On arrival at Agra Cantonment Railway Station we lugged our bags out into the sunshine and clambered aboard the trishaw of a world-weary looking guy who unenthusiastically offered to take us to a cheap hotel. After the usual death-defying excursion through the backstreets, narrowly avoiding oblivious humans and assorted wandering animals, we were deposited at the Jai Hind Guesthouse in the Sardar Bazaar. For ten rupees we had a clean room with a door that opened out on to the courtyard behind the kitchen and a small window with wrought-iron bars that had a view of a busy alleyway (if you stood on tiptoes). It was a few degrees warmer here than in Delhi and it was Christmas Eve.
No sooner had we paid off our trishaw-wallah then another one appeared and tried his utmost to persuade us to accompany him on a tour of Agra’s handicraft factories. He must have been desperate because two less affluent looking human beings he would have been hard put to stumble upon. But he stalked us for over two hours, following as we went into the bazaar to buy Romilar cough syrup, boiled sweets, (and as a special Xmas treat, ‘Cadbury’s of India’ milk chocolate) and then skulking around outside the restaurant as we ate a meal. I finally managed to get rid of him by telling him that Janette was ill, which was actually true. Back in the room Janette crashed out on one of the charpoys and I went out to buy two cigarettes to mix with the last of the hash I had bought from the Old Delhi barber. Whilst standing at an agarbatti-cum-cigarette stand in the bazaar I happened to glance into the adjacent stall and saw that it was a Government Licensed Ganja and Opium shop. Nice! Some things are just meant to be. The prices of bhang, ganga and opium were chalked up on a blackboard, with opium the cheapest at only one rupee for a gram and ganja at three rupees a tola. Opium was an important self-administered household remedy in India. It was used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, chills, malarial attacks, asthma, chronic coughs, and rheumatic pains. I handed over my three rupees to the wizened vendor and, with my recycled newspaper wrap of Christmas weed tucked in my pocket, made my way back to the Jai Hind.
On Christmas day morning-life proceeded as on any other day for the residents of the Sardar Bazaar. Janette was still unwell so I ate alone in the empty restaurant before taking her breakfast in bed. It felt quite liberating to not be bombarded with the jingly-jangliness of the traditional western, pseudo-religious celebration but, although we didn’t speak about it at length, we both felt quite homesick. Perhaps, if we hadn’t had the constant worry about the money in the backs of our minds things would have been different, but we were becoming increasingly worn down by the ongoing hassles. We decided then and there that as soon as the cash came through (as surely it must eventually) we would head for home.
After a shower, clean clothes and a strong chillum we staggered out into the sunshine where we hired a trishaw and driver for the day for five Rupees. We cruised down long tree-lined avenues, bumped our way through a small bazaar and arrived at the 100 foot high main gate of the Taj Mahal. Passing through the outer courtyard, the Chawk–I Jilau Khana, we approached the gatehouse and there, framed in the arched Mughal gateway … BOOM!… the shimmering white marble vision exploded into my ganga riddled consciousness. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved. We are all familiar with images of Shah Jahan’s mausoleum to his beloved wife Mumtaz but nothing could have prepared me for that first sight. I was wrenched out of my stoned, world-weariness as Janette and I stood silent and mesmerised. I could reel off an Indian trainload of adjectives to describe that magnificence in marble but no words would ever do justice to the reality of actually being there. But what a Christmas present!
There were no irritating guides offering to show us around and very few other visitors. We almost had the whole forty-two acre complex to ourselves. Of course this being India there had to be something wonderfully incongruous and that turned out to be the ancient, white-haired gentleman, who was presumably employed to stand next to the tomb, in the exact centre of the domed mausoleum. Here he could be found intoning over and over in a thin creaky voice, ‘Actual tomb, actual tomb of Mumtaz Mahal’. His words bounced and echoed endlessly off the white marble creating a resonating, sonic, psychedelic reverberation.
From the Taj we travelled the 2.5 kilometres to the Lal Qila or Red Fort which was much bigger and more beautiful than the one in Old Delhi. Once again there were very few visitors and we were certainly the only ones with white faces. Happily guide-free we explored the Mughal pavilions, apartments and exquisitely ornamented halls until Janette once again began to feel faint and nauseous. Two famous tourist sites in one day were obviously one too many so, there being no nearby chai shop in which to seek refuge we returned to our trishaw. Once there our young driver begged us to let him transport us to a nearby bazaar where he would earn 50Paise commission for every souvenir shop and handicraft emporium that he took us to, even if we didn’t buy. It would have been pretty heartless to refuse him so we found ourselves disinterestedly perusing trays of precious gems, rolls of silk, and carved wooden objects with absolutely no intention of parting with a single Rupee. The one place that I actually enjoyed visiting was shop selling traditional musical instruments. I loved the tablas but, being a guitar player, what really excited me was the opportunity to play a sitar. At only £20.00 for the cheapest model I was very tempted. But, of course, we really didn’t have the money. After having allowed our trishaw-wallah to earn himself a little more baksheesh we had him return us to the Jai Hind where we cold-showered the day’s dust and sweat-grime from our bodies.
Refreshed after the day’s activities, we smoked a chillum and stumbled into the hotel restaurant for a celebratory Christmas dinner. We were the only diners and stuffed ourselves with tomato soup and toast, followed by vegetable roll, chips and fried eggs. We toasted each other and all our distant friends and family with ice-cold chocolate milk shakes. It had been a strange and wonderful Christmas Day.
Boxing Day found Janette still feeling ill. She wrote in her diary, ‘Nothing happened today. I didn’t feel well so I stayed in bed most of the time – stoned.’ The nothing that happened was caused by us both partaking of opium. (Or as Microsoft Word would prefer – ‘We partaking of opium caused the nothing that happened’). I had revisited the Government Ganga shop and came away with two tolas of ganga plus two grams of opium. The sticky lump of opium, which we rolled into small balls and swallowed, was rich dark reddish-brown with a wonderful earthy odour and a, not unpleasant, bitter taste. We did manage to float out to the restaurant for breakfast at lunchtime and for a meal at around six-thirty but apart from that we spent the whole day nodding out, lost in the ebb and flow of our own internal, vivid dream-worlds.
On the 27th Janette felt a little better so, after breakfast, we ventured out into Agra. Following directions from the hotel manager we easily found the Post Office and the Government Tourist Office. There we bought a couple of postcards and obtained information on how to get to the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri by local bus. At the Canara Bank we changed $30 of traveller’s cheques for Rupees in less than five minutes. It must have been some kind of record. We were prepared to have our patience tested and had steeled ourselves for a long and infuriating session with a selection of rubber-stamping counter staff but it was not to be. Lucky really, as Janette began to feel ill again and it was necessary to hurry back to the Jai Hind where she took to her bed.
I ate a ball of opium, smoked some ganga and eased myself gently out of the immediate time/space. At sometime in the afternoon I drifted out into the Sardar Bazaar to buy cigarettes, apples and boiled sweets. Everyone was busy, buying, selling, gossiping, arguing. Smell of incense, wood-smoke, spices, garbage, urine, food cooking. No one took any notice of me… invisible ghost in the bazaar.
In the evening we sat, for what seemed like hours, waiting for our dinner. It probably wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Nothing is of importance when the poppy is in you. Time was an irrelevance. When it eventually appeared, the food was good – an explosion of flavour. We ate and returned to our room where I faded back into the dream-world.
After awaking surprisingly clear-headed we ate a good breakfast and took a trishaw to the bus station where we climbed aboard the local bus to Fatehpur Sikri. The 40 kilometre journey took just over an hour on body-bouncing, pot-holed country roads and by mid-morning we were strolling, downhill, through a bustling little bazaar in the direction of Akbar’s pink sandstone city. Following close behind us was a group of noisy, laughing kids who all wanted ballpoint pens, (in Agra all the children asked for foreign coins and stamps). They fell away as we began to climb the steps to the main entrance, the 180 foot-high Buland Darwaza, where we slipped off our shoes before emerging out into the courtyard of the Jama Masjid. Within this area was the single-story, white marble tomb of the Sufi saint, Salim Chishti, still kept in good order and obviously carefully tended to by someone. The wooden canopy that covered the grave was decorated with red, velvet-sequined material and mother-of-pearl mosaic work. It was quite beautiful! We were approached by a few locals selling brass and marble items or offering their services as guides but we politely declined all, slipped through a gate and wandered off into the ruined city.
Although most of the smaller, outlying buildings were now just rubble, nearly all of the major halls and palaces in this bizarre ghost town were intact. Fatehpur Sikri was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and has now become a popular tourist attraction. In 1973 it was much less visited and, as at the Taj and the Red Fort, we had the place virtually to ourselves. The city was vast and we happily meandered for a couple of hours until a young boy came running towards us excitedly shouting “cobra, cobra”, and beckoning behind him. I went to investigate and it turned out to be a python, beautiful, about ten-foot long, quite well camouflaged and moving slowly through the undergrowth. We retraced our steps not wishing to get too close, even to a non-venomous, slow moving reptile of that size. A little while later we found ourselves looking down from the city walls on to a scene of excited agitation. Two locals were struggling to carry the poor python towards the village as others were hysterically shouting and gesticulating. We presumed it to be an argument over whether to kill the snake or not and, to this day, I wonder what the fate of that beautiful creature was.
Tantalising though the city was, the hottest part of the day was upon us and we needed chai and shade, both of which we found at a roadside stall adjacent to where the bus departed for the return to Agra. We were both feeling a little shaky due, no doubt, to mild opium withdrawal and the return bus ride seemed considerably longer than the outward one. On arrival at Sardar Bazaar I visited the Government Ganja shop and stocked up on essential supplies. Half a tola of black hashish = 8Rupees, two grams of opium = 2Rupees and one tola of ganja = 3Rupees. An hour later we staggered into the restaurant, sat down at what had become our own table for two in the corner and ate an enormous meal. We retired to bed replenished and completely wasted.
We awoke late the next morning and ate breakfast at around eleven, which gave Janette the energy to wash all our dirty clothes in the shower. Not an easy job. But at least we didn’t have that many clothes. Carrying our clean(ish) wardrobe up to the flat roof of the guesthouse, we spread it out in the sun, smoked, swallowed balls of opium and watched it slowly dry. By four in the afternoon we had been joined by a half dozen locals who sat silently watching us as we watched the washing dry. It was too weird. Who was going to arrive next to watch the men, who were watching the hippies watch their washing dry? We collected up the clothes and returned to Room 1, laid back on the charpoys and slipped away. Later there was food. The drugs were taking over. We needed to make plans.
Another day seeped into our dreams and we didn’t come around until after noon. We were slipping away and we knew it. We made the decision to leave for Delhi in two days time. That gave us plenty of time to think about it, to fix it in our minds and to do anything that might need to be done before we left. What might need to be done? We didn’t know. We couldn’t think straight and to cap it all Janette woke up covered in tiny itchy, red spots. She almost managed to convince herself that it was nothing to worry about but, just in case it was, we smoked a spliff and then visited the Sikh pharmacy around the corner where the immaculately turned out pharmacist with tightly rolled-up beard and crisp turban said, reassuringly, “not to worry, it is quite common”. He prescribed a tube of ointment. We returned to the Jai Hind unconvinced and took more drugs. The day disappeared down the poppy hole.
New Years Eve 1973 found us desperately short of rupees so, despite Janette still being covered in spots and suffering recurring stomach problems, we headed off to the bank to change some of our dwindling dollars. We sat in the square outside the bank and watched the squirrels nervously scavenging for scraps. Eventually a kindly rickshaw-wallah took pity on us and informed us that the bank was closed for the ‘end of year holiday’ but would be open tomorrow. We could think of no other jobs we needed to do so we returned to the Jai Hind and lost ourselves in opium dreams until dinner time.
1974 had arrived. It was New Years Day and we were heading back to Delhi. We had to scrape around to find enough rupees for chai and toast and a single shared cigarette. The two young guys who worked in the kitchen invited me to smoke a large clay chillum of ganga with them before Janette and I bundled ourselves into a trishaw and set off for the bank to change the last of her traveller’s cheques. 20 US Dollars was all that now stood between us and destitution. Money had to be waiting for us in Delhi… it had to be or we were royally screwed. Luckily we were too stoned to be overly worried about our situation. Fate would sort it out. The bank transaction went smoothly and we now had enough cash to buy train tickets.
More to come…