Same Same But Different – a short story from India.
In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
It was a warm, sunny afternoon in Agra as I sat alone on Hotel Shahjahan’s front porch, digging into a hearty lunch of scrambled eggs and pancakes. My travelling companion Allan was fast asleep back in the room. Hence I decided to take advantage of the solitude and sit in the sun watching the street sellers go about their daily chores.
Earlier that day, The Taj Mahal had been nothing short of stunning. A remarkable vision that seemed to actually float on the horizon as we made our approach along the path through the Mughal garden. Halfway down we stopped and sat awhile by the reflective pool. From here I sat watching young Indian men performing silly poses for photographs. It was a business they seemed to take very seriously. Their stern facial expressions in stark contrast to the cheesy posturing. A hand placed camply on the hip for example. Or a thoughtful finger to the chin, it was all quite amusing.
The closer we got to the Taj, the more breathtaking it became. From the perfect symmetry of its minarets, to the majestic onion-shaped dome, spectacularly topped with a golden finial. Inside the central chamber we found cenotaphs of Emperor Sha Jahan and his third wife Mumtaz. He’d had the entire place built in her honour after she passed away giving birth to his fourteenth child! As heartbroken tributes go, Mumtaz had certainly done well for herself.
Same Same But Different, a short story from India.
Peering back out across the garden from the Taj’s main archway, I was dismayed to see a rapidly advancing American tour group. A swarm of baseball caps, state-trumpeting T-shirts and bulging waistlines. Subsequently, I allowed myself a wry smile, fully aware that the experience we’d been enjoying was coming to an abrupt end. A minute or so later they were pouring in, a crisscross of noisy, overlapping conversations and clicking cameras. Hot on their heels, like moths to a light bulb, came a gang of cowboy tour guides. “Hello sir, best Taj experience secret information!” said one, latching onto a large Texan clutching a McDonald’s bag. And it wasn’t long before one of these cowboys found me.
“Taj Mahal… old… Shah Jahan… love… dead… marble…”
He was a slight, middle-aged man with small bony hands. Dispensing with any kind of introduction, he launched straight into a well-rehearsed monologue of nonsensical drivel. “Taj Mahal… old… Shah Jahan… love… dead… marble… beautiful… Indian… old”. Ignoring my polite rebuttals, his charade dragged on as he proceeded to follow me around. Eventually growing tired of running around in circles, he gave up on the tour and simply demanded money. And then refused to leave until I quietly threatened to assault him with my camera.
With the atmosphere inside having lost all remnants of its previous charm, I exited into the now scorching sunshine. From here we strolled to the southern side of the Taj, home to especially fine views over the muddied waters of The Yamuna. Resting on the long, stone wall that spanned the back of the compound, I spent some time gazing down at the river life below.
“Yamuna River… long… mystic… goddess”.
Off in the distance an old woman bent down at the water’s edge with a wicker basket full of dirty laundry. Some way to her right, two young boys busied away loading a mountain of fruit onto a feeble looking boat. Then came the sound of giggling schoolgirls spinning stones into the water. All three of them in white, pristine, school uniforms. Totally wrapped up in the scene, I almost jumped out of my skin when a harsh finger dug into my shoulder. “Yamuna River… long… mystic… goddess”. It was definitely time to go.
‘‘New room better?’’ came a deep voice, shaking me from my thoughts. It was Guddu, Shahjahan’s nonchalant and permanently stoned manager. I’d seen him strutting around the place like John Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. But until now I hadn’t actually had the pleasure of a formal introduction. “Yes, thanks… love the fan!’’ I answered, swallowing one last glob of pancake.
‘‘Good’’ he said, pulling up a chair and joining me on the porch as I finished off my cup of chai. Placed somewhere in his early to mid thirties, Guddu was as skinny as a rake, with a full head of sweeping jet-black hair that was clearly his pride and joy. Moreover, like many Indian men, he was the owner of a well-groomed paintbrush moustache. Which added just a touch of Bollywood to his otherwise run-down demeanour.
“Same same but different” he croaked, eyes slanted through a cloud of smoke.
We sat in silence for a bit. Me sifting through my photos of the Taj, he rolling a giant spliff. If a national casting call had been announced for an Indian version of Happy Days, Guddu would have been a strong contender for the part of The Fonz. “Same same but different” he croaked, eyes slanted through a cloud of smoke. “Sorry?” I said, looking up from my camera. Smiling to himself knowingly, he merely raised a hand to one of the porch´s crumbling walls. Following the curling wisps of rising smoke, my eyes met the fading letters written in peeling paint:
Hotel Shahjahan: Same Same But Different.
“Yes”, said Guddu with a considered drawl. “In some way we like many hotel, food… laundry… bed. But we give no hassle… we respect… we…”. Having possibly lost interest, his voice trailed off as he stared vaguely out into the road. Snapping back into life a few minutes later, he told me that he’d seen “many” travellers come and go over the years. And that as a result of these experiences, he’d learned that there were “good people” and “bad people”. Luckily I was deemed “good”, which entitled me to a puff on his spliff and a complimentary banana shake. I accepted both.
“Baby nine come July’’ he rasped, through a mouthful of smoke.
Over the course of an hour Guddu talked freely about his wife and eight children. One of whom was the dumpy boy at reception. Steering me through their ages, weight, eye colours and character traits, he talked practically, giving no indication of affection or displeasure along the way. Nor indeed did he reveal any particular hopes or concerns about their futures. ‘‘Baby nine come July’’ he rasped, through a mouthful of smoke. Registering my look of surprise, Guddu explained that it was “important to have a large family”, before advising that I get on with it myself when I get back home. ‘‘Don’t wait!’’ he ordered, fixing me with a determined look. ‘‘You must find the one and make start’’.
Before I could answer, I found myself quite suddenly confronted by a grisly old tout. Having spotted me from across the road, he skipped expertly between the traffic and began aggressively peddling an all-inclusive trip to Kashmir. A tour he described as ‘‘Real India cheapness’’. But his pitch lasted just a couple of sentences before Guddu sent him packing with a few words of harshly barked Hindi. Slouching away with a childish pout, I watched the old goat disappear from view as a warm feeling washed over me. I felt blessed to have met Guddu and for choosing Shahjahan Guesthouse as my Agra base. Despite the fact that the room we’d stayed in on our first night had been like something out of a horror film.
Same Same But Different, a short story from India.
‘‘Time to go’’ announced Guddu a few minutes later. After an outstanding yawn that went on for a good ten seconds, he stood, stretched and crushed what remained of his joint into the ground with a sleepy smack of the lips. Before departing, I asked if I could take his picture. Guddu readily agreed, saying it would be ‘‘a great honour’’. Pulling a crooked comb out of his back pocket, he faffed about a bit arranging his hair and giving his moustache a measured brush. Under no direction whatsoever, he then shuffled down the porch steps, straddled his motorbike and fixed himself into a sober pose, staring off into the distance.
‘‘James Dean’’ he said, without a trace of humour. “Send me copy!” came his last words as he revved up the engine. Finally, popping his business card into my hand, Guddu gave a salute and sped off down the street, leaving a trail of dust in his wake.
‘Same Same But Different’ is the fifth tale of my short story series Incidents In India.
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