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.