It was 2009 on the evening, when I was sitting in Bharatpur, at a house extension converted to temporary hostel.
The only two other residents were - a polish immigrant to the UK and a french graduate, both out to explore the world. Prompted by a baaraat procession below, we started discussing Indian weddings going on to the necessity of work, why people desire money, how you could work part time and still travel the world on UK salaries, capitalism, common wealth games, corruption, security in India, bird watching, Solzhenitsyn, travel tips and then my boss called for some urgent night long grueling work. They seemed visibly relieved. It seemed they wanted to drink their limited stash and were finding it socially awkward to ask and not offer.
It was as interesting a conversation as one between strangers from foreign lands is but one bit still stands out for me:
"You want to know how it feels like to be a celebrity ?", the French fellow said.
I could only reply with a quizzical look.
"Ha! It's the Taj. Go there first thing in the morning and when you are coming out, there will be this barrage of photographers clicking at you for a mile. Paparazzi all."
I could not help smiling. The Taj was next on my itinerary. For over a quarter century of being in this country, I had yet not looked at it's most exotic, touristy monument and that was about to be made good.
The one from France really loved it, the one from Poland called it pretty overrated, though what he chafed about most were the exorbitant charges for foreign tourists, Rs. 500 per person. Every white guy is not rich, was the plaintive comment.
After a night spent on powerpoints, a morning of the bird sanctuary missed, a journey to Agra through a car, a railway station and then a rickshaw that can only be called interesting, I finally reached the counters of the Taj. The ticket for Indians was thankfully Rs. 20, higher priced than most other historical monuments, but still a pittance compared to what the rich and not-so-rich white guys paid.
When you enter the first gates, you still don't see anything, what you experience is just anticipation. And as you enter the inner gates, that's when through the darkness of the corridors behind the silhouettes of the crowds entering and leaving, rise the hints of white. A sublime white that soon fills your entire viewscape and promises not to fade away fast.
People had told me the Taj is magnificent and I had seen lots of pictures myself but nothing prepared me for the immense size. It was huge. Now I knew why you never saw people in front of all those glossy pictures. The people were very much there, they were just the small black line you saw at the bottom. That small black line which was blurred by your vision as decoration.
I could remember the innumerable cliched sobriquets, 'a teardrop on the face of time', ' a monument to love' but what suited it most was the name itself. Taj Mahal - the best of palaces. It was not a mausoleum but a palace and a shining white one. In spite of what they say of the Taj in moonlight, I enjoyed it in the day with the marble shining against a stark blue sky, and at the risk of being repetitive, the immense whiteness multiplied by the reflecting pools, its size ensuring that the bulging multitudes do not interfere with your pleasure.
The walk from the inner gate to the mausoleum was also through the densest crowd of photo clickers I have been too, contributing to the numbers myself. The closest you can come to meeting people of different nationalities and from different parts of India at one place is I think the Taj Mahal gardens. All walk it's paths and click pictures or get theirs clicked plucking the dome, reflecting in the pool or pretending to be a love lorn couple.
There was the trademark and pretty galling lack of respect for heritage inside the building, people going trigger and flash happy, pushing and shoving and me dying slowing but there was also happiness. On the right side, between the monument and towering red sandstone mosque, where the marble floor is suspiciously ignored by the rushing crowds and you have the whole monument to yourself to breathe in its gigantic structure, there was happiness.
There was happiness in the gardens, viewing the structures through leafy shades, away from the ant-lines around the reflecting pools and as you read some descriptions, you could not help but wonder if the original garden was more woody, more green compared to the open English feel the environs have today. If the white would look as mesmerizing in it.
Carried in these thoughts, as I stepped out, I could not help but take a look back and was again for a moment transported, above the din around me, back into time when kings could order heaven built here, on earth, in their favourite overawing white.