In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
Lal Quila, Delhi’s imposing Red Fort, was a big old structure that came into view long before we actually reached it. ‘‘Its towering red sandstone walls extend for two kilometres and vary in height from eighteen meters on the Yamuna River side, to thirty three meters on the city side’’ I read as Allan made several attempts at swatting a persistent fly. “Red Fort!” exclaimed our rickshaw driver exultantly, arms aloft as if he’d just built the thing himself. Thankfully his hands quickly returned to the steering wheel and seconds later we gurgled to a stop outside the entrance. Although excited at the cultural explorations that lay ahead, my overriding emotion was one of relief that we’d made it in one piece; that my rickety passenger door hadn’t fallen off along the way, with me tumbling after it.
Allan dropped some crumpled notes onto the dashboard and we jumped out, denying our excitable chauffeur the opportunity to contest the fare. Which is exactly what our sneaky taxi driver had done the day before, quoting one price in the beginning and then hitting us with an extortionate fee upon arrival with ridiculous claims that we’d “misheard” him. Allan and I may have only been in Delhi a matter of days, but we were learning fast.
Wading into the crowds at the fort’s entrance and the inevitable onslaught hit us head on. “Which country?” yelled a faceless voice from my left, while to my right a bony hand clamped down hard on my shoulder. “Yes please, red for postcards!” giggled a gaunt looking man, performing a delirious dance around Allan. Having caught our attention, he eagerly produced a sorry pile of faded cards that looked as though they’d gone into print some fifty years ago. Glancing at the top one I saw a group of middle-aged tourists, surely long dead, thumbs up with wide smiles as behind them The Red Fort loomed large. Looking the hawker squarely in the eye, I could see he was totally ignorant as to what a piss poor product he had. “Yes?” he grinned hopefully. “Red Fort!” screeched another opportunist, stabbing a finger towards the colossal construction before us, in case we were somehow confused as to where we were. “Tour only 500!” he continued, hopping from foot to foot.
We pressed on for a bit until suddenly I felt a pair of hands grab hold of my head from behind. Before I could react, a hairy contraption of some sort had been expertly hooked over my ears. “Indian beard make you look lovely jubbly!” chuckled the seller, “only 30 Rupees!” Speechless, I found myself rooted to the spot, Allan howling with laughter. It took a few seconds for the cold hard truth to sink in. Yes, I’d been attacked with a fake beard. It suddenly struck me that from time to time, against all logic and reason; they actually sold some of this pointless tat. Why else would one bother getting up every morning? In a perverse way I admired them, although I had to conclude that if a box of fake beards was all I had to offer the world, I’m not sure I’d have the motivation to continue existing.
Highly amused but ultimately beardless we eventually made it into the fort, buoyed at the prospect of losing ourselves in a few hours of Indian history. Reaching the vast courtyard, an information board told us that construction began in 1638 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the man also behind The Taj Mahal. The fort took a decade to build and was an integral part of Jahan’s plan to move his empire from Agra to Delhi. Sadly for him though this dream was never realized, as he was deposed and imprisoned by his own son Aurangzeb. In fact, legend has it he ambushed his old man with a group of renegades while in disguise. Quite possibly utilizing a thirty Rupee fake beard. Lovely jubbly!
With the street pests banned from entering the complex, we were able to explore the grounds in peace and at a leisurely pace, passing through The Hall of Public Audiences (Diwan-e-am), The Royal Baths and several impressive marble mosques before resting at a colonial teahouse. Several scones and a pot of brew later, we made for the Museum of Archeology, chiefly to seek respite from the burning afternoon sun! Inside we got chatting to a group of friendly locals, a curious collection of male teenagers who were absolutely fascinated by us. The questions came thick and fast:
‘‘How many girlfriends?’’
‘‘How much money you making?’’
‘‘Who killed Princess Diana?’’
“You liking Indian woman?”
‘‘Do you know Beck Ham?’’
After all lines of small talk had been exhausted, an awkward silence fell over us that screamed out for the word “so…”. Right on cue the group’s leader stepped forward, a handsome moustachioed boy called Romeo who reeked of aftershave. He looked more than a little nervous as he cleared his throat, shifting from one foot to the other. Allan and I exchanged glances, sensing an important moment had arrived. “Sir… tell me” ventured Romeo, right hand raised imploringly, ‘‘what do you think of love?” I allowed myself the most discreet of smirks as, awaiting my response, Romeo placed his hand on his chin. A few of his posse even leaned in closer, as if I were about to give them the key to the secret garden. You could have heard a pin drop as Allan turned to me with a raised eyebrow, doing his best to prevent his own smile from breaking out into something more disrespectful. ‘‘I’m gonna let you answer this one’’ he said. “Um… I think… love… is… good” I offered, desperate to avoid further eye contact with my Scottish travel mate. Thankfully I seemed to have provided the right answer and they all signalled their agreement with solemn nods, low mutters and one enlightened ‘‘Aaaaaah’’.
‘‘God bless you sir!” cried Romeo, giving me a hearty slap on the back. He then shook my hand passionately, his companions following suit in what rapidly bloomed into a festival of self-congratulatory hand-shaking, hugging and back-slapping that only stopped when a museum guard came over and told us to take it outside. ‘‘Oh dear’’ laughed Romeo blinking goofily, ‘‘I think we make this man grumpy. The Red Fort is not a place for glee’’.
Feeling peckish, Allan and I exited and broke for lunch at a nearby restaurant. With the rest of his gang having dispersed, Romeo was keen to join us for some more natter, giving us city tips and plenty of insight into the challenges of life in Delhi as an uneducated working class local. Before we parted Romeo had one last thing to add on matters of the heart. “Sir… what you say is very true” he said, nibbling on a Samosa. “Love is good… indeed… but also a little strange. Yes, love is strange”. “Well, yes…” I agreed, amused at his furrowed brow, “this is also true Romeo”.
I saw countless amazing sights and met many colourful people throughout the months I spent travelling around India. And right up there with the best of them was Romeo and the brief but memorable male bonding session in Delhi’s Red Fort.
‘What Do You Think of Love?’ is the third installment of my short story series Incidents In India.