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.
It was a warm sunny morning in Agra as I sat alone on Hotel Shajahan’s front porch, digging into a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and pancakes. My travelling companion Allan was still fast asleep back in the room, so I took advantage of the solitude to sit in the sun and watch the street sellers go about their daily chores.
The Taj Mahal had been nothing short of stunning, a remarkable vision that seemed to actually float on the horizon as we made our approach along the path through the Mughal garden. Halfway along we stopped and sat awhile by the reflective pool, watching young Indian men performing silly poses for photographs. It was a business they seemed to take very seriously, their stern facial expressions in stark contrast to the cheesy posturing. A hand placed camply on the hip here, a thoughtful finger to the chin there; it was all quite amusing.
The closer we got to the Taj the more breathtaking it became, from the perfect symmetry of its minarets to the majestic onion-shaped dome, spectacularly topped with a golden finial. Inside the central chamber we found cenotaphs of Emperor Sha Jahan and his third wife Mumtaz. He’d had it built in her honour after she passed away giving birth to his fourteenth child! As heartbroken tributes go, Mumtaz had done pretty well for herself.
Peering back out across the garden from the Taj’s main archway and I was dismayed to see a rapidly advancing American tour group. A swarm of baseball caps, state-trumpeting T-shirts and bulging waistlines, I allowed myself a wry smile, fully aware that the experience we’d been enjoying was coming to an abrupt end. A minute or so later they were pouring in, a crisscross of noisy overlapping conversations and clicking cameras. Hot on their heels, like moths to a light bulb, came a gang of cowboy tour guides. “Hello sir, best Taj experience secret information!” said one, latching onto a large Texan clutching a McDonald’s bag. And it wasn’t long before one of the cowboys found me. A slight middle-aged man with small bony hands, he dispensed with any kind of introduction, instead launching straight into a shambolic monologue of nonsensical drivel. “Taj Mahal… old… Shah Jahan… love… dead… marble… beautiful… Indian… old”. Ignoring my polite rebuttals, his charade dragged on as he proceeded to follow me around. Eventually growing tired of running around in circles, he gave up on the tour and simply demanded money, refusing to leave until I quietly threatened to assault him with my camera.
With the atmosphere inside having lost all remnants of its previous charm, I exited into the now scorching sunshine, strolling to the southern side of the Taj for views over the muddied waters of The Yamuna. Resting on the long stone wall that spanned the back of the compound, I spent some time gazing down at the river life below. Off in the distance an old woman bent down at the water’s edge with a wicker basket full of dirty laundry. Some way to her right, two young boys busied away loading a mountain of fruit onto a feeble looking wooden boat. Then came the sound of giggling schoolgirls spinning stones into the water, all three in pristine white school uniforms. Totally wrapped up in the scene, I almost jumped out of my skin when a harsh finger dug into my shoulder. “Yamuna River… long… mystic… goddess”.
It was time to go.
‘‘New room better?’’ came a deep voice, shaking me from my thoughts. It was Guddu, Shajahan’s nonchalant, permanently stoned manager. I’d seen him strutting around the place like John Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever, but hadn’t yet had the pleasure of a formal introduction. “Yes, thanks… love the fan!’’ I answered, swallowing one last mouthful of pancake. ‘‘Good’’ he said, pulling up a chair and joining me on the porch as I finished off a cup of spicy chai. Placed somewhere in his early to mid-thirties, Guddu was as skinny as a rake with a full head of sweeping jet-black hair that was clearly his pride and joy. Like many Indian men he was also the owner of a well-groomed paintbrush moustache, adding just a touch of Bollywood to his otherwise run-down demeanour.
We sat in silence for a bit, me sifting through my photos of the Taj, he rolling a giant spliff. If a national casting call had been announced for an Indian version of Happy Days, Guddu would have been a strong contender for the part of The Fonz. “Same same but different” he croaked, eyes slanted through a cloud of smoke. “Sorry?” I asked, looking up from my camera. Smiling to himself knowingly, he merely raised a hand to one of the porch´s crumbling walls. Following the curling wisps of rising smoke, my eyes met the fading letters written in peeling paint:
Hotel Shah Jahan: Same same but different.
“Yes”, said Guddu with a considered drawl, “In some way we like many hotel, food… laundry… bed. But we give no hassle… we respect… we…” Having possibly lost interest, his voice trailed off as he stared vaguely out into the road. Snapping back into life a few minutes later, he told me that he’d seen “many” travellers come and go over the years and that there were “good people” and “bad people”. Luckily I was deemed “good”, which entitled me to a puff on his spliff and a complimentary banana shake. I accepted both.
Over the course of an hour Guddu talked freely of his wife and eight children, one of who was the dumpy boy at reception. Steering me through their ages, weight, eye colours and character traits he talked practically, giving no indication of affection or displeasure along the way. Nor indeed did he reveal any particular hopes or concerns he might have about their futures. ‘‘Baby nine come July’’ he rasped through a mouthful of smoke. Registering my look of surprise, Guddu explained that it was “important” to have a large family, before suggesting I get on with it myself when I get back home. ‘‘Don’t wait!’’ he ordered, fixing me with a determined look, ‘‘find the one and make start’’.
Before I could answer a grisly old tout confronted me. Having spotted me from across the road, he skipped expertly between the traffic and began aggressively peddling an all-inclusive trip to Kashmir, which he described as ‘‘Real India cheapness’’. But his pitch lasted just a couple of sentences before Guddu sent him packing with a few words of harshly barked Hindi. Suddenly I felt blessed to have found Shajahan Guesthouse, even if the room we’d stayed in on our first night had been like something out of a horror film.
‘‘Time to go’’ announced Guddu a few minutes later. After an outstanding yawn that went on for a good ten seconds he stood, stretched and crushed what remained of his joint into the ground with a sleepy smack of the lips. Before departing I asked if I could take his picture, which he readily agreed to saying it would be ‘‘a great honour’’. Pulling a crooked comb out of his back pocket, he spent a good while arranging his hair and giving his moustache a measured brush. Under no direction whatsoever, he shuffled down the porch steps, straddled his motorbike and fixed himself into a sober pose, staring off into the distance. ‘‘James Dean’’ he said, without a trace of humour. “Send me copy!” came his last words to me as he revved up the engine. Popping his business card into my hand, Guddu gave a final salute and sped off down the street, leaving a trail of dust in his wake.