When the alarm clock broke the silence of the night, José Núñez and I had already been awake for a few minutes. It was four in the morning. Moisture condensed on the windowpanes. We hadn’t dropped below forty degrees. In May, India is a caldera preparing for the arrival of the monsoon. In cities with rivers, mosquitoes seek the coolness of human skin. Neither mosquito nets are effective. I took the plastic bucket that served us as a shower and washed as best I could. After dressing in long linen, sweat returned to my forehead and back. The day would be hotter than the previous one.
We had arrived in Agra a couple of days ago. Like any traveler, we couldn’t set foot in India without taking a close look at the Taj Mahal, “the world’s most impressive monument of love,” as cheesy tourist advertising agencies call it. From the first moment, it was clear to us that the contrast between the Mausoleum and the rest of the city was only understood under the strict Indian parameters of poverty. On the beautiful white marble with black lines, millions of shacks made of plastic and branches multiplied, on either side of the river.
Agra is one of the poorest cities in the entire country. Travelers walk among crowds of begging barefoot across the scorching sand. The streets around the Taj Mahal are a market for spices, caged live animals and mobile phone cases that only serve in the West. The smell hits the traveler, a mixture of sweat, rotten juice and heat concentrated on the fabrics of the awnings. It is a difficult world to reconcile on the other side of the wall that separates the gardens and fountains of the Mausoleum.
José and I had visited the Taj Mahal the previous afternoon, before dark. The great esplanade, dressed in wet roses and fountains, is a rehearsal for an earthly paradise, enclosed in a few kilometers of unreality. Tourists photograph themselves trying to capture the dome of the building with their hands. We walk in silence, observing the flowers, the four minarets that point to the cardinal points. We entered the marble palace and the dry cold enveloped us. The work is a whim among the manure. A drop of unpunished beauty in a sea of poverty. It is difficult to assimilate the contrast and maintain the exemplarity of the good explorer, who marvels despite the previous pain.
The Taj Mahal was also a pain Inscribed in the emperor Shah Jahan I, who after the death of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, had the mausoleum built that would serve as a tomb and memory. It is the greatest architectural example of Arabic and Indian synthesis. The perfection of its curves, sinuous until reaching the sky, testify to a Muslim past in India that has shed so much blood, especially during the 20th century. At dusk, when tourists began to fill the restaurants specializing in chicken masala, José and I stayed in a corner of the garden, appreciating that monument that seemed to have been made for us at that specific time, next to the Yamuna River, as if It was a heavenly liquid that emanates directly from its dome.
That’s why we were standing at four in the morning that day. Only with certain sacrifices could absolute beauty be found. The tuctuc was waiting for us at the door of the hostel. The streets were empty. There was a false peace. Vendors slept on the floor next to their stores. The goats that would be sold the next day licked the lime from the facades of the houses. We observe a family of monkeys vying for a piece of meat. The journey lasted half an hour, but we arrived before dawn, crossing the Yumana through the western part of the city, the poorest, until we reached the opposite bank of the river, where the waters submerged the land in rice fields and the city was still anchored in a time before the Taj Mahal.
It was one of the most intense moments of my life. Everything was dark and the mausoleum shone with its own light, its dome reflecting in the water as if it were made of satin. While José was photographing some snapshots, I observed on the other side, almost by chance, a woman sitting under a large tree. She was dressed in white, a color reserved in India for widows. Being a widow in this country is worse than death. The woman without her husband ceases to exist. She has three options: either marry her brother-in-law, or enter a kind of convent for life, or burn herself on the same pyre as her husband. Despite the fact that the Indian Government has prohibited such practice, the cases are numerous. But that woman I saw under the tree was very young. I was looking towards the river, as if neither José nor I existed, behind the dome of the Taj Mahal, perhaps waiting for the sunrise, the rising of a sun that would burn us all day and that would involve the city in the same circle of extreme poverty and gardens for tourists.
A few minutes later, the driver of the tuctuc forced us to return to the city. Arguing with an Indian is a difficult task. We pay you double what was originally established. When we returned to the garden, the sun had already risen. There was no trace of the widow. Another day began in Agra.