42 degrees is just obscene, thought Will. I should be in the mountains; I should be on a beach, with a breeze. Instead, he stood sweating on the roof of a hotel, balancing his iPhone on a ledge, leaning it on a rock, levelling it with a twig, a dead bug.

Agra, India, June: 42°C and rising.

And in fairness, he was supposed to be in the mountains by now. But an email had come through from Kat, back at home, all smiles and hair and promises. She wanted some pictures, and he knew he was duty-bound to take them. He owed her that much.

Click.

He showered again, and changed. He was getting used to this whole laundry-service idea, and he was very happy to have his breakfast brought to him, even if all they could do was omelette and juice. And tea, of course. Oh yes, India could definitely do tea. Thanks to the British.

Will knew his history, he’d read-up. It was the British East India Company that’d introduced commercial tea production to this country. And it was the British again who had built the railways, the one thing that truly impressed him so far about this otherwise baffling land. Everywhere he went, especially in the big cities, he heard English spoken among the middle classes, further testament to the seeds sown by empire, to foundations laid. Yes, yes, he felt that ‘white guilt’ that besets all Englishmen; he was aware that injustices had been committed by his forefathers, that the cost of empire for all concerned was great; but too great? He wasn’t so sure. He couldn’t help but imagine how primitive India might be today if we hadn’t civilized it, and how much better off it might be had we not left.

Down in the street, he glanced around for his ride. At ground level Agra was even hotter, and everything else was turned up a notch too: the dust got in your eyes and in your mouth, the smells from the street stalls and the sewers filled your nose and the noise – between the honking of horns, the clamour of shop-keepers and the bustling crowds, Will could hardly hear himself think.

He’d arranged the tour, there and back, through the hotel. Talking to people had never been his forte back at home, but here, in India, he hated it. People didn’t listen. They said yes when they meant no. They shook their heads when they should nod. And worst of all, they would never tell you the price of anything. Will thought bartering was a ridiculous activity, based on deceit, built around the accepted fact that everyone was trying to cheat everyone else. He wanted to pay a fair price for a fair service without going through this whole pantomime every time.

A man on a rickshaw heaved himself and his bike forward and smiled that Indian smile, all gaps and brown teeth. Will hopped on the back, and they headed off into the morning rush.

40 perhaps, he thought to himself, but it was so hard to tell with these people. Years of poor nutrition, exposure to extremes of weather and hard physical labour took its toll on a man’s body. This driver could’ve been 50, could’ve been 30. What he was was thin, sinuous, tight…and wearing jeans, noticed Will. In this heat? Madness. But Will couldn’t help but notice also the holes in his shirt, and his bare feet. No, he realised: this is no fashion choice. These are all this man has.

And all around him, poverty lay exposed like an open wound, festering in the sun. Blind men pushed through the traffic, hands outstretched, pleading. Women with infants: dirty and matted, both mother and child. Whole families made camp in ditches, their homes no more than wood and plastic bags. Building crumbled. Cars belched black smoke. Dogs hunted and rats ran through the trash and rubble.

They rounded a corner, and up it loomed, white like a cloud, like a fairy-tale made real: the Taj Mahal.

He had to admit, he was impressed. This morning, from the roof, it’d been beautiful, but distant. Here, up close, it was magnificent. Built for love by one man for one woman from white marble, gold and silver and precious gems, this epic tomb had come to symbolise true love and perfect balance. This is what he’d read.

Will took pictures. Ashik explained as they walked around. His English was faltering, but he made the effort and so Will made the effort too to understand. Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz, he said, had died in childbirth, and after two years of mourning, the Shah had brought together 20,000 workers from all across northern India, along with hundreds of architects and engineers. It took, he said, over 20 years to complete, and many men were killed in the process, either by the work or by the Shah, who became increasingly demanding and jealous of his dream.

Ashik showed Will the filial towers, where Islamic and Hindu symbolism combined. He explained how the Shah was Muslim, this a Hindu land, and how the two had lived side by side. He showed where the British troops had stripped away the precious lapis lazuli 150 years ago.

As they left, Will asked Ashik how so much wealth could exist so close to so much pain. Ashik merely shrugged, and smiled.

Back on the bike, Will rifled through his bag. He’d come for the photos, and now he had to get back to Delhi. He found his ticket-stub. And then his heart sank ever so briefly, ever so quietly, and without so much as a frown or a sigh, he asked the driver to pull-over.

“My friend, I’m sorry. Thank you so much for the tour today, but I’ll have to walk from here. There’s a hole in my bag and the last of my cash seems to have dropped through. I’ve no money left to pay you for a ride to the station.”

Ashik merely shrugged, and smiled. And then he rode on, through the rising heat, through the traffic and the dust, peddling Will to catch his train.

Dazed, dreamy and mildly euphoric, Will sat on low wall on the platform and waited. He had given Ashik the last of his water, and now his train was delayed and he was feeling parched and hungry. He plugged in his headphones and prepared to kill time. He closed his eyes.

Moments later, he felt a tap on his knee. Before him stood three children; small, undernourished, filthy; one girl carrying another: a babe cradling a baby.

He expected them to beg, but instead, the boy pointed at Will’s ears. Will looked at the boy, then handed him his headphones. The boy grinned and began to dance. The girl grinned too and joined in, no music in her ears. More children crossed the tracks, climbed onto the platform, danced. And together, with Will, they played, and danced, and laughed. And children are children anywhere, thought Will, wherever you go, in any land.

When the train arrived it was impossibly busy. He didn’t mind, though. He sat on the stoop, his feet hanging over the edge, squeezed in between a business-woman in her 30s and an old Muslim gentleman with white hair and a long beard. As the train pulled away, the woman offered him a drink of water. The man shared around some nuts. He watched the world pass by. And Will recalled Ashik’s translation of the Shah’s inscription in the tomb:

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.

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