Friday, September 30, 2011

Foray into the Amber Fort

Then a truly traumatic thing happened. My camera broke!

It happened at Fatehpur Sikri, the capital built by Mughal emperor Akbar in 1570. It was a vista of sandstone palaces, with the most adorned and luxurious quarters reserved for his Hindu wife. (For you movie buffs, this is the story of Jodhaa Akbar played by the incomparable Aishwarya Rai.) I remember that every pillar in every corner of the Hindu sanctuary was a work of art, exquisitely carved semblances of warrior gods and ripe goddesses. Moderate buildings with high, rounded ceilings were intended for his Muslim wife, all facing east towards Mecca. And for his Christian wife, structures so short and bare, it seemed almost a hovel by comparison and an anomaly in the midst of all this wealth. Guess old Akbar did not think much of Christians.

Maybe it was the karma of the place, the fact that it was abandoned for lack of water shortly after completion and has never housed a soul since. Maybe that is how all tragedies begin. I asked a lovely couple from Georgia, Doug and Cheryl, to take my picture. In passing the camera back and forth, it somehow wound up crashing on the red sandstone ground at the most inopportune angle so that the lens was permanently open and disabled. (And it was a new camera too).

I was in shock. Doug and Cheryl were so sweet and conscientious that they offered me the use of their camera throughout the trip, offered to take me camera shopping despite our limited time in India. We ended up becoming friends and the accident was forgotten, even though they mailed me a check to replace the camera after I returned home.

Onward to Jaipur, otherwise known as the Pink City, and India’s city of gems. We rode elephants (a blatant tourist trap, but what the heck) up the hilltop to the Amer Fort and Natasha complained that she was constantly molested by the mahout and rickshaw pullers as she got on and off various means of transportation. Of course, her bosom baring blouses were the culprit and the beautiful Russian shrugged, admitting she did not own any other clothes. Not even when she was asked to cover her flawless flesh to enter a Hindu temple.

Quite honestly, the Amber (Amer) Fort was the most astounding architecture I had ever seen. Home of the Rajput Maharajas, it was a dazzling amalgam of Hindu, Mughal, and even Arabic influences. Upon entering, it was a vision of pale rose sandstone. The interiors were an intricate complex of courtyards and halls. There were entry doors embossed with gold and silver leaves, marble and sandalwood colonnades. In the Sheesh Mahal, Hall of Mirrors, thousands of mirror mosaics reflect and refract light from a single glittering candle. Each hall and corner unveiled a new wonder, a fantasy of architecture that words could not convey. If there was ever place to mourn the loss of a camera, this would be it.

Except I didn’t. I felt oddly lightened. I enjoyed the sheer visible beauty in every moment and experienced it fully, instead of trying to find the perfect distance, angle, and lighting for a photograph. I didn’t realize how much of the moment I had missed and how much pressure I felt before in trying to document the moment. I was liberated from all that, and Doug & Cheryl kept on flashing their digital cameras so I wound up with a gorgeous collection of photos nonetheless.

Sometimes, the loss of an old habit is the beginning of a new freedom. I have never felt compelled to take photos since. The experience and the memory have satisfied me enough to forego the physical reminders.

Yet, the final flavors of India were in the colorful bazaars of Jaipur, known for its jewels and hand-woven carpets. The air was utterly unbreathable, dusty and reeking of cow dung. A young mother carrying an infant was begging by the entrance. She had lost some teeth, even though she could not be more than twenty. She reached out and her touch was light as a breeze even as she implored my charity. Then she touched her shoulder, showing diseased and ruined flesh.

Shame on me, but I shrank back in terror, wondering if the disease was contagious as I fled back to the tour bus. I was so terrified that I did not remember to give the poor girl any money, although Anh Quang (couple from DC) informed me that she probably belonged to some gang that would take all meager rupees she managed to get anyway. My heart broke as I thought about her dual paths to doom; the young mother would be beaten if she failed in begging, but getting those few pennies did not mean she and her baby would eat.

That was the very essence of India; it shocked you. The sheer beauty of its architecture and ingenuity of its people overwhelmed your senses that such creation could exist. Yet, the sloth, the suffering, and the callousness of the natives also shook your very core, as the elites did not bother to look twice at those rotting in filth and disease.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

India: Heaven and Hell: Part II

India is like a jungle: raw, wild, and dangerous, particularly if you are a woman. My friend Shrubhra, who grew up in Delhi, said that her hometown had the highest rate of crimes against women in the country and that India had the highest number of offenses against females in world. Yet, there were unexpected bursts of sweetness, like papaya and mango, seeds of love and longing.

Enter the Taj Mahal, signature of India, and memorial of love by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his much mourned third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after the birth of their fourteenth child. An exquisite wonder of white marble, it combines Persian, Turkish, and Indian architectural elements into a mausoleum of undeniable of Muslim origin.

I watched the face of the tomb soften with the dawning of the day; blue undertones predominated in the early rising, and the beckoning warmth of red and yellow highlights as the sun climbed higher in the sky. Marble is mobile, fluid, and expressive. The Taj unfolded its own symphony of light. Despite her death, Mumtaz Mahal left her legacy.

Beside me stood my mother, and another couple from our tour, watching, fascinated by this fantastic structure even though the guide talked endlessly without releasing us to much desired free time. Renegade that I was, my wanderlust kicked in and I stalked off, exploring the angles of the mausoleum in the allotted hour. The others followed and the couple was close behind me. The woman was Filipina, smooth as wood and luminous as water. The man was tall and pale, a handsome German with a hardy stride who only had eyes for his wife.

On the ride back to the hotel, the wife introduced herself as Andrea and proceeded to tell me their story (upon my shameless prompting, of course). She was actually nine years older than he, she said a bit cautiously, and they had met nearly two decades ago in the Philippines when she was going to school and he was backpacking. They rode on the same bus, and he never noticed her. Fast forward fifteen years later, and they met again at a wedding in Canada and retraced their adventures to the first time they crossed paths. They became friends and at first she could not believe that he would be romantically interested in her due to the age difference. But he was. So much so that he moved from Munich, Germany to the other side of the world to join her.

So it was love, she admitted, and she had not thought such love was possible for her. Her eyes mirrored her husband’s with the same sentiment that drove Shah Jahan to create an epitaph for his beloved.

It had been a long time since I thought of love. Sometimes I don’t allow myself to imagine it, because not all love stories end happily. But when it does, it is like finding heaven in another person, and you follow it until you are lip-locked with the divine.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

India: Heaven and Hell: Part I

My first exposure to India was Suneeta, an eloquent fourteen-year-old high school sophomore who became my best friend. I admired her velvety voice, voluptuous curves she couldn't hide even back then, and skin of cinnamon, strangely immune to break-outs. Her home smelled of curry and strange spices and tumeric, and she told me that she worshipped innumerable gods. There was a god of learning and fireplaces, of nourishment and rain. She even told me the essence of Hinduism: man was part animal and part divinity; when we die, the divine essence that is us joins Nirvana (God), while the animal aspect perishes with the body.

Fast forward fifteen years and I was sojourning to India with my mother, a tour group, and dozens of enthusiastic Slumdog Millionaire fans. Seated beside me on the plane was Natasha, a Russian beauty in the Old World European style of Isabella Rossellini and Nastassia Kinski. She had eyes of Egyptian jade and she was so breathtaking that many mistook her for a supermodel. Refined as she was, she was the very antithesis to my first glimpse of India.

At first glance, the land of India was squalid. My luggage arrived covered with dust merely from riding along the baggage claim. We befriended another Vietnamese couple because our red suitcases were similarly soiled and we were brushing them off with identical expressions of disgust.

Aside from the highways, many roads were comprised of dirt and cows roamed as regal creatures from sacred lore. Men urinated freely in the streets and dirty, ragged children chased each other among piles of rubbish, their laughter conveying a far happier existence than a nation plagued with depression and anxiety. Women sauntered in the flamboyant hues of magenta and cobalt, saris that were brilliantly beaded, covered the squalor like curtains before a stage.

Then I saw small, dilapidated huts within a block of majestic mansions, and cow dung littering the sidewalk. India was a shock to my system, as I realized that the affluent passed the starving everyday without taking a second glance. The caste system teaches that the untouchables belonged in their pitiful situation, that they deserved their unceasing poverty and the brahmin were conditioned to ignore them, since they had no role in the alleviation of the suffering. This was all due to karma, the untouchables had committed evil in prior lives and were relegated to this doom, while the higher castes had elevated themselves through good and moral deeds.

There was no sense of social responsibility, except for the altruistic foreign organizations and folks like the Albanian Mother Theresa to help the poorest of the poor.

I thought this was a semblance of Hell, a world where the poor lament their fate as inevitable and the wealthy did not care. Perhaps this is closer to America than I realized.