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A Problem in Mumbai

11 August

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We had a problem. Mum’s brand new suit, tailored by ‘Master’ had Hindi writing in orange indelible ink over the back of one sleeve. Clearly it could not be worn. We were bashing the doors down at the fabric shop even before they opened and their baffled faces turned wary as we made our complaint. They discussed in heated Hindi the issue. Everyone from the owner to the cleaner had a good look at the offending sleeve. It was scratched by everyone’s index fingernail, held up to the light, sighed over and finally declared to be chalk. We (mother and I) poo-pooed this idea at once, it was very clearly not chalk and rather glaringly orange indelible ink.

Master was called. And while we waited for him to arrive we started the process of going through new salwar suit packages. In their desperation to please, nearly every cellophane-wrapped parcel was removed from the shelves. A servant was sent to buy stain remover and master arrived and grassed up the desk clerk by announcing that he had authorised the using of the inky material.

We left them with the problem and went off to buy skeins for my cross stitch as my entire nine month collection had been mislaid. For some reason the haberdashers is always located in the vegetable market where we duly went and I merrily bought thirty-four Anchor brand skeins at under £1.00 – serious bargain.

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However, we had another problem. This one was far more serious. Whilst packing our rucksacks that morning it was discovered that Mum didn’t have her camera (the beloved G10). We tried to mentally retrace the previous day’s steps: The tour, the thali, the internet cafes. Had we been to the perfume shop, what about Leopold’s? The days meshing together in a confused jumble. “Don’t worry about it” I said (rather magnanimously, I thought) “It’s just a possession. No-one has broken a limb” But Mum was inconsolable, she would not be consoled. “Besides which, this is India, if an Indian person has found it we will get it back” I added confidently. “If a foreigner has found it – you can kiss your Canon goodbye.”

On our way to the tailors we had been to Leopold’s – it was not there. We had asked at the cloth shop – also not there. So, after the haberdashers we wended back through the streets to the first internet cafe from the day before. But we were stopped out side the temple and the man explained that today was a festival for Shiva and he performed a small puja (offering or prayers) for us. Tying a red and yellow string around our wrists and painting our foreheads with red tikka. After which we continued our journey to the internet cafe where we explained our situation to the desk-dude and he went to get his boss. The boss arrived, took one look at us and exclaimed “Madam, you left your camera. Don’t worry I have it here safe.” Mum and I almost burst into tears.

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Nerves jangling like a temple bell we strode back into the fabric shop, battle-ready. What would be their solution, if any, or would we be fighting for our money back? On entering our nostrils prickled with the acrid scent of stain remover, not unlike old fashioned nail varnish remover – before they took the poison out. But the indelible ink indelibly remained. Chalk indeed!

In the end it was us that solved the problem suggesting that Master (we were starting to doubt the veracity of the epithet) found some off-cuts of same baby-pink material and inserted panels into the underside of each arm. But he would have to be quick because we had to check out at 12 and our train was at 14.00 from Bandra Terminus (don’t you just love the names? Terminus – makes me want to coo-chi-coo India under the chin).

I ditched Mum and started Olympic power walking back through the Colaba streets to get back to the hotel before the clock took us over into the “next day charges”, my dupatta billowing behind me like chiffon wings.

We hit the road (Jack). After an eventful local train journey to Bandra and fight with a rickshaw driver we eventually made our way to the correct train station and platform. We still were not sure of our travel status. We were told by the inquiry desk that we had been allocated one seat between us and by the Chief Reservation Manager that we had been allocated a first class cabin….

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As it turned out we had only been allocated one seat/bed for our eighteen hour train ride to Udaipur. It was a Lower Side berth meaning that we had our own window and was luckily in A/C class. We immediately engendered the animosity of all the other passengers (all men) around us because the passenger from the upper side bunk is supposed to be able to sit on the lower side bunk whilst it is a seat during the day (it gets converted into a bed for the evening). We drew our curtain across us, thus maintaining a dignified purdah (the custom (mostly Muslim) of keeping women in seclusion; veiled), from behind which we giggled, chortled and on occasions roared with laughter as we negotiated legs, bags, books and even dinner.

We settled down to sleep at around 22.00 a contortion of legs and carefully positioned bottoms as we top and tailed on the tiny Indian-person-sized (albeit a fairly wealthy Indian person) bed. As we had also pissed of the officious conductor by only having our reservation printout and not our ticket in triplicate, notarised and signed by the mayor we had not dared to ask for the possibility of another bed. My meek request for another pillow was stoically refused, my eyes not even met and I was dismissed with a wrist-flick like a beggar child.

At 1.00 I was given a reprieve, however, and told that I could move to bed 22. Soothed by the gentle chug and throb of the train and the mental security of knowing that I was not alone on this train, I slept like a baby, waking refreshed and ready for the rickshaw scrum in beautiful Udaipur.

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One can’t see everything and I had to make the decision to cut Khajuraho and its fascinating ‘Kama Sutra’ temples and Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, from my list. I am heading west to Rajasthan and they are both in the opposite direction. There is one place, however, that I would never miss and that is Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

I took another night train, twelve hours, to Agra. Being woken up at 5.00AM by people talking, singing, playing music on their mobiles and Chai-wallahs shouting at the top of their voices, was very annoying especially since I’d had a bad night sleep courtesy of four nails poking out of the wall one end of my bunk and into my feet.

Our arrival into Agra and its outskirts was heralded by defecators lining either side of the train tracks. It is very curious that the strict modesty code does not reach toilet habits and Indians (mainly male) although, apparently, reluctant to be seen naked by their spouses, have no compunction about squatting in full view of the general public.

I had been warned by many people that Agra is filthy so the quiet tree-lined boulevards leading up to Taj Ganj (where Taj Mahal is) came as a pleasant surprise, actually Varanasi is much worse. Exploring Agra I found I liked it, away from the annoying touts and hawkers I found some really lovely market streets where no-one bothered me at all.

After dumping my bags at the hotel, with growing anticipation I raced to the South Gate entrance hoping to miss the huge throngs of people the guide books warn about. I paid my Rs750 (the price for foreigners entrance, compared to Rs20 for Indians), collected my little, white shoe covers, was thoroughly frisked and searched and I was in – no queue at all. I held my breath for my first view of probably the most famous and arguably most beautiful building (sarcophagus) in the world.

My first glimpse

The Taj does not disappoint. I overheard an American say to his wife “Now I can die happy, knowing I’ve seen the Taj Mahal.” I understood what he meant, it being a big tick off my list.

Perfectly symmetrical from all sides and exquisitely beautiful and intricate, it is awe inspiring. I am sure anyone who has ever seen it could never forget just how stunning it is. I spent time just sitting in the shade, looking at it and wandering around the grounds soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. Apart from the magnificence, it has to be the cleanest place in all India. Certainly one of the few places that actually has bins – I was quite distracted by them almost stopping to take photos of these strange installations.

My favourite view of the Taj was at sunset. I went down by the river and watched the sun sink behind it, turning the sky orange and pink and silhouetting the domes and minarets perfectly. Far from being a dirty, hectic cess-pit for me Agra and the Taj Mahal has been one of the most serene places I have visited.

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