Friday, December 5, 2008


On the tarmac of the Jaipur airport the Italian woman who had been sitting in front of Clarice collapses. The woman's boyfriend catches her just before she hits the hot asphalt.

On the bus ride into town Clarice realizes that her perspective has become warped: she has seen so many photographs of them that she imagines the Rajasthani men in brilliant red, pink and chartreuse turbans are wearing their headdress solely for her benefit.

Camels pull carts of marble and slate. Humpbacked bullocks wander down the center of the streets. A goat big as a donkey nibbles at the tattered bottom of a movie poster. Rollo is sitting across the aisle from Clarice. These women's saris, he thinks, they're eye-catching. Peacock green and royal purple are colors that would really move in Westwood.

A thin old man pedals a bicycle cart loaded down with truck batteries. With sad intensity, Dalits break piles of rock. Oh my, thinks Trudy, sitting three rows behind Rollo, these people have such work. Sometimes I wish I could do it for them.

In the old town, city regulations require that all buildings be painted pink. Down-market Disney, thinks Rollo. The bus passes shop after busy specialty shop: fans, film, suitcases, stainless steel cooking pots, scooter parts. Sidewalk merchants sit cross-legged with their goods spread out on blankets before them: pomegranates, lemons, plastic sandals, comic books. Rollo holds his camera up to the window. These people know nothing about profit margins. Simpletons: it's all about volume.

Afternoon sun beats down on the 18th century Jantar Mantar, the largest stone observatory in the world. Romance languages intertwine with Urdu and Rajasthani as the tour group's slick new guide, Gieve--pressed slacks, blow-dried hair and Ray-ban sunglasses--hurries through an explanation of ancient astronomy. Clarice raises her hand and asks a question about orbital velocity. Gieve smiles and ignores her. The guides are parrots, Clarice thinks. They don't even know what they're saying.

Pigeons coo from the hundred foot high gnomon of a sundial; the smell of stagnant water rises from green pools. Damn woman, thinks Gieve. What does she expect?

Gieve hustles his group through the City Palace: "See giant silver urns? What are they for? One maharajah went to England and brought Ganges water with him to drink. Devout Hindu. Water was not so dirty then. Very amusing. Come on, please, we must go." Trudy glances over her shoulder at the residence of the current maharajah who is, according to Gieve, one of the richest men in India. His family still occupies much of the complex. Satellite dishes cast shadows from his roof. So much wealth in one man's hands when so many are so poor, Trudy thinks. Why can't they spread it around?

The maharajah peeks out of a small window in an upper story. I can't go out until those idiots leave, he thinks. What time does the last tour end?

"Do you want to see how they make gemstones?" Gieve asks when they are back on the bus. Someone say yes, he thinks, someone.

Good lord, thinks Clarice, not this line again. "No!" she shouts.

Trudy remembers being told by a friend that the guides must ask first if their charges want to go to a shop, but once they get an affirmative, they take a cut of whatever is bought--"Up to forty percent," Trudy's disgusted friend had said. "No!" Trudy shouts.

"Sure!" Rollo exclaims. The stateside mark-up on jewelry could be tremendous, he thinks.

After a cursory two minute demonstration of gem polishing, the group is herded into the showroom and the selling begins. A boy passes out cold soft drinks. An army of young men in silk shirts stands behind the counters. "You want to see rubies? We are having best quality emeralds this season now."

Exasperated, Clarice stalks back out to the air conditioned bus. The gem polisher sneaks on board. He holds out the tiny semi-precious stones. "Hello, my friend. You want? One hundred rupees."

"No, I don't want."

"Nice star ruby, nice moonstone."

"I don't want to buy anything from anybody ever again."

"Garnet. Look. Turquoise. Two for one hundred rupees."

"I hate gems."

"Okay, five dollars only. Okay, how much?"

Inside, Rollo is bargaining with a salesman. Trudy lounges on a couch and holds an ice-cold can of Fanta up to her forehead. That fat guy, what's-his-name. He's such a greedy dork.

That frizzy-haired liberal is staring at me again, thinks Rollo. She wants me. Definitely. But that would be a big mistake.

Clarice gets out of the bus and walks down the street. Smog hangs heavy in the air. Puddles of stinking sewage glimmer blue-gray in the gutter. A finger taps insistently at her shoulder blade. "Okay, three for five dollars. Okay, how much?"

The next morning, freshly showered, Clarice thinks, We never talk to each other in this group. We're all a bunch of slugs. She looks around at the other ten people on the bus. God, she thinks, it's not worth it.

The moment Trudy steps from the bus to take a photograph of the Hawa Mahal, the famous Palace of the Wind, she is besieged by hawkers and beggars. Beautiful, she thinks of the terra cotta cupolas above scores of latticed windows. Better get a postcard, though. I can't enjoy it like this.

Necklaces, packages of worthless coins, marionettes and riding whips are thrust in Rollo's face by seedy men with scruffy beards. "Best picture is up on roof. Come with me." Legless beggars push themselves along on carts, tugging at his pant legs. School children squawk, "Pen, pen, pen," like some new species of parakeet. "Go to hell," says Rollo. "All of you people can just go to hell."

After Rollo scrambles back on board, the group heads for the Amber Fort, northeast of Jaipur. "Whu whu," Gieve breathes into the microphone. "Who wants to go for elephant ride?" Clarice, Trudy, Rollo and all the others burst into applause that is not a little sarcastic. Fools, thinks Gieve. As if I don't notice their scorn.

The moment the bus parks, the group is assailed by determined hawkers specializing in brass peacocks: "Three hundred rupees. Okay, two-fifty. Okay, how much?"

"I'll give you one rupee," Rollo says.

"Okay, one dollar, okay." Five hands thrust peacocks in his face.

"No, one rupee."

They look at him as though he has offered to rape their mothers. "Forget it."

"One rupee?"

"Screw you," someone mumbles.

The elephant Clarice boards with three others has open sores behind both ears. What next? she thinks. The animal sways slowly uphill towards the fort, bumping her legs against the wall.

Trudy and Rollo, riding together on a healthier elephant, pass by. Poor beast, Trudy thinks. Rollo is patting his shirt pockets. Now where are my damned sunglasses?

Clarice surmises that her elephant is very sick. Below her the boulder-strewn hillside stretches down to a fetid lake. She has a sudden presentiment that she will be crushed to death by a lame elephant in northwestern India in her thirty-second year: unmarried, the mother of no children, creator of no lasting monument. At least it will be an exotic death, she thinks. Painful, however.

Instead, her elephant lumbers on. A hawker takes advantage of its sluggishness. "You want puppet?"

"No," says Clarice.

He throws one into her lap. "Here, you take. Free."

Clarice tosses it back down to him and begins speaking the few phrases of Welsh she remembers from her year as an exchange student. "Ble rydych chi'n byw?"

"My name Johnny. I see you when you come back down, okay?"

"Da iawn, diolch."

The fort has grand views of the rocky landscape around them, but it is crowded with tourists and beggars and screeching monkeys. Trudy and Rollo stand next to each other in the Hall of Victory. They catch each other's eyes in the thousand inlaid mirrors. What a jerk, thinks Trudy.

Two swamps have formed under Rollo's armpits. She's after me again. I'm going to have to say something. Set her straight.

As Clarice is walking back down from the fort, a hawker accosts her. "Hello. Johnny. Remember?" He holds out the puppet. Clarice shakes her head, no. "Hey, you promised!" He says it with such force she half-believes that she did make some promise. She looks in Johnny's eyes. He's desperate. He'd rob me if he thought he could get away. She walks quickly for the coach.

These stingy foreigners won't part with a single paise, Johnny thinks. "You promised!" he shouts after her, already looking for another customer.

Gieve has been replaced by a long-boned, serious-faced woman named Padma who will serve as guide for the long, jarring bus ride from Jaipur to Agra. Neem and eucalyptus trees line the highway. The bus passes camel carts and scooters as the driver plays chicken with the big Tata and Ashok Leyland lorries. In the fields, brightly clad women move among the sugar cane. Skinny boys tend herds of goats. House crows perch on the roofs of mud huts and concrete shacks. Huge sows lounge in the monsoon puddles, rolling in the orange mud. When I get home, Trudy thinks, I will never take my luxury for granted again.

The bus stops in Fatehpur Sikri, a city built centuries ago, briefly inhabited, then abandoned by the emperor and his citizens. The hawkers, however, have not abandoned Fatehpur Sikri. Padma hires a local guide on the spot, a bony young man with a smile like a villain in a slasher film. Parvati, please, thinks Padma, let the boy not be a crook.

"Excuse me. This is place Akbar came because vision a saint had. You know, saint? Excuse me. He wants have a son and Akbar builds tomb because saint says he will have son. Excuse me. This where harem staying. You know, harem?"

Clarice thinks, This man picked up his English on the street--of course it's not perfect. He only looks like a criminal. A green parrot squawks from the top of a red sandstone palace. The evening breeze, carrying a hint of incense, blows cool against the sweat on her skin.

As the Americans climb the steps of the Panch Mahal, a five-story, colonnaded tower, men appear from nowhere to help them up the stairs. Clarice is terrified of heights, and she nearly plummets to the ground while trying to extricate herself from a stranger's grasp. Trudy pays another man ten rupees to leave her alone. He wants more, keeps tugging at her sleeve. "No," she says. "No!" But he is insistent. "Baksheesh, madam. Hello?"

Rollo comes up from behind, taps the man hard on the shoulder. "Piss off, mate," he snarls. Trudy smiles her thanks.

"These people are vultures," Rollo says. She'll probably want to get engaged now, he thinks.

God, thinks Trudy, I hope he doesn't feel I owe him anything.

Agra is a one trick town, thinks Clarice the next morning, and that one trick is the Taj Mahal. The Taj is enclosed by red sandstone walls on three sides and the Yamuna River on the other. 10:30 a.m. Already Rollo is dripping with sweat. Coming at the apex of so much de rigueur sightseeing, the Taj seems to him almost anticlimactic. In Rollo's guidebook there is a quote >from J.A. Hodgson, a nineteenth-century British traveler: "It is, I suppose, one of the most perfect and beautiful buildings in the world." Rollo supposes Hodgson is correct. Yet the Taj is so much itself and nothing else--so emphatically the symbol of India--that he finds it difficult to get excited. Okay, there it is: huge and white. Now what am I supposed to do with it?

The temperature at 105 , the group treks through Agra Fort, a massive Mogul structure much like the Amber Fort--echoing buildings, perspiring tourists in short pants and sunglasses, soft drink vendors, mosquitoes, flies. On the way back to the bus they are descended upon by a ten year old boy with a terrible case of elephantiasis. He bounces along the pavement on huge, bloated feet, his long rubbery toes flapping up and down, cartoon-like and grotesque. Trudy nearly faints from the heat and shock. This is it, she thinks, the worst thing I've ever seen.

Before they return to the Sheraton, their new guide, Shiv, a short gruff man Clarice believes has clearly seen the Taj several hundred more times than is good for anyone, asks, "Would you like to see how they make the inlaid marble boxes? Very famous handicraft in Agra." This time nearly everyone joins Clarice and Trudy in calling out, "No!"

Only Rollo yells, "Yes, please." As the others glare at him, Rollo thinks, Sour pusses. If they knew how hot the import market is right now, they'd change their tune.

"Okay," the guide says, "you come in for a minute. Only look, don't have to buy." Don't buy, he thinks, and all of you can rot.

Once they arrive at the shop, everyone but Clarice decides to go in after all. She sits in the bus brooding. These people. They never stop. They turn you into the ugly American whether you like it or not.

In the afternoon the tour bus heads for the Itimad-ud-daulah across the river. It is a slow drive through crowded streets; no hawkers and only a handful of other tourists are there. The Itimad-ud-daulah is the tomb of the great-uncle of Mumtaz Mahal, the woman buried under the Taj. A squat, single-story structure, it is nevertheless covered with ornate pietra dura, the marble inlay decorating the Taj Mahal and the boxes in the shops. The building is dotted with holes where admirers have chipped out and stolen the semi-precious stones. Rollo reaches into his pants for his pocket knife.

A tribe of monkeys lives within the walls of the compound, nursing their young, playing with plastic bags in the long grass, dropping out of mango trees like overripe fruit. Trudy creeps into their midst then quietly hunches over her notebook. Diane Fossey, she thinks. This is totally Diane Fossey. A bird sings in the branches of an ashoka tree. From across the Yamuna comes the sound of honking horns, the smell of the factory smoke that is eating away at Agra's monuments.

That spacey one is going to get in trouble, Clarice thinks.

Rollo is in a dark corner of the tomb, digging at the wall with his knife.

Suddenly, Trudy feels a hand on her shoulder, firm but not necessarily aggressive. She slowly turns her head. Monkey breath, she thinks. The gray eyes blink. Very carefully she stands and walks away, her shoulders still hunched, her heart pounding. Oh God, seven rabies shots in the gut and none of the needles will be sterilized.

Clarice, who has seen it all, strides towards her. When Trudy is thirty yards away she turns around to see a big male scratching his chest, his genitals red and engorged. She puts her arms around Clarice and begins sobbing. Clarice pats her back. This could never happen at home, Trudy thinks.

Not in a million years, thinks Clarice.

Finger and thumb rubbing the smooth stone in his pocket, Rollo glances out >from the tomb and sees Trudy and Clarice embracing. Well, I'll be damned, he thinks. Lesbians.

Allah have mercy on the souls of these people, thinks the gatekeeper, shaking his head at Trudy and picking up a half-smoked cigarette from the ground. It is only through His will that they do not die of their own stupidity.
--Brought you by RK

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