‘One photo madam, just one photo.’
Another day in India.
This particular morning finds me at the Taj Mahal, enthralled in the splendour of the marble dome shimmering gently in the reflecting pool. The heat pursues me relentlessly as I shade my eyes against the cloudless sky. I feel peaceful here.
Locals pass me by, not bothering to avert their dark eyes from my strange face. Their curiosity radiates openly and they whisper to one another in magical tongues.
They form a line to have a picture with me. I’m a little embarrassed, giggling nervously. I’ll never understand what the fascination is for them. They reach out to touch my fair skin and gesture to my light eyes. I nod and smile and long to climb inside their heads and understand their world; a kaleidoscope of colours, sounds and aromas to explore.
A world where a blue-eyed girl is worthy of queuing, like some kind of movie star.
I wonder what they would think of me if they could know me as a person. One with thoughts and problems and dreams just like them. Would they view me differently through those mysterious eyes?
I smile obligingly beside each of them as my ‘paparazzi’ have their fill. Their wide grins dazzle me and I find myself wondering where my photo will end up. Perhaps I will live for eternity, trapped in a dust-covered frame among the gods and relics of this strange land. Perhaps I will be dragged out of old boxes to be shown to future grandchildren; the day Papa met the British girl, standing in awe in the shadow of the Taj.
I find my friends as the sun begins its decent from heaven, blazing a hot red fire in its wake. We retreat to the outer walls to admire the way the light plays on the glimmering roof, bathing us all equally in its purifying glow. Poverty, dirt, death are transformed for that brief time. Everything is beautiful for a while.
We buy a coke from a bustling street vendor, and are told not to go off too far. He wants the glass bottle back for the next customer. I don’t let myself think about where the ancient bottle has been during its battered life, or how he is washing them. I just enjoy the cold bubbles washing away the day’s dust from my mouth.
Kids run around us, playing, pushing, shouting. Hands outstretched, they smile shyly as they ask for money in a strange tongue. They rub their tummies to show me they are hungry and my heart melts. I want to stroke their tousled hair and wipe the grime from their tiny faces. I want to love them for a while and show them that the world can be a better place.
I reach into my pocket to give a few rupees, and my friend stops me, shaking her head. I’m confused. She crouches down to eye level with the little girl in front of us; speaking to her in an urgent tone, in words I cant follow. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a packet of biscuits. She hands her a couple and then sends her skipping on her way.
‘Most of the little ones give the money straight to their parents, who send them out to beg.’ she tells me. She always carries food instead to give to them. It’s a good tip, and I decide to do the same from now on.
Darkness creeps in now as the sun peeks out from the horizon. The dusk sees us running across a deserted moor, laughing breathlessly, whooping into the nothingness. Grassy wasteland as far as the eye can see, dry yellow stalks crunching under our feet. My friend is cracking a whip he bought from a street seller, trying to make the same satisfying snapping noise that the vendor could coax out of it.
A figure swathed in orange robes beckons us towards him with a withered old hand. He grips a gnarled staff in the other. He looks at us with a cheeky grin, and poses for photos with us, a cataract creeping across one of his eyes like spilt milk. We take it in turns, looking into the camera, arms firmly around our new friend.
I smile to myself as I realise we are ending the day as I began it, capturing memories through another’s eyes.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Ffion Jones / Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Meena Kadri; Flickr