Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On The Road Again

Before we leave the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Delhi, I raid the free shop in the bathroom, and my conscience keeps its own counsel. It’s amazing how rapacious you can be, in someone else’s name. As I scoop all the little bottles, for my Akanksha cuties, into my free Taj Mahal Palace bag - how thoughtful of them to provide a bag, too! - I notice a tempting invitation from the hotel spa, hooked on the back of the door. “Try our exclusive massages at our wellness centre, by our professional masseurs, as they take you to a world of private bliss.” I don’t think they have “wellness centres” in the slums of Mankhurd, back in Mumbai, or if they do, they’re very discreet about it. “Relax, Relive, Rejuvenate,” oozes the brochure. The advice on the wall at Akanksha’s mission control is similarly alliterative, I recall, if slightly less hedonistic: “Rigour, Relevance, Relationships, Reflection.” Back in the hymn to hygiene, which is the tiled bathroom attached to Room 256, at the TMP, I tally the cost of gratification. A “Classic Swedish” will set you back Rs 2000, or, if you’ve had a bad day, and need more pampering, you can restore the balance with a “Balinese Massage” (don’t ask!) for a mere Rs 3,500. The star prize, however, is the Special Spa Package imaginatively called “Indulgence” which lasts a hundred and twenty minutes. It’d need to, for Rs 4,500. It’s difficult to square that, with what’s lapping up the marble steps, just outside. Two hours of “Indulgence” costs nearly as much as Rani-didi earns in a month, working six full days a week, at the Akanksha centre, and she keeps herself and four children on it. I look into my TMP bag, bristling with freebies, and tip in all the bedside pads and pencils, and the sewing-kit, too.

To make up for the shambles of yesterday’s sight-seeing, we fast-forward, this morning, through the edited highlights of Delhi’s World Heritage Sites. The Qutb Minar’s still standing, though Dinesh laments that the public’s no longer free to scamper up its unbanistered spiral staircase, inside. In 1981, a child slipped and knocked down all his classmates, climbing up behind him, like so many skittles. Eighty-five children suffocated, and the tower was shut. The warmth goes out of the sun, for a while.

The adjacent Muslim mosque is built resourcefully from bits of ransacked Hindu and Jain temples, as you can see from the carved pillars. Muslim architecture usually scorns animate subjects, preferring geometrical or floral decoration, but here, human figures and animals are sculpted into the stone. Before they incorporated these borrowings into their Mosque, though, the Muslim builders thoughtfully chipped off the faces of the Hindu gods. Quelle finesse.

Dinesh abandons us to the rest of our lives, at this point, so we say a golden goodbye to him, and head off for Agra with our tour driver, Mano. (I know, so near, yet so far...) The road’s a string of grit and hardcore, welded together with the odd stretch of tarmac. No-one’s fussy about which carriageway to use, which makes for a bit of extra-curricular cardio-vascular exercise in the passenger seat. It’s a long drive, it’s a good job that camel-carts are so charming. We while away the miles playing “Spot the Over-Loaded Tuk-tuk,”- an oriental variant on standard in-car Eddie Stobart hunting - as the road unravels before us.

Mano reckons we’re not going to reach Agra by sunset, when the Red Fort will be more in the way of being the Black Fort, so we console ourselves, en route, with Akbar’s Tomb, instead, where we mop up a bit of culture while the sun’s still shining. I’m very fond of Akbar. He was a mighty Moghul king, famous for contriving harmony out of strife, binding Muslim and Hindu into co-existence if not unanimity. I know this, not from the Tomb Tour Guide, but from Bollywood, having munched Bombay Mix and swigged Kingfisher, through three hours of the film epic “Jodhaa Akbar.” (Very nice frocks, but a mite over-long, and more gory than need be, in places – grand finale with elephants, though, so ultimately redeemed...) I imbibe the romantic fantasy wholesale, as I do the beer, and am thus Stunned and Dismayed to learn that Akbar had two other wives, one Muslim, and one Christian. Is this not taking ecumenicalism to the point of attenuation? Jodhaa the Hindu was his documented favourite, because she produced his first son, but this doesn’t cheer me up much. Bollywood also failed to make even the most passing of references to Akbar’s three hundred and fifty concubines. Absent-minded, to say the least. It’s too late, though: I’ve gone off Akbar big time, I don’t care if he was a peace-maker. He’d hardly have the energy to make war, after all....

We star in Other People’s Holiday Albums, on our way out, holding grizzling babies, embracing some random Grandma/daughter/uncle and saying “Cheese!” (I always wittily say, “Paneer!” but no-one ever, ever laughs.) Robin and Owen are much in demand, and have to bracket giggling brown beauties, one by one, while trying to look casual, relaxed, happy, and white. Why would you want a photo with a complete stranger, whom you’ve never met before and never will again, whose name you don’t even know, and whose face will clutter your holiday snaps and puzzle your friends forever? We wait for strangers to get OUT of the frame, before we click, where I come from. I am at a loss. I could live here for another thousand years, and still not understand.

If I could say one word to you about the Taj Hotel at Agra, it might be “don’t!” The turbaned fortune-teller, in the lobby, and the sitar-player, in the bar, lend a certain ambience, but the food’s lamentable. The menu’s more fun than the meal, though, every line’s a gem. I am tempted to slip one into my gooodie-bag, for future delight. Maybe we should have opted for the champagne dinner, instead of fish and chips? “Sparkle your love with cheerful personal evening discovering each other through the flight of culinary tastes.” - A tall order, for a prawn cocktail, by any standards. - “Treasure this evening as memorable moments of your life and make your better half realise how much you love and care for.” Care for what? It doesn’t say. If the sentence had stopped after “realise,” I reckon it would be worth Rs 5000 (plus taxes) for Mr Roland’s and my cheerful personal evening.

The first thing I check out, upstairs in our new room, is the free shop. Just as I suspected, lean pickings. Good thing I picked up the shoe-shine kit and the slippers, in Delhi, then. It'll be like Diwali all over again, for Rani-didi, when I get back.