Humour by Rehana Munir: A monumental affair
“Henceforth, let the inhabitants of the world be divided into two classes – them as has seen the Taj Mahal; and them as hasn’t,” proclaimed the master of nonsense verse, artist and traveller of great renown, Edward Lear. He visited in the period between 1873-75, since which time humanity has both divided and multiplied itself with startling regularity. But I still agree. “Have you ever visited the Taj Mahal, and if not, why?” is a good question to put on a psychological profiling form. For why wouldn’t you visit the marble monument of magnificence if you have the opportunity and means?
Meet me at the Taj
Yes, you might be a contrarian, cynic or simply uncurious, but I urge you to go anyway, once The World Opens Up Again. In my only visit, a decade ago, I was astounded by the ability of the mausoleum to resurrect dormant emotions. The entire experience is breath-taking, even though you feel like a budget astronaut in those strange coverings for the feet prescribed to protect its ceaselessly-trampled marble surface. The temptation to submit to the historic significance of the location is rivalled only by the urge to document every inch of its pristine glory. Even George Harrison couldn’t resist taking a self-centric shot on an analogue camera when he visited in 1966, decades before the selfie became the most revealing artefact of the 21st century.
Apart from the waves of sentimentality that swept over me on that December day on the misty banks of the Yamuna, another striking memory persists. It is of a hapless man yelling: “I’m standing right outside the Taj!” as he tried in vain to direct a friend to his exact location. As far as landmarks go, he had chosen well. “Meet me at the Taj” might have seemed like a foolproof plan at the time, but he was proved wrong. Ah, the sweet sorrows of a pre-WhatsApp world.
Eiffel for a cliché
My unabashed love for historical monuments opens me up to ridicule every now and then. Once, on a work trip to Hyderabad, I freed up an afternoon to visit the fabled Charminar, underslept and overeager. Not one to bother with maps and guidebooks, I approached the serious-looking hotel guard with an innocent query: “So how far is the Qutub Minar from here?” Never shall I forget the look of abject bewilderment on that moustachioed face. It took me a beat to recover from the idiocy I had uttered, somehow blaming Freud for the slip. I had to say something, and say it quick. “Sorry, Charminar. And what’s the landmark?” I muttered. “Charminar,” he answered deadpan. I fled from the scene like a stranded ship refloated in the Suez Canal – swiftly and sheepishly.
Visiting the Eiffel Tower was a predictably edifying experience, too. Catching sight of it between coffees and croissants, museums and metros was a treat that rose above the clutter of cliché. Up-close, it didn’t disappoint. Lying on the grassy lawn surrounding it, being peddled cheap wine and kitschy Eiffel replicas by Indian and Pakistani hawkers provided an oddly satisfying, post-colonial thrill.
The upright Tower of Pisa
Back in my much chronicled yet poorly preserved city, the centuries-old Bandra Fort stands quietly looking over the Mahim creek, flanked by its more famous neighbour, the Taj Lands End. Built by the Portuguese and destroyed by the British, it now provides much-needed space to us deprived locals, shrouded by trees and shrubs, and casting our sore eyes on Monet-esque pools. The ruins provide the perfect backdrop to either a morning run or rendezvous; they’ve even built a short new promenade bordering the ocean. On the other side, you see before you the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, a monument to human ambition.
A friend takes great pleasure in narrating the story of his family’s visit to Italy in the ‘80s. Unhappy about the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s, well, leaning stance, the designated photographer tilted the lens to adjust for the incline. And so, the family returned triumphantly home, the Upright Tower of Pisa trapped in undeveloped film rolls. I’d love to see how they would rearrange Stonehenge, fix the Colosseum or restore Hampi, powered by Photoshop and the quest for monumental perfection.
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From HT Brunch, April 11, 2021
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