To Agra and back, but when and how?
On the morning of 28th May 2018 which I kind of missed because I was drowsy as fuck , my mother politely asked me, “Are you going to Agra today?”, before leaving for a familial ceremony. Half asleep I played the sentence over and over again in my head till I was sure there was a fair bit of sarcasm in her seemingly polite inquiry.
I had been planning to go to Agra for over a week then. The idea was to leave in wee hours to avoid the afternoon sun. My mother’s polite tirade made me realized that it wasn’t quite going to work out. I had woken up around 10 am. By 11:30 I had packed and was ready. So was the sun.
“Going to Agra and visiting the Taj is one of those things you know that one has to accomplish as a tourist sooner or later. It makes one wonder if much happens in Agra besides this white marbled marvel. ”
It was not among one of my pleasant experiences of intercity travel. Probably only next to my supremely deranging excursion from Delhi to Farrukhabad. I was ‘too hot to travel’ by the time I reached Agra and not in a good way either.
My parents had taken the car to the family function. So I was left with my father’s 100cc Hero Honda CD Deluxe. Now don’t get me wrong, it is a good dependable bike. I have driven it across rural blocks in my hometown during my fellowship with Tata Trusts often clocking more than 100kms per day. But it is not that suitable for a 250kms journey in sweltering north Indian summer along the Agra-Lucknow Expressway – the legacy of erstwhile UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
The thing about expressway is that being newly constructed, not a whole lot of infrastructure has come up to help the riders. Rest facilities and canteens are quite far and there are no private dhabas (small Indian roadside establishment for food and temporary lodging). And if that wasn’t enough, hardly a portion of the Expressway is shaded by trees. Of course the government is in the process of planting but it will take years before there is substantial canopy to provide occasional shade for bike riders.
I started around 11:30 am in Farrukhabad and reached Agra at 4:00 pm driving at a measly 50kmph or so, making only three stops along the way to snack up And believe me it wasn’t possible to exert my 100cc bike more under the heat. Also I was cooked thoroughly by the time I reached the Taj Nagri and checked into a Zostel.
My Stay at Zostel
Entering Agra I drove around for a while looking for places on booking apps and the GPS. And then I came across Zostel. And then I searched no more.
Zostel is located conveniently in the Tajganj Area. It is close to the city entrance and only a few metres away from TajMahal’s East Gate. For 300 INR a day for a bunk in one of the air conditioned dorm rooms it was quite economical. There were 4 bunks in total and none were occupied when I checked in.
The host was friendly and civilized. Check in was quick. There is parking available for bikes. The canteen was lovely and so was the lawn outside.
They had a common water cooler just outside the reception. Inside the walls were covered with testimonials, graffiti, fare rates for cabs if you needed one for local sightseeing, and the map of the Taj Nagri.
The best thing about Zostel Agra was the staff etiquette. They were always ready to help. And most importantly there was no uncalled for snooping or interference. They just let you be.
Things I did and did not while in Agra
I reached Agra on 28th May and left the city on 2nd June, staying for four nights and 3 days.
Didn’t do much the first day. Driving for 5 hours along the expressway was punishment enough. So after checking into my dorm at Zostel around 5 in the evening I took a nap. Woke up around 9 or so and checked out the shops and restaurants nearby until settling on one called the Chef’s Signature.
The Chef’s Signature is located a few buildings ahead of Zostel in the same lane. Owner was a tall burly middle aged man who didn’t speak much but was quite receptive. Pricing was decent. I saw a little guy working there who had an interesting T-shirt on that said, “Make Joints Not War!” Not many customers were around and thankfully my order of onion parathas was ready in a ziffy.
Back in Zostel, I finished dinner while browsing for the list of places and thought up an itinerary that I was going to abandon with extreme prejudice the next morning.
Woke up around 9. I drove around the Taj Nagari for a while surveying the area for shops and restaurants. Driving past the TDI mall situated in the vicinity came across a McDonalds.
Having been working in rural UP for past one year I had not been to a McDonalds for a long time. I saw a spate of customers swarming in…mostly travellers like me. Surrendering to the temptation I went inside. As they prepared the order I once again addressed the pending matter of an itinerary.
Before I could settle on something my order was ready. Finishing my breakfast I realized I had just shelled out more money for a crappy burger and fried potatoes than I was going to pay at Zostel for a day’s stay. Perhaps that’s the irony of middle class existence.
The TDI mall was a mess. I could only guess as to what sort of bureaucratic doggedness coupled with corporate embezzling; perhaps even property dispute may have led to this haunting spectacle. A portion of the building now completely abandoned was only partially constructed and lay embroiled in a disarray of construction material.
The rest half that was in use had a decrepit basement for parking, a McDonalds and a few of those forever on sale shops that sell old mixed branded stock. Surprisingly the lift was working and as I bobbed out of the basement I dawned upon multiple floors with rows of glass-doored empty shops adorned with ‘available for rent’ signs. It was defamiliarizing – this site of staling desolation, this unsettling quite over a modern phenomena that I had previously known only for its noise, romp, glitter and unabashed decadence.
A corner of the top floor had a running theatre. I suddenly felt like I had walked out of a morgue and into a wedding celebration barring the smell of overpriced popcorns that was already flaring up my nostrils. I bought a ticket for an Avengers- Infinity Wars show. I didn’t buy pop corns.
The film was crap. There were hardly 20 people inside. It didn’t matter if you were a bearer of gold, silver or platinum ticket. People sat wherever they wanted to. The guards were wont to be lenient for this miserable turn up. I immediately regretted buying gold.
Coming out of the theatre I was hungry again. The sun should have gone home but was unsurprisingly pulling overtime. It was too hot outside to over-think food choices. I sauntered to Udupi Sudarshan – a south Indian restaurant located adjacent to Zostel, and ordered a Mysore Masala Dosa.
The owners at Udupi had taken sufficient care to fill the walls with run of the mill south Indian cultural artefacts – women in exquisite costumes performing Bharatnatya, hung as posters. In another room inside there was a landscape painting of a Rasleela scene with little artistic merit but in keeping with the decently priced cuisine complemented compromisingly by contemporary sitting.
The dosa was good, served along with a helping of coconut chutney and mild air-conditioning but nowhere close to the 30-rupees-a-plate mysore masala dosas I used to have on street side stalls in Chembur during my post-graduation years at TISS, Mumbai.
Right after I forfeited any plans I had for sightseeing that day and went back to my dorm. One of the benches was now occupied by a tall lanky Frenchman (as I found out later) who seemed in obvious pain and sighed a lot, twisting and turning on a bed that wasn’t quite build to hold men his size. It was not only annoying but also pitiful to see this sick first world tourist using the flush every 10 minutes holding on to pouches of ORS. I tried to make small talk inquiring about his imminent misfortune readying myself for cliché explanations sprinkled with keywords like – ‘Varanasi, heat, food, constipation, fever, fucked up’. The poor Frenchman sufficed and having exerted himself for a nosy native drowsed off. The nosy Indian came out and lit a joint by the watercooler partly amused by the frenchman’s tribulations and partly by the THC.
I won’t write about the dinner I had. I went back to Chef’s Signature and ordered onion parathas. The ‘make joint-not wars’ guy was nowhere to be seen. Frankly I was a bit disappointed. Later in the night we were joined by another Frenchman equally tall, equally constipated. They seemed to arrive like Xeroxes – these Frenchman with their romantic expectations of Eastern hospitability and spirituality morphed to fragrant turds, shooting periodically out of their cultured ass.
I woke up early and vowed to behave myself as a tourist. I needed to do some sightseeing since I was to leave the day after.
Firstly I went to Shahjahan Park. It is a patch of green partly natural and partly a product of nurseries. There is parking outside, so no worries about the vehicle. There is no entry fee. The tourists here were mostly lower middle class and working class men, women and children sprawled on cool velvet patches of lawn grass, a welcome respite in sweltering weather.If one were to travel from one end to the other one would see peacocks, parrots and all sorts of birds whose names I would not know.
Besides there was also an emphatically place enormous marble statue of some Indian leader, I can’t tell which one because I only noticed the posterior and could not care less to take a detour. There were no bird droppings noticeably anointing the top so I presumed either the authorities here ran a tight ship or the local pigeons did give a shit about Indian history. One of which has to be true. And I don’t suppose the former to be so.
I next went to Agra Fort situated right behind the Shahjahan Park. The fort was a grandiose monument made almost entirely of red stone. The entrance was sparsely populated with touristing families posing for their near and dear ones. Occasionally one would come across camera men cum guides who promised quick turnaround for stereotypical shots and interesting tariffs for framed and non-framed photographs – a little something for family albums, those cherished souvenirs of a bygone era when screens didn’t dominate our lives and the romance of paper and plastic was good enough.
Inside the entrance there was another gated corridor where the security had setup the inspection and frisk stalls. Once through here the conventional tourist is awed by the magnitude of an emperor’s ambitions in a time when there was no Bhurj Khalifa, no twin-tower building engineers, just the obstinacy of a royal dream.
I saw the vast courtyards for assembly, the marbled pathways that must have been a defiling contemporary addition by the famously incompetent ASI, the large bathtub for Shahjahan cut out of single rock engraved with Urdu calligraphy, alongside broken podiums and the dilapidated thrones.
The intricate patterns of the ‘jharokas’ and the symmetry of the ceilings left me dumbfounded.
As I saw more, it dawned upon me – the steadfastness of a pure vision, the implicit madness, the profound tenacity that must have materialized this structure. In a time when mud huts were the order of the day, the fort more than anything else must have been a statement of disdain against the commonplace. Few would dare cross a man who held in his power to commission such magnificence.
Retreat and Return
My regards to the few who have made it this far in the article. However let me tell you that I didn’t visit Taj Mahal at all. I did see it from a distance, this shimmering white ‘legacy of love’, but was myself too tired and hungry to visit it after the detours on day 3. I went back to Zostel, rested for a while in the dorm. The constipated Frenchmen were nowhere to be seen.
After a while I went to Udupi again and this time ordered a paper dosa which surprisingly worked better for me than their Mysore Masala, but one should not compare the two. Perhaps I was only hungry. By the time I came back, the first Frenchman was back in the dorm and made a polite request to share a joint. He seemed better and less constipated. I rolled one and we secured a spot next to the water-cooler. He was a muslim, an engineer, on leave for a vacation in India, and had gotten sick while passing through Varanasi. He didn’t care much about Macron and found him ridiculous. I shared my similar sentiments about some politicos in India. Meanwhile, the joint had burnt to death.
The Journey Back Home
Back in the dorm, I took a short nap. When I woke up I packed the remaining of my shit which wasn’t much for an early morning departure. I left around 7 in the morning for Farrukhabad and reached home around 12. The journey back was far better. I am sure I am going to back to Agra sometime soon. There is always something left to see.
FYI I haven’t even visited the Taj Mahal yet 😉