Don’t Dilly-Dally in Delhi

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Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home then to a squalid tent city in a parking lot teeming with the dangerous combination of traffic and unsupervised children, seems a crowded, desperately poor chaotic city, its main street a jumble of decrepit buildings surrounded by garbage, with cows rooting through it and vagrants sitting hopelessly beside it. Set against this squalor and across the road from it was the gated and guarded luxury hotel we stayed in. Here the security guard passed a mirror on a pole underneath the bus to ensure it was not carrying explosives, and our luggage had to pass through a monitored electronic scanner before we could register. Restaurant prices were high, but we were discouraged from seeking meals outside the hotel compound, as much, I suspect, out of concern for the hotel’s lost business as for our alleged safety. An antidote to the wretchedness of the modern city of Agra is Agra Fort itself. From here Shah Jehan, the grandson of Akbar the Great, then a widower, deposed and imprisoned by his own son, could stare glumly out of the window at the tomb of his beloved and favourite wife Mumtaz-i-Mahal, as we did, too, some 400 years later. Her tomb is the nearby Taj Mahal, completed in 1652. He and she now lie together there. At dawn the next morning, among crowds of foreign tourists, we saw why the Taj Mahal is called Earth’s most beautiful man-made structure. The rising sun causes subtle shifts in its colouring as the minutes pass, from pale pink to grey-blue to white. Our guide praised the mathematical precision and symmetry of its architecture and formal gardens, and the ‘chasteness’ of its execution, by which he meant its lack of pictorial representations or ‘graven images,’ forbidden in Islam. The memorial, which cost millions and took 22 years to build, employing architects from as far away as Persia, has been seen by some as a beautiful exercise in self-indulgence, as it is a monument to a mere mortal, and not a mosque for the faithful built to the glory of Allah…

Mr. Karamveer drove us to Delhi with his usual imperturbability and to our hotel by a torturous route through streets clogged with honking and beeping vehicles. He had no GPS and never consulted a map, never showed impatience with auto rickshaws slow to get underway, never seeming to be in a tearing great hurry, although everyone else clearly was. While we waited in a traffic jam for a delayed light to change near the Air Ministry, I counted 52 motorbikes which passed us by the simple expedient of riding along the sidewalk at speed. It is here that I overheard an exasperated mother call to her daughter, “Come on! Don’t dilly-dally!” If the girl’s name were Dolly, she could have rebuked her alliteratively, “Don’t dilly-dally in Delhi, Dolly!”

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Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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