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Mom and the Taj Mahal

By taking his mother, a man sees with fresh eyes a country that already had transformed him. Will she love this place as he does?

May 11, 2008|Jeff Greenwald | Special to The Times

DELHI — The driver tossed our bags into the trunk of a white Ambassador cab and pressed his palms together.

"Welcome to India, sir. Is this your wife?"

"No, she's my mother."

Mom giggled; neither of us was sure whether the driver's motivation was flattery or innocence. But it was an encouraging start to an adventure I had planned with anticipation and anxiety.

Bringing my mother to India had seemed an inspired idea. I'd wanted to give her something spectacular for her 75th birthday: an eight-day tour around northern India's signature sites -- Delhi, the palaces of Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal -- and of the country that had so profoundly altered my own worldview. My misgivings were equally broad. Not only was this my mother's first trip to Asia, but she and I had also never traveled together. And although she had been to Israel and Europe, including Russia, India was something else entirely.

Because India, truly, is like nowhere else on Earth. It is not a destination you visit like Paris or Beijing or Barcelona. It's a place you must surrender to, dissolve into. No matter where one touches down, first contact with it is overwhelming.

During my first visit to the subcontinent in 1979, I spent my first two days barricaded in a hotel room. On the third day, I emerged, mole-like, onto the crowded streets of Mumbai. Within minutes, every sense was overloaded. I felt like a visitor on an alien planet, a place where sounds and sights, tastes and odors, were dialed up to an unbearable volume.

Then, as I strolled along, something inside let go. My chest loosened and my neck relaxed. I began to meet the eyes of the people around me, offering a self-conscious namaste in answer to their greetings. The responses were astonishing. Every person seemed to welcome interaction with me and to accept me as I was. For the first time, I realized how little I knew about the world's inhabitants. They had a great deal to teach me about their lives and my own humanity.

Ever since, India has been a place of pilgrimage for me, a world of often mind-blowing personal growth. No matter how short my visit, I always come home a changed man.

But our October trip wasn't about me. It was about my mother, Roslyn, a lifelong educator and spiritual woman. (She had become a bat mitzvah at 67.) Mom was overdue for a glimpse into the world so important to her eldest son.

But India can test even seasoned travelers, and many things might go awry. Like health. Mom is in great shape, but even the mighty, including me, have been humbled by the parasites of South Asia.

My second concern was diet. My mother keeps kosher. She's never touched bacon or shelled a prawn. Would she be able to eat, let alone enjoy, Indian food?

Finally, there was the freak-out factor. India can be just too much for some visitors. The crowds, the beggars, the sheer intensity of life pushes some people over the edge.

How would Mom fare in a country where the Star of David is a symbol of tantric union, and the swastika a sign of good luck?


Mom hit the ground running. Our first morning in Delhi, we toured the grounds surrounding the 12th century Qutb Minar, one of the tallest brick minarets in the world. The area is now a World Heritage site, covered with crumbling arched porticoes and classical Indian bas-reliefs.

"Look, Mom," I said, studying my guidebook while walking over to a sandstone column. "The faces of these gods and goddesses were smashed by the Muslim invaders. . . . Mom?"

I spun around. She had wandered across the plaza and was holding court with a crowd of schoolchildren in starched white shirts. They jockeyed for her attention, shouting answers to her questions and jostling for photographs.

"I doubt," I said, leading her back to our cab, "that Amitabh Bachchan would have received a warmer welcome."


"He's India's biggest film star -- sort of like Harrison Ford, Clark Gable and Cary Grant rolled into one."

"He must really be something."

The next afternoon, our guide invited us to visit the Kalkaji Mandir, one of Delhi's most important shrines. The temple looked drab from the outside, but the inner courtyards teemed with devotees and noisy, colorful worship activities because it was the beginning of the 10-day Dasara festival. Incense in the air was so thick it muted the beating of ritual drums and strains of a harmonium. A Brahman led us to the inner sanctum.

I was astonished to see my mother, who lights the Sabbath candles every Friday evening, kneel reverently to receive a blessing from a bearded, half-naked priest. Following our guide's instructions, she then pressed her head to the ornate silver altar -- upon which an image of the goddess Durga danced -- and prayed. Her view of worship was identical to mine: a holy place is defined not by convention but by what we bring to it.

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