berth wall in front, the other is needed to hold my dick, my partner in turn needs to provide both of hers, one rests on my ass to help me maintain balance, the other holds the water bottle at the optimum position for me to do my business.
As we fumble through the process things flow, awkwardly, but then I have this flash, or call it a wakeful nightmare, or premonition of the shape of things to come. I imagine an old man, a very old man & I’m sure it’s me in an old peoples home. I am so ancient that I can no longer go to the toilet unaided, there’s someone there unbuttoning my flies and holding my pecker so I can pee. And as a wave of depression washes over me I see the ultimate futility of human existence.
In the end I wont even be able to take myself to the lavie.
Then anger comes from nowhere and I launch in to another string of verbal profanity as I pee crouched on all fours whilst being helped to do so. I curse the bus, the driver, the drivers mate, I curse India and my partner for encouraging me to come there. And I curse myself for that helpless old man that I see ahead of me on the way to the oblivion that lies ahead.
My anger subsides as the bottle fills, the relief is sweet, but, then, as I have learnt, nothing lasts and that includes happiness, everything changes.
I glance down at the litre bottle only to see it filling rapidly, with no end to the flow. I begin to wonder, what if it goes on, what do I do? There are no other empty bottles?
Thankfully just short of full the torrent abates.
Then the problem arises of what to do with it. I don’t want to carry the bottle out for all and sundry to see, my x comes up with the solution of tipping it out of the window, and as we race along the highway in the middle of the night she tips out the contents, through the little sliding window.
It’s gone and over. Thank goodness.
Only it’s not. Five minutes later unheralded we stop in a dusty little hamlet with a chai stall, everyone begins to decant. I climb down the ladder and leave the bus to stretch my legs and get some fresh air, as I head to the chai stall I glance back towards the bus. It’s a bit of an old knacker, covered in dust and grime from the road, but then I notice a shiny patch of gleaming white paint, it looks freshly washed, whilst all of the rest of the bus is dirty.
And then I realise the shiny part is right under my window, that clean patch, streaks all the way down to the lower birth, where I see another open window. This is a double decker sleeper, my pee jettisoned from the window flowed down the side of the bus straight to the open window of the berth below.
With the realisation I am horrified at my neighbours pee intrusion, I want the ground to swallow me up there and then & hide me forever.
Time is a great healer they say and with my share of it and the firm knowledge that things are never quite the same when revisited I am once again on a sleeper bus across Rajasthan heading to the Taj Mahal.
The ladders are still awkward, still nobody speaks English, the berths are no larger & I no shorter, but it just isn’t as bad as I remembered.
The bus draws to a stop in the middle of the night, in some god forsaken town in the middle of nowhere, a line of hotel facades with rather grand names are actually no more in reality than hollow shabby promises. My travelling companion & I head to one of the hotels, in search of toilets.
In the foyer lies a camp bed with an odious fellow lying on top of it, he just looks distinctly unpleasant and proves to be so when we ask for the toilet, he says there are none.
How likely is that an hotel without toilets? I repeat the request, more firmly.
A fee of 100 rupees is asked for through pan stained teeth by the odious little fellow. I throw the money as contemptuously as I can manage on the counter, rather pleased with my acting skills. Baba Odious lethargically points to the back of the hotel, my friend and I head in the direction of the pointing finger, a row of cubicles stretches before us, my friend darts into the first and before I reach the second she lets out a piercing scream, followed by the biggest mother fucking rat I’ve ever seen coming out of her cubicle which scuttles across my path, I am surprised, but not so much so, shrug my shoulders and carry on to the next cubicle.
Morning and at six am the bus stops at the side of the road. Remarkably the drivers mate now speaks English, how the hell did that happen? Agra he trumpets, you get out now. Bags are unloaded and the other people decanted with us disappear in seconds onto tuc tucs .
My friend and I stand there. clueless, sleepy and unsure what to do or where to go next. Then a reassuring gentleman sidles up to us and asks where we are going he asks, to see the Taj Mahal our reply, no problem he says, I organise everything………………….
So why did I say never will I go to the Taj Mahal? Well thats easy, I decided long ago that I would never go there because so many tourists did. I wasn’t going to be another one, I knew better. Hundreds of thousands of tourists each year going to see a bloody mausoleum, nope not me.
But now I am in Agra to see the Taj, Why? Because once I was so strongly against it – another curious thing along I’ve found along the way is that confronting those things one is really against doing often ends up showing you that what you were against in the first place wasn’t real at all. Ans so in this vein I decided, to go and see the Taj Mahal.
My companion and I have talked briefly about why we were coming to see the Taj, iconic must see on bucket list, the sheer splendour of the place, the idea of it being a monument to love, and the conversation turns to love itself. My friend pauses and says out of the blue that she doesn’t think that she has ever really been in love. My immediate reaction, in my thoughts at least is to feel deeply sad for her, how can that be? And then I turn inwards and think of myself, was I the same? Had I ever been in love or was I just in my own little world of illusions.
My friend says that she thinks that the Taj is probably in fact a monument to the ego of the man who commissioned it, a kind of look at me, how great am I to build this for my wife. Of course that is indeed a possibility, I can see that, but from what I’ve read I come up with a different story. Perhaps it’s worth explaining:
Shah Jahan was one of the most powerful Mughal Emperors, he reigned some four centuries ago over a large territory in Northern India with his capital at Agra.
When he was fifteen years old he met a thirteen year old girl named Mumtaz. The history books say that they fell in love, and married, that Mumtaz was the great love of his life.
Perhaps the thirteen children they went on to have together confirm this, perhaps he was just sex obsessed, I like to think the former.
Mumtaz travelled with Shah Jahan everywhere, inseparable you might say, on a military campaign far away from home Mumtaz died in labour giving birth to their thirteenth child.
Shah Jahan we are told was bereft at her loss.
He went on to commission the Taj Mahal as her mausoleum.
The Taj Mahal took decades to build, 20,000 workers along with a thousand elephants were employed in it’s construction. Twenty eight types of precious stones were inlaid into the building, including turquoise from Tibet, Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan, Sapphires from Sri Lanka, Jade from China.
It cost Shah Jahan the modern day equivalent of 800 Million USD to fund the construction.
In the process he came perilously close to bankruptcy, arguably in the long run it cost him much more than money.
Just a few years after the Taj Mahal was completed Shah Jahan was usurped by one of his sons who declared his father incompetent to rule and had him made a prisoner in his own Royal apartments. Shah Jahan spent the remainder of his days locked inside one of his own palaces. On his death his final journey was to the Taj where his body was interned next to Mumtaz.
My travel buddy & I decide on our visit to avoid the horrendous queues at the main entrance and instead go right around to the furthest point of access, landscaped gardens and a riverside, its a supremely quiet place, with a tremendous view of the Taj. Best of all there are no tourists. Just a few young Indian couples, cuddling on a bench, sitting and talking under the shade of a tree, it all feels rather apt.
Here you can’t actually get into the Taj itself, only look at it from the waters edge. But that suits me fine. I don’t want to be one person in an endless stream of visitors. I sit and look at the Taj & contemplate.
In the peace and calm I become aware of another thought bubbling away. I remember Princess Diana, filmed on a bench in front of the Taj twenty plus years before. Her husband has left her to see the Taj solo, and there she sits for photos, forlorn,sad,lost, every inch the abandoned lover.
And with it I realise it was never really about the queues, about the tourist hell of the Taj the reason I didn’t want to come here. Somewhere along the line it was the thought having the de rigeur photo of myself taken in front of the Taj and looking at the result and thinking in my way that I looked little different to Diana, just another lost & loveless in Agra.
As I sit and pose for my Taj Mahal photo. I feel no Diana syndrome, its such a relief.
Instead I am happy to have made it here, to have my photo taken and to have seen the Taj Mahal.
And if I ask myself the question what does the Taj Mahal stand for?
-Is it Shah Jahans Ego wrought in marble, or a monument to a mans love for a woman?
Is it a beautiful folly, a tourist trap?
Really it is impossible to say for sure, instead I think it’s a little bit like love itself, you have to go there and find out for yourself what it means to you.