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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

Adventures in the First Person

“Tomorrow is free!” they sang. “Tomorrow is first day of Eid. Taj is free for all people.”

“And what is Eid?” I asked.

“Big festival,” they said. “Big Muslim holiday.”

I stopped at a barber shop for a shave and asked the young men hanging around if they were ready for Eid. They burst out laughing.

“No, no,” one spoke up. “I’m no kutria. I’m Brahmin.” They all laughed again, but hesitantly. “Kutria means Muslim,” the upper-caste Hindu explained. “It’s a bad word. Means throat-cutting. But I can say it because these are my friends.” He slung an arm over the shoulder of a guy who smiled sheepishly. I easily imagined our equivalent.

His Allah-inclined friend explained that Eid marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. Much like Americans do at Thanksgiving, families travel from across the country to gather for a three-day celebration. The mosque next to the Taj Mahal was a major gathering site on the first day. My panic returned. We were lodged near a world-famous monument on the eve of a major Muslim festival that promised enormous crowds, breaking every governmental advisory.

We rose early to catch the Taj in the morning’s light, reassuring ourselves with the thought that the terrorists of Mumbai hadn’t targeted Muslims. I only hoped the Hindus would restrain themselves. We merged with a stream of pilgrims at the east gate, warily eying machine guns mounted in sandbag turrets and passing through airplane-style security to the courtyard beyond.

Past the Red Gate, the mausoleum rose through the mist. The masses flocked to the mosque next door and we were left alone with ancient arched marble. Black Koranic script illuminated the white stone, intricate carved flowers bloomed eternally, and cavernous ceilings transmuted echoes into a soul-stirring roar. But after the colors of Rajasthan’s Hindu temples and the penetrating eyes of the Jain idols, the Taj underwhelmed us with its sparse decoration and hollowness. It seemed a monotony of milky marble.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal in morning light
Photo by Laura Dunn-Mark ’03

Outside we played with children who had skipped service to roll rupees along the ground and pose eagerly for tourists’ cameras. When morning prayers ended we joined the exodus before the ancient emperor’s resting place gave itself over to other itinerant souls. Aching for a good meal, Laura suggested we treat ourselves to brunch at the nearby Oberoi Hotel. The luxury hotel turned us away with profuse apologies. After Mumbai’s attacks, no one was allowed past the gates without a three-day background check. Instead they directed us to the ITC Mughal on the other side of town, where we were graciously received and ushered into a grand buffet. We filled our plates with cereal, whole wheat toast, fresh omelets, smoked gouda, camembert and emmenthaler cheeses, plums, bananas, pineapples, donuts, croissants, yogurt, with smoked salmon and cream cheese on the side. We toasted to Eid with strawberry-infused milk, sweet lemon juice, and hot coffee. It was my first full meal since the troubled macaroni, and I savored each delicious bite.

How fitting to be turned away by the Oberois and welcomed by the Mughals. We returned to Taj Ganj to wander the festive alleys. Families welcomed us at chaiwallah stands. Shopkeepers haggled with us as we purchased warm clothes for our journey to the Himalayas. A traveling Muslim family took us in to show us a nearby Islamic shrine. People thanked us for visiting, especially for choosing India for our honeymoon destination. Despite profuse warnings to the contrary, Agra turned out to be as honest and welcoming as any city we visited.

That night on our rooftop we turned from the Taj to watch monkeys scamper across rooftops above streets lit up for late night parties across the ganj. I was grateful for our visit, to India’s Muslims and to their festival of community. The Taj left me wanting, but Agra—beautiful, dirty and contradictory—taught me how to trust when I’d been warned over and over to be afraid.

We invite all Reedies to share their Adventures in the First Person, be they geographical, experiential, intellectual, emotional, or simply unusual. Warning: submissions will be edited! Send your draft to or c/o Editor, Reed Magazine, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., Portland, Oregon 97202.

reed magazine logoSummer 2009