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INDIA

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

I kept silent, loath to remind her that the lake was artificial -- but she was a step ahead of me. "At least the mountains are natural," she said.

The next morning, we visited Nagda, a nearby temple complex built in the 10th century. It was an unexpected gem, surrounded by flowers and trees. The ancient Hindu shrines were covered inside and out with exquisite marble carvings. Here, again, was a place where natural and cultural beauty worked together. It put my mother in an expansive mood.

Before leaving, we stopped at a table where an artist was selling small, modernistic statues of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of auspicious beginnings. Mom purchased one.

Idol-worship is forbidden in Judaism. But Indian gods and goddesses are so colorful and compelling that Jewish travelers in Asia often succumb to the "Golden Calf syndrome." But my mother?

"Amazing," I said. "I never thought I'd see you, of all people, buying a graven image!"

She shrugged. "I won't pray to this. It's just a fanciful, mythological creature. A souvenir, not a manifestation of God."

BACK TO SCHOOL

After a week, my mother had had her fill of monuments and temples. Her questions had changed. She wanted to know where people shopped and how middle-class families lived. Most of all, she was interested in visiting the places she knew best: schools.

On our final day in Udaipur, I directed our driver to the Rajasthan Mahila Galeda Senior Secondary and Primary School. This was the first in Rajasthan to offer education to girls.

Usha Kiran, the vice principal, instantly arranged an informal tour. "There are 1,500 girls studying in this school," she said.

The grounds were spacious: big white buildings surrounded by arched porticoes, separated by gardens and playgrounds. Four teachers joined us; they were adept at answering my mother's questions about curriculum, testing and further education.

Mom was in her element. This experience clearly meant more to her than any marble monument. Here she could appreciate the similarities between her world and the lives of Indians. It was a hinge that swung everything into place and taught my mother what I had learned, with difficulty, nearly 30 years ago.

When the tour was over, I returned to Kiran's office. "Thank you so much," I said. "This meant the world to my mom. I know it seems strange to see a grown son traveling with his. . . ."

Kiran held up her hand to silence me. "There is no need to explain," she said. "Mother is Mother. There is no supplement."

AN EXPERIENCE

Our last evening in Delhi, as I rode with my mother to the airport, I asked what she'd liked most and least about India. Topping the list was the Taj and Udaipur. For the low points, her answer surprised me.

"I didn't like taking my shoes off," she said, "and walking barefoot on those dirty temple floors."

But India transforms everyone it touches. The axiom was reaffirmed two months after our trip, when I asked my mother how the journey had affected her.

"It's not for everyone," she said. "You have to be ready, physically and emotionally, because it impacts every sense. Sight, sound, smell, taste -- even the sense of touch, because you have to take off your shoes, and be in contact with the ground."

"What about the culture?"

"It was like being in another world -- but I loved it. I felt very comfortable. And I realized that no matter where I go, what clothing people wear or what traditions they practice, we're all human beings. We all want the same things: to enjoy our lives, live in peace and be allowed to practice what we believe in.

"There's no doubt that India changed me. It wasn't a vacation," she said with a laugh. "It was an experience."

The other person changed by the trip, of course, was me.

India, I'd seen before. My mother kneeling in a Hindu temple, receiving a blessing from a holy man in a loincloth, never. By coaxing Mom out of her comfort zone, I was pulled out of mine. But the view that changed for me was not of Asia, but of what's inside my own skin.

Looking back on the visit -- on Mom's easy rapport with strangers and her ability to take the unexpected in stride -- I had a startling realization. Since adolescence, I'd believed the wanderlust in my veins had come from my coltish, distracted father. My restlessness, maybe, and my reluctance to settle. But the ability to steep myself in other cultures and thrive in alien environments may have come from that other set of chromosomes.

Mother India, that rascal, tricked me again. She sneaked in another lesson, and blew my mind once more.

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travel@latimes.com

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