Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Quintessential Hustler of Agra

I am writing this as we are headed back to Delhi from Agra. We braved a trip to the north for the junket – a fixed feature of Brad’s Indian trips. We met Prem at Agra.

Our travel agent had a package deal in a minivan to comfortably accommodate Brad’s girth and stature. Komal Singh, a sleepy driver from Garhwal with a pahadi ringtone, picked us up at the Delhi airport. After a few dusty stopovers to pay taxes from crossing state borders, taxes for drinking aerated water and taxes for general existence we were on a well-surfaced road towards Mathura and Agra. Somewhere on this road Komal slept at the wheel and we missed a disastrous camel cart accident that would have made us look like a bunch of kinky sex starved men trying a mangled bestiality maneuver with large animals. I pledged to keep Komal awake and engaged him in unnecessary conversation about everything other than quantum dynamics in a carefully cultivated chaste Delhi tongue. We crossed plenty of shantytowns, people, livestock, camels, three wheelers piled up with people and paraphernalia, dust devils and other accurate illustrations of mayhem (go Google Hieronymus Bosch). After a strenuous few hours we reached Agra.

Prem was a forty-year-old motor mouth with a bad dental plan and a penchant for one-liners. He, over the twenty odd years as a guide, has mastered the unmatched art of the gab and seriously believes that he is Woody Allen of the dust planet. He behaves like a stand up artist with a well-practiced gig and oft-repeated punch lines, body language timing and all. Altogether he comes across as the quintessential hustler you would not trust. He is the ripper, the rogue, the gallant savior of the vulnerable visitors, the lord of the guide-land, the well-connected human compass for the lost backpacking souls and above all the book of knowledge on Mughals. All of this packed in about five feet nine with gravity defying moustache and a deep gash on his temple that looks like a bullet wound. He limps a bit and he says he met with a two-wheeler accident a month back that lamed him for life. He owns a restaurant called Indiana (he added that Brad would know where Indiana is and we desis would not) in the dust tracks of Agra serving Continental, Chinese, Mughlai and Tandoor. The food, he says, is better than what you get in star hotels. We did not believe him as usual.

His monologues on the Taj Mahal and the Agra fort were engaging. He spoke in a strange diction and accent – a mix of splayed-in-the-middle cow belt English peppered with nuances of American and unrecognizable other influences from faraway lands. His demeanor was that of a self-proclaimed authority on five centuries of kings. He almost made us believe that Aurungzeb had to request Prem for permission in triplicate before he went to pee. Additionally, he had the fondness for painting the Mughals as a bunch of sexual deviants who watched there harem bathe in the royal Turkish baths or even better, lustfully watched them shop at the strategically installed palace market called Mina Bazaar (What?). He proclaimed at the Taj with great flair that ‘Love is not blind, Love makes you blind’. He also taught us that Islam prescribes visiting a mosque before visiting a tomb, that the Mughals believed in symmetry and so does he – he has two sons, two daughters and one wife as he puts it, that Shah Jahan had dozens of other women in his harem while he was deeply in love with Mumtaz, that the emperor had also planned a black Taj on the other side of Yamuna as his tomb with a bridge connecting it – white for feminity and love, black for masculinity and sorrow. It was all interesting and smart till he repeated them twenty odd times over the four hours we spent with him.

After all this he persuaded Brad to visit a bunch of organized handicrafts hawkers who promised to send everything but the Taj, packed and marked to his doorstep at Great Falls, VA for an exorbitant price. He persisted on taking us to yet another carpet maker who made any old rug look like a custom design that could fly for a price. I guess we did not fall for this and ruined Prem’s addition to marry-his-daughters-off or more-star-cuisine-restaurants kitty.

If you are a cautious traveler your heart is too weak for Prem. But if you are willing to take that pinch of salt and ignore his antics he is entertaining and certainly useful. Call on him when you are in Agra. Have a ball!

Prem Prakash Upadhyay, Tour Escort, Indiana Multicuisine Restaurant, Behind Hotel Ratan Deep, Fatehabad Road, Agra. Phone: +91.562.2332508 Home: +91.562.2411667 Mobile: +91.98370.57277.
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