The weight of monuments

Budaya, Mundanity, Spaces

It’s hard for me to find a rhythm. So this space paused for awhile. I wasn’t sure if this is a space for me to unpick the world in a more ‘public’ way – unravelling and respooling threads of thoughts through encounters with stories, conversations or quiet being – or a space where quiet being is able to express itself as words that are too coded in intimate knowing to be read.

For now, maybe just a series of meandering thoughts about living amongst monuments. I was recently in the shadow of the Taj Mahal. The sky was clean of clouds and the sun turned the perfectly symmetrical monument into a two-dimensional, startlingly bright backdrop for the hundreds of bodies shuffling around it, necks craned up high. Bright green birds perched noisily at the trees that accompanied the pathways and commas towards the central building, and great big kites that swooped around the high domes and minarets. There is something that evokes awe when standing before something so large in scale, and so perfectly crafted.

The guide told us the story of the Taj and I imagine how many times he must have said this, and whether he discovers anything new with each retelling. If he shifts his story from one of love to one of invasion. Or from the strange shaping of future to a melding of memory. Or from the sheer labour it took to build such a monument, to the yearly labour that Mumtaz Mahal went through her entire marriage until her death in giving birth to her fourteenth child. Stories have such power. Especially when woven through something so incredibly spectacular.

Someone told me that 80% of visitors to tourist sites in India are in fact, Indians from all corners of the country. Even in summer when it is scorching hot, they visit. Because it coincided with school holidays. And the government is figuring out how to shift its policy from supporting leisure infrastructure for the ultra-rich foreigners or budget backpackers, to a more inward gazing one that caters to lower or middle class Indians. I looked around me, and this seemed true. We were an anomalous knot in the midst of what looked like a rich tapestry of Indian bodies.

A man in a white cotton shirt tried to take a selfie as his wife (?) pulled their child (?) close, but she is impatient to rush in, maybe to hide from the heat and touch the site of this grand myth. A line of women walked along the side of the main complex, their colourful sarees splashing a long song against the white marble walls, and I resisted the urge to fix them in a national geographic golden rectangle (and probably failed). Families posed stiffly on benches at the Charbagh garden as the official photographers urged them to smile.

When I walked out from the mausoleum, a young girl about 8 or 9 shyly came up to me and asked, “Uhm.. hello. Are you boy or girl?”
I looked at her, bemused, and said, “What do you think?”
She paused for a moment, and said, “Girl,” then changed her mind and said, “Boy,” and paused again, her eyes quickly darting at my chest area and said a little unsurely this time, “Girl?”
I smiled and said, “Well, sometimes, I feel like a boy, and sometimes, like a girl.”
She looked uncertainly at me, and pulled one of her even smaller companions close to her chest.
So I asked her, “Are you a girl or a boy?” She very decidedly said, “Girl.”
And then I asked her, “But do you sometimes feel like a boy?”
She paused, and thought about it for awhile, and then looked up at me and nodded.
And I said, “Well, it is just like that.”
And her face broke into a smile of comprehension as she said, “Aah…”

What does it mean to be living amongst such a stubborn narrative from the past? That refuses for a history to be forgotten. A magnificent love story, that is at once crafted through the tens of thousands of bodies that had beauty, poetry, faith, force and violence as impetus. To remind an unknown future of its might? And is simultaneously a death of a life, a residual echo of a dusty chapter in the making of the present/future, and a shuffling of mundane incredulity?

I guess at the heart of it, we all need the seed of wonder.

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