"Who's the Chief Minister of New Delhi?"
"Hello, yes you in pant shirt, mein aap se baat kar raha hoon, who's the CM of Delhi?"
"Where are you from?"
"Delhi... okay so who's the Delhi CM? How many times do I have to repeat all this?"
"Okay... Sheila Dixit, ummm, take out your ID proof."
"PAN card? PAN card no proof... give me passport."
"No passport? What proof is there then that you are pure Indian?"
"Go and buy NRI entry ticket to the Taj Mahal, cost Rs 750."
"Arre madam, I'm saying you no that PAN card isn't a proof of your Indian citizenship, even you go Amrika, you pay paisa, you get PAN card or some card. You look like you are from Malaysia or Mauritius maybe, just go now. Pay more and get NRI wala entry ticket."
"Aap pure Indian nahin dikhte!"
It was precisely at this moment in a long drawn out, verbal war between a pot-bellied, burlesque, sweaty security personnel at the entrance to the Taj Mahal and me that my mother decided to intervene.
I think there's a better word for her intentions.
Umm, let's just say like the United Nations or some other peace peddling, well intentioned organization who try to bail out the weaker side during a raging war. Especially when it's clear who's on the winning team, she took it upon herself to 'arbitrate'. In other words, to bail me out.
There, I just found the right word!
The truth is yesterday was rather hot. And we were sweating it out in heat heartland Uttar Pradesh, being pushed and jostled in a serpentine queue to see the world's loftiest emblem of human love - THE TAJ MAHAL (please try and pronounce the word 'MAHAL' with an accent, just makes this story better. I did. And I feel good!)
Actually we were escorting my mother's best friend Bulbul mashi and her husband Somnath mesho who had travelled all the way from Kolkata to spend some 'quality time' with us and of course see the Taj Mahal.
In that order.
Also, truth be told, we had been dealing with a lot of baggage here.
And by that I don't just mean the moral responsibility of showing our loved guests a good time, given that the minutes before we reached the monument, an emotional Somnath mesho lunged forward from the back seat of our rather crowded Innova and looking at my father cried, "Thanks for this. The last time I came to Agra was 49 years ago. This is such a great day in my life."
49 years ago? Geez...
Anyway, don't bother doing the math here. You'll need to reserve your energy for the 'battle' that lay ahead remember?
More importantly, now that I need your allegiance and undivided attention, I must tell you that our descent into Agra was also fraught with harsh perils, such as me puking all over the back seat, minutes after we started from Delhi.
I don't know what brought it on, but after yesterday, you better think twice before dunking me right at the back of any car.
If that wasn't bad enough to qualify for an 'inauspicious start,' an hour into our journey, already pushed back thanks to the frantic, forty minute, puke clean up drive, our back tyre burst on the highway, nearly causing our car to skid off.
Quite filmy huh?
Except we were left stranded braving the scorching mid morning sun standing in an open field, watching all kinds of men line up to pee. This torture lasted for over an hour.
So finally, a good two hours behind stipulated time of arrival, we touched down upon Agra.
A lunch at the Sheraton and a new, white linen shirt purchased from the shopping arcade of the same hotel later (Spent Rs 2,000 on the shirt from Will's Lifestyle, an important detail, to be recounted during our later skirmishes), we found ourselves in the company of our tour guide Bonny who looked at me rather suspiciously at first.
"Mam who is the Chief Minister of New Delhi?" he asked, as we sat in a strange, battery operated, eco friendly vehicle with tattered seat covers.
"Kya? Kyun?" I hollered, shooting him a dirty look.
"Mam, don't be angry. Actually, NRI tickets are priced at Rs 750 here. And you people have bought Rs 20 tickets for Indians," he abruptly paused, an apologetic grin on his unshaven face.
"But, why are you telling me all this? I'm not an NRI," I snapped, wiping the sweat off my brow.
The sun was almost setting.
"Look, there, there it is, I think I see the Taj," Bulbul mashi screeched.
The vehicle came to a halt.
"Watch your step, there's a lot of camel and horse shit all around; it takes days to get the stains off your shoes and itna badbu! (stink)" Bonny the guide warned, holding my mother's hand, helping her down.
"I just did ulti (vomit) in the car," I loudly declared jumping off, feeling like a gymnast minutes before her Olympic pole vault.
Camel and horse poop, Delhi CM, bring it on!
"What do you mean the PAN card doesn't qualify?" I yelled as I was stopped entry into Taj Mahal.
"Don't you know it's issued by the Income Tax Department. Don't you understand what that means, that I pay my taxes. You f******** a******. Why the hell should I pay Rs 750?" was my next line of defence.
"And Mauritius, have you ever been there? Can you tell the bloody difference between Mauritius and Malaysia yourself? And what do you mean I look like I come from those countries? Is it written on my face or something? a******!" I shouted, shaking with the impunity of his interrogation, the humiliation of being hauled up, the baseless conjectures and the false show of power.
"I won't tell you who is the Delhi Chief Minister. Do you think only an Indian living in Delhi/Delhite knows who she can be? I could just Google. What does a right answer prove? I'm not shouting!" I yelled.
The battle lines were drawn.
And somehow I wasn't winning, in spite of my guests and the guide pleading with the security man, and trying to convince him that we were all part of the same group.
"They are her masi and mausa from Kalkatta ji, and the lady in the green salwar is her mataji," Bonny, the tour guide added, putting on a snide smile.
"We are from Kolkata, this is my niece, and we are staying with our friends. I mean, I mean my wife's sister. She, they, I mean these people live in Delhi. Even they are actually from Kolkata. This is my first visit to the Taj after 49 years," I heard Somnath mesho now butt in.
"I think I last came here in 1985, but it was a Friday, Taj bondo chilo(it was closed), couldn't see, imagine coming all the way, all the way from Kolkata," Bulbul mashi tried sounding sad.
"No passport, she can't enter, get an NRI ticket for the ladki(girl)," his tirade continued.
"Nothing doing, this is b*******! And if a PAN card doesn't qualify, why is that not mentioned in any sign board at the entrance. At all airports it justifies, it's a valid photo ID proof by the Indian Government. So, are you saying Agra has another law to validate our Indianness? And what is pure Indian? Do you think you are to sit on judgment on that?" I argued on.
Behind us, an angry, impatient crowd was getting restless. Had they too puked in the car I wondered?
"Okay, I have a proof," it was then that my mother hollered, waving a flimsy paper in our direction, her face flushed with the June stillness.
"What?" we all said in unison, in varied pitches of course.
"Is this an ID proof?" the security man was relentless.
"Yes," my mother replied, her eyes glinting with a fierce determination.
A moment of silence followed as we watched the security man's face with a growing anxiousness.
"This, this, ummm... this," he stammered, lowering his glance.
"Yes, it is," my mother interrupted, stepping forward, her gold bangles making a distinct clamour, almost piercing the hush.
The security man stood speechless.
"This, this," he whimpered for a few times.
"This, yes this, it is a document that clearly proves we are residents of New Delhi and our address is Kalkaji, New Delhi 19," she declared vociferously, waving the tiny chit of paper as if she were hoisting the Indian flag.
As if it was Republic Day or 15th August.
When is Republic Day?
What does 15th August stand for?
I imagined those being the next volley of queries fired by the security man - more additions to the patriotic trivia - more testaments of our genuine Indianness of our so called 'pure' pedigree.
But I was wrong.
Or perhaps, I had underestimated the power of the United Nations (my mother in other words).
Or maybe I was just angry, really angry at what made a measly security man who had hair sprouting from his nose and ears and smelt worse than camel crap harass me.
Harass me for a good half hour.
Harass me for reasons only known to him.
Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was having a bad month. Maybe he was having a bad year. Maybe his wife ran away or he couldn't get it up. Maybe his boss was a mother f*********, b******** who never gave him the raise he deserved.
Maybe he had a crazy urge to listen to the cricket match score on his phone, but couldn't because stranded in this job... a mother f*********, b******** job that paid peanuts... even less than his tauji's oldest son's, youngest daughter's husband... the one who worked in a post office in Meerut.
A job that just involved him standing for hours in a m***** f*********, b******** corner scanning m***** f*********, b******** tourists all day, except Fridays - a bunch of loser tourists who had no other work, but to come see this m***** f*********, b******** monument day in and day out... the TAJ m***** f*********, b********MAHAL (quick, put on that accent. The one I'd told you of right at the start)!
As I made my way inside, I glanced back over my shoulder at my detractor. I thought I'd show him a finger or something.
My stomach was churning too.
Puke on your ugly face, my insides screamed.
But, he was busy talking shop to a f****g. I think I saw him smiling.
"Gotcha... now there's a real, impure Indian. C'mon quick show me your ticket, paid Rs 750? No? Passport?" I tried translating the sadistic look in his eyes.
"Cool down Madam," Bonny guide walked beside me.
"B***** b*******! Just because I was wearing Western clothes, he decides that I'm an NRI," I shouted back, still agitated.
"No, no Madam, you see a lot of NRI's actually don't pay the 750 rupees fee and buy an ordinary Rs 20 ticket and that's why they ask you the CM question, you know the one, I mean the one that angered you earlier. I was trying to warn you earlier," he resumed.
"B*******!" I scoffed, walking away, trying my best to merge into the sea of visitors who thronged the marble mausoleum - faces, arms, shoulders, eyes, smiles, legs... races, cities, towns, ethnicities, nationalities, countries, provinces... black, brown, yellow, white, pink... Brahmin, Kshtriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras... castes, communities, cultures, creeds - differences, similarities, pure, impure, real, fake... a giant mass of mankind... m****** f*********, b******** mankind.
At the love seat made famous by Lady Diana (sitting alone staring soulfully at the Taj, sitting alone, sitting on a royal mismatch of a marriage) there was a couple posing tirelessly with a fake, yellow rose... its sides wilted.
The man spoke with a strange accent. Yet he looked every bit an Indian. He even had a tattoo on his left arm that said Mera Bharat Mahaan.
M****** f*********, b********... I nearly shouted at him for occupying the seat for a good ten minutes, almost causing a near stampede.
There were other lovers too you know. Or families like us... with a 49 year waiting period.
To take my mind off the fracas, I tried remembering my history class notes from college. Being a gold medalist in both BA and MA didn't help. My glittering knowledge of the origins of the venerated monument had worn out over the years... its purity defecated.
So, I turned to Bonny guide.
"Shah Jahan was the emperor of the Mughal Empire in South Asia from 1628 until 1658. The name Shah Jahan originates from Persian meaning "Ruler of Everywhere." He was the fifth Mughal emperor after Babur, Humayun, Akbar, and Jahangir. Baadshah Shah Jahan was born as Prince Shihab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram, on January 5, 1592 in Lahore, Pakistan as the third and favorite son of the emperor Jahangir from his Rajput wife Gossaini," he promptly stated.
"So your Shah Jahan himself wasn't a pure Indian then?" I hurled a rather difficult question.
Bonny guide pretended he hadn't heard. Or maybe he wasn't really used to an Indian who wasn't quite 'sold' on the Taj.
The name Mughal is derived from the original homelands of the Timurids, the Central Asian steppes once conquered by Genghis Khan and hence known as Moghulistan, "Land of Mongols". Although early Mughals spoke the Chagatai language and maintained some Turko-Mongol practices, they became essentially Persianized to India, thus forming the base for the Indo-Persian culture and the spread of Islam in South Asia.
I Google searched in the car... on our way back.
Thankfully, the puke stench had subsided by then... like a bad memory, faded in parts.
"Why is it that Shah Jahan built such a grand memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal? Didn't he have three wives?" was my last question to Bonny guide on our way out.
The Sun had set. The Taj Mahal looked fatigued.
"Well, the thing is... she was the most beautiful of them all, bore him 14 children, as his other wives were childless and also advised him on matters of state importance," he rattled on, with a pride of a direct descendant of the erstwhile royals almost.
Think that did it for me.
"Hey, you know what," my mother suddenly remarked, shaking my arm, "You know the loo I visited on the way out... the one behind some Fatehpuri begum's tomb, apparently she happens to be his first wife... imagine people using part of her makbara as a public toilet," she added, sighing wistfully.
"It's what you get for not having children, not being beautiful and not advising your husband on state affairs," I cut her short.
"Huh?" she looked zapped.
"Sorry, I have had enough of the Taj I suppose," I mused, looking out, parts of me now tiring.
"Oh... I'd almost forgotten," my mother resumed, waving the same piece of paper at me again.
"Oh ya, what the hell did you show that guard?" my guests and I reacted collectively almost.
"Hey wait... hear this first.... It's from a blog I found online," my dad who had preferred sitting in the air conditioned car cocoon while we fought it out at the Taj held.
All eyes on him as he read out from his phone and I quote.
"I visited India after 16 years. My first stop was New Delhi where me and my family attended a wedding. From New Delhi we drove to Agra to visit Taj Mahal. What happened here should interest all my fellow NRI's.
The driver who drove us to Agra, instructed us not to utter a word when entering the Taj Mahal Complex. He went ahead and purchased the tickets. Now the fun starts because he purchased tickets valid for Indian citizens (cost Rs. 250 each). The sign clearly states that NRI's have to pay Rs 750 for an entrance ticket. At the entrance gate as we are about to enter the Taj Mahal complex, an uniformed security person who was checking the tickets looked at us and then told our driver: "Yeh yahan ke nahin hai" (These people (pointing to us) are not from here).
The driver countered, "nahi nahi yeh toh Mumbai keh hain." At this point, I started feeling very uncomfortable. You all might be saying - 'Good!! You deserve it for being cheap.'
The security guard warned the driver, "Agar pakhre gaye toh Rs 5,000 jurmana dena parega" (If you are caught then you have to pay Rs 5,000 fine per person). He then lets us in.
We had walked about 20 feet and a plain clothes security guy stops me.
The first question he asks me is, "Aap kahan ke ho?" (Where are you from).
I answer, "Hum Mumbai keh rahene wale hain." (I am from Mumbai). He then asks, "Mumbai meh kahan rahete ho?" (Where do you live in Mumbai?).
I answer, "Bandra."
His next question floored me.
This is what he asks, "Accha toh Maharashtra ka Chief Minister kaun hai?" (Who is the Chief Minister of Maharashtra?).
Now, remember I am visiting India after 16 years.
I remembered the name "Sharad Pawar".
Someone from way up above must have been watching me. I was extremely fortunate that the only thing that happened to me was that I was promptly sent outside to purchase the NRI ticket for Taj Mahal which was Rs 750/- a piece.
I guess worst could have happened.
So my fellow NRI's don't try to camouflage with excessive Indian clothing. These guys are smart, they can figure out who is an NRI."
"Maybe that's why the security man harassed you," my dad tried to rationalize.
But I am not convinced. Not yet, not so fast, not after the fight.
Or the way it ended.
"Ha, ha, ha, ha," I heard a loud cackle.
"What now?" I thought.
"You showed him this as an ID proof?" my mesho gasped, thrusting the piece of evidence in my face.
"Yes... how can he not let my daughter in after seeing this," my mother said with fierce familial pride.
I lowered my glance.
In my hands now lay the only 'valid' testimony of my Indian origins... of my pure desi roots... the sacred document that let me off the hook, the one piece of rare classified information that justified me not having to dole out a higher fee... to come see the grave of the world's most beautiful woman who breathed her last, while giving birth to the couple's 14th child, Gauhara Begum.
Or maybe it's what you get for forgetting that inside the sprawling complex in corners that are rarely explored or celebrated or photographed for posterity lies the shadowy graves of two other women... average women with average lives.
Childless women who left nothing behind... not even a last wish to be remembered by the man they loved.
A man called Shah Jahan.
Someone the world venerates as the 'greatest romantic of all times,' someone whose architectural genius is praised and protected... by men like the impertinent security man I had just encountered.
The man who looked into my eyes with doubt... the man who questioned my identity... the man who judged me because I wore 'foreign' clothes and spoke 'English' perhaps... the man my mother managed to con.
"Sunshine Dry Cleaners, Kalkaji," I read out aloud.
We all clapped.
"What a master stroke! You got away by showing him your laundry bill," dad declared.
"You don't need much... after all this is India!" my mother claimed, smiling like a child.
"Your mother is too much..." dad laughed, stroking the bill as if it were a cherished souvenir of a well fought out war.
Would he also build her a Taj?