A Celebrity at the Taj Mahal

by Hannah Hughes

A visitor to the Taj Mahal becomes an instant celebrity against the backdrop of one of the world’s most famous monuments.

India is confusing.

Overwhelming. Fascinating. Awful.

And confusing.

Nothing can prepare you for the startle of India. Just when you think you’ve seen the most horrifying, empowering, disturbing thing you could ever possibly encounter, turn a street corner and you’ll find something that tops it. Legless beggars pulling themselves along on skateboards. Cherished cows chewing on plastic cables. Homeless children sheltering in train stations. Once, when bumbling along in a rickshaw, I peered over a crowd of heads and saw a dead body, a frail woman lying in a casket filled with flower garlands on the dirty roadside. Another time, I fell asleep on my six-hour train journey and woke up to the man in the bunk across from me resting his crusty feet on my pillow within an inch of my face. The worst time, I found a dead monkey, limp on the roadside, snapped in half from the ribcage, bones and insides exposed. And then I saw it blink.

India resets your survival skills. It shakes you out of autopilot. It reverts the most mature, worldly, experienced travelers to infants. It is beautiful and foul and dizzying and everything in between. But most of all, India is confusing.

“Excuse me, miss, please can I have a photo?”

I turned to find a small woman and her husband by my side, staring up at me with wide eyes. They had their DSLR at the ready, hopeful smiles on their faces as they awaited my response.

 “Yes, of course,” I replied.

I took the camera from her hands and positioned myself in front of them, centering the couple in line with the Taj Mahal.

The woman laughed. “No! A photo with you, miss!”

I stalled. Why did she want my photo?

“Oh, erm… okay,” I replied.

Her husband scurried over and retrieved the camera. I took one last glance at the Taj Mahal, then quickly turned to have my photo taken. The couple thanked me and left.

Huh. That was weird.

I wandered closer to the Islamic building, hypnotized by the structure’s symmetry, delicacy, and grandeur. Birds flocked in the sky. Clouds loomed overhead. Excited chatter and tour guide voices traveled through the air. It was like the grounds had been dropped in a random patch of ordinary urbanity to heighten their magnificence.

There was a tap on my shoulder.

“Ma’am, can I take a photo?” a friendly woman asked, gesturing to her selfie camera and encouraging me to step into the frame.

I hesitated. Did I have something on my face? A sign on my back? A secret TV crew hiding behind bushes filming a public prank show? I forced a smile, awkwardly close to the stranger as she snapped several shots, beaming like she was reuniting with her only daughter after several long years of absence. The woman thanked me and left.

Huh. Really weird.

I was about to continue my touristy business when I realized I was being followed. Several locals were trailing behind me, all with cameras and phones at the ready like they were waiting for a caged gorilla to flash its ass.

I quickened my pace, glancing behind in confusion at the mob of people who had adopted me as their unqualified leader, but then came a tap on my shoulder. A beaming girl looked up at me. “Photo, miss?”

Seeing two brave women gather the courage to ask for my photo seemed to trigger a landslide of bold admirers who believed they could do the same. Before I knew it, an informal gathering of 6-8 people were queuing up to my left, each with a big smile on their face. They were fixing hair and adjusting saris, jittering with nervous excitement like they had spotted Taylor Swift in Tesco.

I scanned the vicinity, searching for an escape route, an impromptu bodyguard, anyone who could save me from the mass of staring locals. However, everyone I made eye contact with seemed to take my panicked gaping as an invitation to join the back of the meet and greet line.

The line kept growing as each local, couple, and family snapped their shot and shuffled away, clutching each other in disbelief that they were lucky enough to visit the Taj Mahal and leave with a selfie alongside a hangry white girl to add to the photo album. Babies were passed into my arms, children hanging onto my legs, mothers watching on proudly like my exoticness was a contagious charm bound to bring their offspring good fortune and eternal happiness.

When my cheeks were aching and tolerance dwindling, I began trying to decline the photoshoots, but my uncooperativeness did nothing to deter them. Locals stopped politely asking for my photo and instead just took it, with one couple leaving and another immediately replacing them, as though they were posing with a statue and not a real-life human girl who was rapidly running out of patience.

I stopped smiling for the flash, my deadpan face screaming “FUCK OFF” as gleeful locals continued to swarm me, passing me from friend to friend while I accepted defeat. I tried not to roll my eyes into the back of my head when they threw up a peace sign and signaled for me to follow suit. I began to wonder if I should be charging a courtesy fee for all this attention. Scout a donation bucket? Set up my own photo booth next to the Taj? Double the price for a funny pose, every retake, each animal-filtered Snapchat story?

The Taj Mahal was dominating the view behind, with its neat bushes and majestic domes, wondering why no one was paying any attention to it. But who wants to see the Taj Mahal, anyway? That day there was a new tourist attraction in town: I was the latest hot commodity, with skin more ivory and allure more elusive – despite my resting bitch face and unwelcoming demeanor, the people were obsessed. Did I have a celebrity look-alike I was unaware of? Were these excited locals – one who lit-er-ally just jumped for joy at the sight of me – mistaking me for someone I was not? Heck, was I a celebrity in India?

“Okay, last one!” I shouted to the onlookers, holding up a finger to signal the showdown. “No more photos!”

The final queuer took his shot, and then I was off, racing through the crowd and barging past small children, leaping over any obstacle like I was running the Ninja Warrior course. I needed to get out of there, fast.

I headed towards the World Wonder I had come to see – the World Wonder recognized globally for its representation of boundless love and beauty – and stopped before the architectural masterpiece. The milky tiles jumped out against the gloomy gray sky, the oyster shell finish swirling with pearly shades of elegant marble.

I approached a young girl and handed her my phone, asking if she could take my picture. As I stood grinning for my portrait — not quite believing I was in front of one of the most sensational buildings on the planet – a man hopped into the frame. I turned to frown at him. He was posed next to me, arms crossed, showcasing his teeth like he was clamping for the dentist. Taj Mahal AND random white woman in one photo?! The opportunity was too good to resist, and several other men jumped in my shot, positioning themselves in rows like we were a football team snapping a cup pic on tour.

I put on a headscarf as I exited the grounds, scurrying along the ancient walkways and keeping my eyes nailed to the ground as I tried to make it out without another delay. A rickshaw was parked outside, and I dove in head first, hastily urging the driver to step on the pedal so I could escape the cameras.

The porcelain domes, opalescent-like pillars, and intricate archways were swallowed by the normal world of urban Agra: monkeys on telephone wires, cows and motorbikes, beeping and mooing. The rickshaw zipped past pedestrians and shop fronts, gathering enough speed for locals to only get a quick glance at the backseat passenger before it was too late. The hustle and bustle of daily India provided the perfect distraction. As the humid breeze danced around my headscarf, I wondered if all foreign women were treated with as much fever as the Taj Mahal.

I had arrived in India confused.

I left even confuseder-er. 

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