Same Same But Different, a short story from India.
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 travel 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 there 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 Shah 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 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 Indian tour guides. “Hello sir, best Taj experience secret information!” said one, latching onto a large Texan clutching a McDonald’s bag.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before one of these guides found me. 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…”
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 observing the river life below.
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 girls 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 chunk of pancake.
‘‘Good’’ he said, pulling up a chair to join me on the porch as I finished 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.
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 replied, 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 faded 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, Guddu’s voice trailed off and 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.
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 return 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. He’d spotted me from across the road, skipped expertly between the traffic and began aggressively peddling a 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 man disappear from view as a warm feeling washed over me. Somehow, for reasons I couldn’t quite pinpoint, I felt blessed to have met Guddu and for choosing Shahjahan Guesthouse as my Agra base. Despite the fact, of course, 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 over 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 photograph him. 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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Did you ever send James Dean a copy?
I don’t think he had an email address 🙂
I am from Agra and found your “tale of woe” to be quite riveting to say the least. For the benefit of whoever reads this in 2015 and beyond, Agra has changed a lot and places like Hotel Shah Jahan are increasingly rare to find. And if you want to splurge, we have palatial hotels with suites costing $4000 per night which will make you feel like royalty and have your every whim catered to immediately.
Hi Karan, thank for dropping by and taking the time to leave a comment. It’s fantastic to hear that Agra’s accommodation options have been transformed. This isn’t surprising I guess, it has been eleven years! Maybe I’ll go back one day and see for myself.
I stayed at this place!!! While it wasn’t quite as bad as when you stayed it was a bit of a dump. But good times nonetheless! 🙂
I went to Agra in 1979, first time in India, and my Rickshaw Walla was amazed when I told him to sit in the back and I became the Rickshaw Walla for the day, Im sure he never forgot me.
Taj Mahal is definitely one site (sight) I would love to see. I loved your description of the encroaching tour group. When we were just starting our travel lives in 1977, I can recall one such group in Ireland, at Blarney Castle. They approached in their Aran knit sweaters, flowery plastic rain hats and tartan scarfs, indicating they were doing the whole UK tour. One fellow opined “You would think they would have spent less time fighting and more time building an elevator here.” as he struggled to get his bulk up the stone steps to the top. Cheers Leighton. Allan
Ha ha love it Allan. And to think you have remembered that line nearly 45 years later!
The part we loved about India the most were these conversations with locals that let you learn a little bit about their lives. They were so open about personal things that we would never share with a stranger. Love his ‘wise words to you about starting a family. Great story Leighton!
You are right about the insight you get from such cosy one on ones. Glad you recognised something similar from your own experiences. But you know, Guddu would be so disappointed in me ha ha. 18 years later and still no children 😉
Your descriptions of the American tourists gave me a chuckle. Great job on a very entertaining story 🙂
Glad you enjoyed that Lyssy 😉
Goes all the way to India…eats McDonalds ha!
Such a great story, Leighton, I love the way you described the American tourists – they might be loud and always wearing sneakers, shorts, and t-shirts, yet I love that they make direct eye contact and smile at everybody. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
Oh absolutely. I’d take a loud, overly friendly American tourist over several other types of traveller any day of the week. Many times, over the years, I’ve bumped into fellow travelers who think they are above talking to you. That day, at The Taj Mahal, I just wanted to hold onto the peacefulness just a few minutes longer ha ha. Thanks for reading!
How wonderful that you have already visited the Taj Mahal – hopefully one day I’ll get there as well. There’s no escaping U.S. tourists the world over but having said that it’s been sad not to have them visiting the U.K.much over the last two years and we should welcome them back with open arms with their own indomitable ways. Another enthralling instalment Leighton. Well Done.
Thank you Marion, I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. There was a temptation, when republishing these stories, to tidy up some of my “feelings” about certain situations first written nearly twenty years ago. But in the end I tried to stay true to how 25 year old me experienced it. You’re absolutely right about American tourists and indeed visitors of any nationality. They just ruined the vibe that day ha ha.
Absolutely stunning picture of the Taj Mahal! Too bad those pesky Americans ruined the moment 😉 It’s so fun that you have found yourself part of such deep rooted conversations about love and family with people you didn’t know. First with the question about what is love and then Guddu talking about getting going on having a big family. Another excellent read on your stories from India.
The conversations were the best. I would LOVE to know what became of Guddu. Thanks for keeping up with the series Meg.
Oh the joys of being swarmed by a tour group. I would love to see the Taj Mahal someday. Guddu sounds like a real gem.
Thanks for reading. I would also like to see The Taj again, and much more of India one day as a more experienced traveller.
“And then refused to leave until I quietly threatened to assault him with my camera.” Bahaha Fantastic!
I’m not a violent man Marla but you know, there’s a time and a place ha ha.
The Taj Mahal is on my bucket list, as it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I’ve also heard that the site is gradually eroding due to pollution, so I’ll have to hurry over soon before it’s too late! Haha, to get stoned with Guddu must be the life, and the peace and quiet with the spliff and chai must’ve been a calming break from the hustle and bustle of big-city life.
Sitting on that porch having a (reasonably) normal conversation in relative peace has stuck with me over the years. A peaceful lull in the middle of several chaotic days. That was my first spliff, so I was never going to forget Guddu. It would be around ten years before I had another puff. Cheers Rebecca.
What a great story. I became completely immersed in your words and could even hear the sounds of busy traffic in my imagination. Your descriptions are palpable. Wonder what Guddu is doing now with his football team of children.
Thanks for your lovely comment! Like you I would love to find a window into Guddu’s existence now. I wonder if he stayed in the hospitality industry and if so how he fared during the pandemic. Somehow I feel there’s a sad story there, but hope I’m wrong.
Yes, let’s hope you’re wrong, for Guddu’s sake.
Very enjoyable story. Like how the Taj Mahal was presented in a day dream. It let you be very selective and descriptive. I’m so glad you take the time to talk to people. It adds a lot to your narratives.
That’s kind of you to say Memo, I’m glad you’re enjoying the series! After so much tinkering with these tales over the years, it feels like they can now finally rest.
You really have a knack for writing in a way that pulls the reader straight into your story, very enjoyable. The Indian Fonz was just as I had him in my minds eye before I got to the image. I wonder what came of him and his nine- or maybe more!- children?
Thanks so much Helen, sometimes we meet people for just the briefest of moments. And that’s how they remain, forever painted in our minds in frozen images. It’s strange to think that Guddu is now nearly twenty years older. That he may be unrecognisable to me, or just the same, or perhaps even dead. I really want to know where he is and what he’s doing, but of course I’ll never have that privilege.
The Taj Mahal is such a beautiful building … something I would love to see one day myself! I love the James Dean pose from Guddu, it seems the Indians are real posers (never knew that) 😉.
The Taj is indeed majestic. Worth all the hassle in the entire trip I’d say. Yeah, a lot of Indians I saw were avid posers. What we consider cheesy they think is cool. A fun aspect of the culture.
I was amazed at the intricate details of the Taj Mahal that those wider views don’t capture. It is truly magical. But your quirky people stories are the ones that make this account so personal.
The Taj is just gorgeous. Definitely worth a second look. Thanks for the kind words Ruth.
I was smiling as I read this story, particularly when I read about the American tourists. 😉
Ha ha, I’m happy to have amused. And happier still not to have offended 😉 Thanks for reading!