That fucking dog. If it’s not the bells that do it, it’s a cacophony of hounds, invariably led by this one who you can only assume to be the ring leader. It’s a low howl at first, and then others join the cry, and eventually it almost resembles a concerto, albeit a concerto without any melody. Of course, this is not the end of it. Once the dogs start, you know you have approximately eight minutes and twenty-seven seconds until the sirens, horns, voices and even the singing follow suit. This is Agra. This is the real India.
Even though I know it’s coming, I still lie there waiting for it, as if my concentration could ward off the noise. Inevitably, it can’t, and as I sit up with the crescendo growing, it hits me. My stomach gives off a growl of contempt at its contents, and I am on the porcelain altar before you can say curry chicken. The best part of half an hour washes itself away in a sea of… well, let’s just call it a sea. I’m pretty sure I left my colon down in that piping. I wash my hands at the basin and am greeted with water that resembles what I just got rid of more than that which I would drink. Its smell matches if not surpasses the sight.
The tap on his door rears Jack into a semi-state of consciousness. He’s sitting there as I walk in, surfing the web while toking on a large splif made with well-practiced hands.
“The subcontinent’s taken me,” I proclaim. “Going down the street to get something to hold my backside together; maybe get some food. You wanna come?”
It takes Jack two further joints to get moving, but eventually we find ourselves outside, even though it now doesn’t actually feel as if we are doing anything as my lucidity dissipates from the second hand smoke. What on earth am I doing in Agra, I wonder? This all now seems so surreal to me. I decide to man up though, because I am about to cross a street, and for this I need as many of my faculties as I can muster. I wonder how India became a country where you are faced with certain death from a thousand angry motorcycles every time you cross a road wider than 1.27 metres. At least, to me they sound angry, what with their constant honking and swerving. It seems, though, that this is just how they drive. Coming up on the left? HONK! Turning right? HONK! Carrying 13 dead pigs and a cage full of half-bald chickens? HONK! It’s as if an entire race of people have evolved to develop echo-location like bats or dolphins. Maybe this is why us white folk have such big round eyes; we need as much eyesight as we can because we haven’t honed our sense of hearing over generations of riding (and avoiding) motorcycles. Ninja’s, cockfighting, dumplings, echo-location. I’m officially jealous of all Asians. Nonetheless, it seems that smack bang in the middle of the road is the best place to walk in an Indian city, whether your ears are designed for it or not.
It, of course, has rained incessantly overnight, and as such the ground is covered in a fine layer of mud and grime. This reality, combined with the flip flops that have become attached to my body since my backpacking adventure began, results in flecks of mud hitting my calves, arsehole, and on particularly special occasions, the back of my neck. My attention, though, is never held for too long to get properly frustrated…
“Smoke… hash?” By now I am an old hat at this, and the seemingly insurmountable, societal induced trait of staying true to Western ideas of civility have long since collapsed under the weight of third world persistence. Despite all my years of private school propriety and manners urging every fibre in me to answer the boy politely, my twenties have taught me nothing if not to ignore a dodgy sixteen year old with a voice four octaves lower than it should be offering me an assortment of drugs. Unless, of course, I’m out of stock, in which case it’s an entirely different story. However, the kid is out of luck today. If he had said “Metronidazole?” or “Imodium?”, I may have at least said hello back.
At first, when I started to get hampered for illicit substance sales, I concluded it must be because I look like an unwashed Israeli hippy, and thus with all equity I would indeed be the first to be approached. Not so, apparently; I’m not that special. Like all good business men, these kids don’t discriminate. One day I’ll dress up as a 60 year old American woman, replete with bum bag, a t-shirt with the Indian flag on it, lash on at least thirty more kilograms, and I’ll verify this statement for you.
We have somehow found the energy to be coerced to the top of a rooftop restaurant, and I am now eating breakfast four storeys above street level. The sun is just risen so the air is still cool and comfortable and Agra is spread out below me, the Taj Mahal slightly off to my right and the mass that surrounds it bustling in a maze. With its flat-to-the-horizon sandy blandness and boxy, clay-brick, decaying houses, I could easily be in downtown Kabul. I close my eyes and secretly wish for an RPG to explode a few blocks over, just under the Vodafone sign but not close enough to the dude in the knee-length, collarless white shirt selling dosas from a cart – out of the many disagreeable smells here in India, his is okay. He can stay. I open my eyes; no explosion, no smoke, just dozens of smelly people walking without a place to walk to, perhaps trying to find the nearest updraft to sully my food with.
A thousand times more people are already awake and active than there would ever be at seven in the morning in any Western city I’ve ever spent time in. Some are fruit sellers pushing their wooden carts, trying to find a suitable tree with which to project shade onto their produce, produce that is too bruised and imperfect for your local supermarket to ever stock but which tastes infinitely better. On the roof of each house, some people are still laying asleep under blankets; too hot to sleep inside, too cool and exposed overnight to sleep bare outside. Men are standing in the shadows cast by the house next to them, bathing from bucket water, some in underwear, some naked, all with the dark, weathered skin of someone who spends seven days a week out in the elements. Women are washing saris in the shade before the sun gets too high overheard and then laying them out on the flat, tin roof to be baked stiff and dry as the day wears on. Like countless generations before them, people here work in unison with the land and the Sun.
Meanwhile, up on my restaurant podium, my stomach churns.
Words and Images by AMW Contributor: Ben Cooke
“The Real India: Toxic and Exotic Agra”