He hesitated about taking the boy to Fatehpur Sikri right after their lunchtime tour of the Taj Mahal; two major Mughal monuments in one afternoon could be considered excessive. But it was less than an hour’s drive away, he reasoned, and to fit the two sites into one day was the generally accepted practice. They could be back at their hotel in Agra by early evening and after an early night with the television and room service they could leave for Delhi, refreshed, the following morning. The reasoning prevailed.
When he mentioned part of this plan to the driver of his hired car, the young man, all longish hair and golden chain around his neck and golden wristlet and chunky watch, took it as a veiled order to go about the business in record time. He revelled in the opportunity to drive through the dusty, cratered slip road to Fatehpur Sikri at organ-jostling speed, punctuated by abrupt jerking into rest when impeded and then launching as suddenly into motion again. They passed a string of dingy roadside eateries, teashops, cigarette-and-snack shacks. The bigger ones boasted signboards and names. There were the predictable ‘Akbar’, ‘Shahjahan’, ‘Shahenshah’, a ‘Jodha Bai’, even a ‘Tansen’, which was ‘100% VAGETARIAN’. There had been a speed-warning sign earlier, while leaving Agra: ‘Batter late than never.’ Not for the first time he wondered, in a country given over to a dizzying plenitude of signs, how unsettled their orthography was. A Coca-Cola hoarding adorned the top of one small shop, the brand name and shout line written in Hindi script.
‘Coca-Cola,’ the boy said, able to read that trademark universal wave even though he couldn’t read the language.
‘We can have one after we’ve done our tour,’ he said, his mind occupied by trying to work out if another order to the driver to slow down to prevent their incipient motion sickness would be taken as wilfully contradictory; he worried about these things.
The boy seemed subdued; he didn’t move from the bare identification of the familiar brand to wanting it. Ordinarily, he would have been compulsively rattling off the names written in English on shopfronts and billboards. While he was grateful for his son’s uncharacteristic placidity, he wondered if he hadn’t imposed too much on a six-year-old, dragging him from one historical monument to another. He now read a kind of polite forbearance in the boy’s quietness, a way of letting him know that this kind of tourism was wholly outside his sphere of interest but he was going to tolerate his father’s indulging in it. After a few questions at the Taj Mahal which began as enthusiastic then quickly burned out into perfunctory – ‘Baba, what is a mau-so-le-um?’, ‘Is Moom-taz under this building?’, ‘Was she walking and moving and talking when Shajjy-han built this over her?’ – they had stopped altogether. Was it wonder that had silenced him or boredom? He had tried to keep the child interested by spinning stories that he thought would catch the boy’s imagination: ‘Do you see how white the building is? Do you know that the emperor who had it built, Shah Jahan, had banquets on the terrace on full-moon nights where everything was white? The moonlight, the clothes the courtiers and the guests wore, the flowers, the food – everything was white, to go with the white of the marble and the white light of the full moon.’ The boy had nodded, seemingly absorbing the information, but had betrayed no further curiosity, had followed with no questions.
Now he wondered if his son had not found all this business of tombs and erecting memorials to the dead and immortal grief macabre, unsettling. His son was American, so he was not growing up, as he had, with the gift of ghost stories, first heard sitting on the laps of servants and aunts in his childhood home in Calcutta, then, when he was a little older, read in children’s books. As a result, he did not understand quite what went on inside the child’s head when novelties, such as the notion of an order of things created by the imagination residing under the visible world and as vivid as the real one, were introduced to him. He made a mental note to stick to historical facts only when they reached Fatehpur Sikri.
Or could it have been the terrible accident they had narrowly avoided witnessing yesterday at the moment of their arrival at the hotel? A huge multi-storey building was going up across the road, directly opposite their hotel, and a construction worker had apparently fallen to his death just as their car was getting into the slip lane for the hotel entrance. As they waited in the queue to get in, people had come running from all directions to congregate about twenty metres from where they were. Something about the urgency of the swarming and the indescribable sound that emanated from that swiftly engorging clot of people, a tense noise between buzzing and truculent murmuring, instantly transmitted the message that a disaster had occurred. Otherwise how else would the child have known to ask, ‘Baba, people running, look. What’s happening there?’ And how else could the driver have answered, mercifully in Hindi, ‘A man’s just fallen from the top of that building under construction. A labourer. Instant death, poor man.’
He had refused to translate, had tried to pull his son back from craning his neck out, but as the queue of cars moved forward, through a chance aperture in the hive of people around the death, he saw, for the briefest of flashes, a patch of dusty earth stained the colour of old scab from the blood it had thirstily drunk. Then the slit closed, the car started advancing inch by inch and the vision ended. He saw his son turning his head to continue to stare at the spot. But had he really seen the earth welt like that, or had he just imagined it? There was no way he could ask the boy to corroborate. As soon as he thought that, all the worries came stampeding in: had the child seen it? Was he going to be affected by it? How could he establish if he had without planting the idea in the boy’s head?
All of last night his mind had been a pincushion to these sharp questions until he had fallen asleep. They returned again now, summoned by the boy’s unnatural quietness. By the time they got off at Agra Gate, having shaved all of ten minutes from the journey, the boy was looking decidedly peaky and he felt that his own lunch had risen up to somewhere just behind his sternum in rebellion.
The driver grinned: there was just the right touch of the adversarial in the gleam of self-satisfaction. More than twenty years of life in the academic communities of the East Coast of the USA had defanged him of the easy Indian ability to bark at people considered servants, so he swallowed his irritation, even the intention to ask the driver to take it more gently on the journey back in case he couldn’t control the tone and it was interpreted as a peremptory order. Instead, he said in Hindi, ‘We won’t be more than an hour.’
The driver said, ‘OK, sir,’ nodding vigorously. ‘I will be here.’
He checked the car to see if he had taken everything – a bottle of water, his wallet and passport, the guidebook, his small backpack, his phone, his son’s little knapsack – then shut the car door and held out his hand. The boy’s meek silence bothered him. Where was the usual firework display of chatter and fidgety energy, the constant soundtrack of his aliveness?
He kneeled down to be on level with the boy and asked, tenderly, ‘Are you tired? Do you want to go back to the hotel? We don’t have to see this.’
The boy shook his head.
‘Do you want a Parle’s Orange Kream?’ he asked, widening and rolling his eyes to simulate the representation of temptation in the advertisements.
The boy shook his head again. Behind him, on a grass verge, a hoopoe was flitting across. He said, ‘Look!’ and turned the boy around.
The boy looked dutifully but didn’t ask what it was.
‘It’s a hoopoe. You won’t see this bird in New York,’ he supplied the answer gratuitously.
The boy asked, ‘Is this a moss-o-moll-lom?’
‘No, sweetheart,’ his father laughed, ‘it’s not a mausoleum. It’s a palace. You know what a palace is, don’t you? A very good and powerful king lived here. His name was Akbar. I told you about him last night, remember?’
‘That was Shajjy-han, who built a big big marble stone on his wife and she died and he was very sad and cried all the time.’ The innocence of his American accent suddenly moved his father.
‘No, this is different. Akbar was his grandfather. Come, we’ll look at it. It’s a different colour, see? All red and brown and orange, not the white that we saw earlier.’
They passed some ruined cloisters, then a triple-arched inner gateway, solidly restored, and, slightly further from it, a big domed building that was awaiting restoration work. Touts, who had noticed a man and a small boy get out of the car, descended on them.
‘Guide, sir, guide? Good English, sir. Full history, you won’t find in book.’ Not from one voice but from an entire choir.
Beggars, crippled in various ways, materialized. From the simplest pleading, with a hand repeatedly brought up to the lips to signify hunger, to hideous displays of amputated and bandaged limbs, even an inert, entirely limbless, alive torso laid out flat on a board with wheels – this extreme end of the spectrum of human agony filled him with horror, shame, pity, embarrassment, repulsion, but, above all, a desire to protect his son from seeing them. How did all these other people drifting around him appear to be so sheathed in indifference and blindness? Or was the same churning going on inside them? Truth was, he felt he was no longer a proper Indian; making a life in the plush West had made him skinless like a good, sheltered First World liberal. He was now a tourist in his own country; no longer ‘his own country’, he corrected himself fastidiously. He suppressed the impulse to cover the boy’s eyes with his hands and said impatiently, ‘Sweetie, can we move a bit faster please.’ It came out as a command, the interrogative missing.
Men came up with accordions of postcards, maps, guidebooks, magazines, photos, toys, current best-sellers in pirated editions, snacks, rattles, drinks, confectionery, tinsel, dolls, plastic replicas of historical buildings, books, whistles and flutes . . . He kept shaking his head stoically, a tight half-smile on his lips, and ushered his boy along.
The child, distracted one moment by a tray of carved soapstone figures, then another instant by a flashing, crudely copied replica of an inflatable Superman toy, kept stalling to stare.
‘Baba, Baba, look!’
‘Yes, I know. Let’s keep moving.’ He was so relieved – and grateful – that the cheap toys had diverted the child’s attention away from the suppuration and misery that he almost broke step to buy one of those baubles.
That small manifestation of interest was enough. The loose, dispersed assembly of touts and pedlars now tightened into a purposeful circle.