AGRA – 1975

Ramesh the cycle-rickshaw wallah: Mughal-style baked partridge for breakfast?

We arrived late in the evening at Agra Cantonment station. As usual, a mob of rickshaw drivers advanced on us aggressively, each demanding our patronage.

Me sahib, madam – take me. I am strong and cheap.”

No no, ji, he is a scoundrel fellow who will cheat you. You must be taking me!”

One fellow waited beyond the melee, apparently refusing to be a part of such indignity. I approached him and named the hotel where we wanted to go.

“Very good, ji, I will take you, but I am knowing another hotel – better, cheaper.” He recognised my doubt immediately and raised his hand in assurance. “You like, I take you there first. Then, if you like, very good. You no like my hotel, then we go your hotel. It is very near.”

It could have been just another scam of course, a ploy to win a fat commission at our expense. Looking at him though, and feeling into my own intuition, he seemed to be a good man. We accepted his offer, loaded our backpacks and ourselves on the rickshaw, and we set off. It was a still, cool winter evening, with a rising golden moon in a starry sky, and we were snugly cocooned in our woolen shawls. A perfect welcome to Agra, city of dreams. Perhaps.

We arrived at the hotel, which as he had promised, was very close to the Taj, and clean but modestly priced according to our limited budget. The hotel owner seemed to be a pleasant man, though a little extravagant in his welcome. We were accustomed enough to being ingratiated by those who were interested in our wallets, and naturally were guarded in our response to him. Since we were tired though, and it was late, we accepted his welcome and having paid off the rickshaw rider – not excessively – we began to settle in for the night. There was a knock on the door.

It was the hotel owner, smiling charmingly, and armed with the usual forms and register, which we were obliged to fill in to comply with government bureaucratic regulations. We finished the ritual, and returned the completed paperwork. He began to leave, but at the door turned back to us, smiled with a questioning tilt to his head.

“Excuse me, but have you ever eaten Mughal-style baked partridge?” At midnight on a late winter’s evening, where might his question be leading? My suspicious response was a little impatient, and sarcastic.

“No, not just lately.” He clearly was confused by my response, so I added, “In fact we have never eaten such a thing.” His face lit up immediately.

“Then I will bring you some for breakfast. Yes?” Oh no. What was his game?

“Really, that’s not necessary. We are quite happy to have a plain breakfast.” His expression declared that this was totally unacceptable.

“No no, I am insisting. No cost, my pleasure. Tomorrow morning, you will be eating Mughal roast partridge. I will be rising early, going out and shooting them myself, and my good cook will prepare them perfectly.” Our protests were pointless, and to discourage any more discussion, we wished him goodnight an gently closed the door behind him. Locked it.

Partridge for breakfast? Ridiculous. We were paying barely a dollar a night for a perfectly acceptable, simple room. Of course it wouldn’t happen, but at least we could go to sleep at last. Whatever the morrow would bring, we would deal with it when it arrived. Tomorrow. Goodnight.

We slept well and woke completely refreshed, without a thought for any more than toast and tea to start the day with. A bowl of yoghurt maybe, if we were lucky. We washed and dressed, ready to explore this famous town. There was a knock on the door. We remembered the final conversation of the late evening, looked at each other dubiously as I went to the door. Even before I opened it though, the smells seeping into the room assured us what was behind it. I am no afficiando of Mughal baked partridge, but there could be no mistaking that we were about to acquire a taste.

Into our very humble little room came an emperor’s feast. Apart from the wee sacrificed desert game birds, the hotel owner and his staff bore many bowls of delicately spiced tasties: various vegetables, tandoori naan, pickles and chutneys, and yoghurt accompaniments.

We feasted like royalty until we were beyond sated, almost to the point of excess. It would have been easy to have retired to bed again, and slept off our gluttony. Agra called though, dragged us out of our room. How could we hide from that city of extraordinary monuments, of such a history?

Blinking into the glare of mid-morning sunlight, I was sure that I recognised the man who approached us. How could I though?

“Good morning sir, madam.” He obviously recognised our puzzled expressions. “You are not remembering me? I am Ramesh, your rickshaw driver of last night.”

Ah yes, of course it was him, and we greeted him appreciatively. He had a proposal for us. Aha?! How many proposals had come our way in the first couple of months in India. We had not suffered badly so far, but it was as much because of our suspicious determination not to be ripped off, that we had escaped relatively intact of our possessions and finances. Still, we listened to his offer. Perhaps the partridge had softened our suspicions.

“I am not very busy man,” he began, “And there is much to see in Agra, here and there, near and far. When I am not having fares to ride, I am waiting here outside your hotel. You need me, and I here, I can take you. If no, no matter. That is all I am proposing.”

It seemed to be a reasonable offer. After all, he had done exactly as he had promised last night, with not a trace of sleaze or subterfuge, had accepted our fare with not a murmur of discontent; the hotel had been as he had assured us. With the partridges for breakfast thrown in gratis even.

“Agreed Ramesh,” and we sealed the pact with warms smiles and a firm handshake.

There were no catches to his suggestion; he was as good as his word, again. Indeed, a very good man; much more than the peddler of humble transport who showed us the sights of Agra. He took us to all the famed sites, and many more which had not yet been elevated to the status of the tourist guidebooks. When we asked to stop at an emporium selling tourist wares, he shook his finger cautioningly.

“They are robbing you, I am telling you. Go, look, buy nothing. Only look. You like some thing, you see price, tell me. Maybe I find other place, much cheaper, poor people making these things for big robbing shops. Only looking, not buying. Please.”

Of course it might have been a ruse by Ramesh to secure money from someone prepared to pay the commission to a middleman such as himself. But apparently not. We looked, we checked the prices, we told Ramesh what we liked and, if they were actually locally made, he told us and, if he knew a source, took us to them. We would buy almost nothing anyway, since we carried all that we had in our backpacks. Still, we did buy a few little items from the artisans who made them. Much cheaper than the emporiums; no doubt the artisans made a better profit as well. Win win. And we met the people whose lives depended on those trinkets, shared tea with them invariably, saw a little of the story and lives behind their products.

Ramesh must have had little other work, for there are many cycle rickshaws in Agra, and far fewer people who needed their services. So he was invariably close by the hotel whenever we needed transport during the five or six days we stayed in his town. Having his company too, protected us from the sharks and spruikers who would have loved to have snared our custom.

Taj Mahal: midnight concert for three

Ramesh commended us to come with him one evening, “for special experience.” By this time we felt good reason to trust his advice. We did not travel far that night. He only took us as far as the side gate of the Taj Mahal.

You must remember that all this took place more than thirty years ago. Another time, other circumstances. Years before the advent of terrorist attacks and the paranoia that accompanied it. Walls and gates and guards that have become accepted as necessary now, were still unheard of, or rare at least Even the Taj Mahal had no entry fee, no armed guards, or bomb searches. Not even limited Hours of Access. No need to lock the door. How long ago that time seems now. Another time, another world.

Anyway, we were blessed by having access to the magnificence of the Taj without the hoards of tourists over it swarming like flies, without the limited opening hours. It was late in the evening , a moon-lit night, still and cool. Silent, glorious, the white marble lit up, almost luminescent. Perfect; we were so grateful to Ramesh, again. His gift for this evening though, had barely begun.

As always, my shoulder bag contained my wallet, notebook with pens, and a bamboo flute, nestled in the pocket I had sewed for just that purpose. It was very late, and when we slipped in through the side gate indicated by Ramesh, there was not another soul around, except the night watchman. He was a pleasant, accommodating man. He also had a beautiful voice, and with the privilege of his workplace, he had learnt to exploit the accoustics with haunting chants which he intoned for his own pleasure, and the gratification of any tourists who had the good luck to be there when he was moved to sing.

We were blessed. When he opened his mouth, the sweetest, clearest tones poured forth, ascended, reverberated, returned as echos, over and over.To say he ‘sang’ is actually not accurate. His voice played with the perfection of that extraordinary tomb, and the notes he produced were as exquisite as appropriate to the memory to a long-dead Shah’s wife – Mumtaz, to whom that extraordinary structure is dedicated. Just notes: soothing, caressing, lilting and lulling. We were carried away in ecstasy by his humble offering.

He noticed the bamboo flute protruding from my shoulder bag, and indicated it. He spoke no English, but indicated that I might play it with him. I carried that flute with me everywhere, and I produced sounds with it, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, occasionally vaguely tuneful. But to say that I ‘played’ is an exaggeration of the word. Still, if he could produce such magic by toning, and he was inviting me to try too, why would I deny myself that opportunity of a lifetime?

I did ‘play’ my little bamboo flute in the Taj Mahal, very softly, not to disturb the tranquility of the dead queen. I tried my best to accompany the simple master who invited me. Some of my notes were far from beautiful, much less exquisite. Sometimes they jarred with the perfection of the watchman. But oh what an experience it was. Just for some minutes, until the discord of my notes was too embarrassing and I put my flute back in its pocket, preferring to listen to the master continuing his sweet dedication.

The memory stays with me today as clear as that special evening. Thank you Ramesh.

The next day would be our last full one in Agra, for we would leave in the late evening. Ramesh was determined to celebrate our time together. He invited us to lunch with his family. We had no idea what to expect for clearly he was a man of few means. Refusal was out of the question though.

He was so excited and proud that we were coming to his home. The way to reach it was a very circuitous one, winding and turning this way and that through a warren of tiny crowded alleys, lined by houses that seemed to ooze people.

We arrived. His house was just a single room which obviously served as living and bedroom for he and his wife, and their two small children. A little cupboard-sized room was the kitchen, and perhaps bathroom too. There was nothing to indicate what the toilet arrangments were, and I hoped that we would not have the need to find out. Surely this feast would not be a drawn-out one.

The family lined up to meet us, scrubbed, immacutely clean and as excited as Ramesh by the occasion. There was no common language to help our communication, but we did our best to express the appreciation we felt. Everyone was more than a little nervous, but we each lightened the moment with our smiles and clumsy attempts to show our happiness; them as much as us. It worked, and the atmosphere lightened. Ramesh was beaming. A small crowd had gathered before the open door, peering in at the honoured guests, smiling with approving head waggles if one of us happened to look their way.

Lunch was carried out from the kitchen, a dish each by mother, son and daughter, in several relays. A grand array of different dishes was arranged in a perfect semi-circle around us. It was obvious that not only were we the only guests; we were the only ones eating. We protested of course, but without a chance of success. There was no space remaining for us and our feast, except for our hosts to squat tightly at the edges of the little room, beaming and laughing with happiness for our pleasure. The food was delicious, simple and delicately spiced, no doubt in deference to our bland palates.

That evening, Ramesh came by the hotel and we loaded our luggage and ourselves onto his small cycle rickshaw. With a shrill ringing of his bells, and our hotel hosts waving us farewell, we set off into the night. Another clear, moonlit night.

We arrived in good time, extracted ourselves from his machine, turned to pay and say goodbye. We were determined to pay him a healthy tip of gratitude, and offered it to him with thanks. His expression of refusal was of genuine offence.

“We are friends, yes?” We assured him of that enthusiastically, and his face relaxed into a smile. “Then you cannot be paying me extra for our friendship, isn’t it?”

Ramesh the cycle-stand wallah

Coming back to Agra eight months later having trained all over the country in the meantime, we were passing through on our way back to Delhi. We had no intention of stopping over, as our long Indian adventure was drawing rapidly to a close. It was necessary though, to change from Agra city station, to Agra cantonment station to continue our journey.

We emerged from the dimness of the station, blinking into the harsh daylight outside. Like the entrance/exit to every major Indian station, Agra was a hive of activity. Chaos to anyone too inexperienced to recognise the local order. We would need transport to reach the Cantonment station, which was several kilometres away.

I surveyed the road, eyes drifting across to the cycle stand opposite. My survey came to rest on a familiar figure there. It was Ramesh. He saw me at the same moment I recognised him. We cried out together as we moved towards each other, tears in our eyes, cheeks wet as we met, hands pressed together in Namaste.

“Ramesh Ramesh, how wonderful to see you again. This is perfect, moreso since we must travel to the Cantonment station.”

“I will get you good rickshaw, don’t be worrying.”

“But where is your rickshaw?” I was disappointed, fearing a mishap. His smile denied it though.

“Rickshaw is sub-hired. Now I am cycle-stand wallah!” From his evident pride, it was clear that the new position as custodian of the bicycles parked in his responsibility, represented a promotion for him, a step up in life.

“Come, we celebrate! Drink tea together again” A perfect idea. We moved across to his precinct where he directed us to sit on the roped bedframe that was his office. He joined us there, while directing others around us to bring tea and biscuits. Another man arrived with a chillum of hashish for us to share. This was a perfectly normal and acceptable event thirty something years ago, as part of a celebratory ritual.

The tea and biscuits arrived, the chillum was filled and lit, offered to the Gods to beseech their company is such a heartful reunion. “Bom Shankar,” was the passionate call. The impromptu party began, with sipping and eating and laughing and reminiscing. Those not immediately involved with our memories were happy to laugh and celebrate with us. Our number had swelled to a dozen or so.

An ancient mendicant approached our party, swathed all in red, carrying a small violin-like instrument. Space was made for him on the bed, and he began to play. Our tears resumed rolling.

Eventually, aware of our train’s departure time approaching, Ramesh snapped his fingers and a cycle rickshaw rolled up to collect us. We departed, namaste-ing, waving, crying and laughing.

I have not returned to Agra since, never met dear Ramesh again. I think of him still though, and pray that his life has been sweet, and his family with him. I thank you Ramesh, over and over.

 

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