Moonlighting at Taj

Serving an American a leftist take on the Taj Mahal was probably not a good idea.

In the 1960s, during the winter tourist season, the industry often ran short of authorised guides. Students of local colleges were then roped in and, after a crash course, told to go forth and declaim on Delhi and its monuments to some unsuspecting foreign visitor. Some moonlighting over the weekend never hurt anyone.

However, even without the benefit of the short course, I landed one Saturday at the office of a leading travel agency in New Delhi and announced that I was a student tourist guide and that I was available for any assignment. Travel operators were so desperate that without any questions I was propelled into a taxi in which was a middle-aged couple from Kansas, USA.

We spent the entire morning visiting various spots in the capital. In the afternoon, we reached the Raj Ghat. En route, I talked about Gandhiji and how he had been assassinated and then cremated at the spot we were about to visit. I took them around the samadhi and we returned to the entrance. As the lady was putting her shoes on, she looked at me and in a typically mid-western accent asked, “This man Gandhi (‘a’ as in band), is he dead?”

It took about a week for me to recover from the damage to my morale. But the following Saturday afternoon, I landed again at the same agency’s office. They asked me: “Will you take someone to Agra?” I said yes, primarily because I had never been to the city and this seemed to be a good chance to do just that.

My client was a guy from New York. I tried to brief him about Mughal history. I had read Sahir Ludhianvi’s poem on the Taj Mahal in which he berates the emperor for making a mockery of poor people’s love. Serving an American a leftist take on the Taj Mahal was probably not a very good idea. Soon, I heard him snoring in the back seat.

It was evening when we reached his hotel, in time for the happy hour. He told me that later he would like to see the Taj by the moonlight. When he emerged more than just happy from the hotel bar, we headed for the famous monument to love. There, I gave him the story of the tomb. I fudged facts as I went along. He said that he would like to repeat the visit at dawn.

So, there we were. This time he had a mike and a recorder in his hand and he revealed that he was doing travel features for radio, for NBC and, after recording the chirping of the birds nesting in the arches and the eaves in the main gate, asked me to repeat what I had told him the previous evening.

Now I was stumped, because I could not recall most of what I had said. So, I started gingerly, but soon realised that he did not remember either. My narration picked up speed after that. Fresh from the night’s rest, I invented a new story around Shah Jahan’s dethronement, his love for Mumtaz and his death in prison. The new version of Taj Mahal’s history would have been broadcast by the radio network in America. And nobody was the worse for it.

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