The city of Agra, aside from being the home of the fabled Taj Mahal, is also the home to many other beautiful monuments – The Agra Fort, Akbar’s Tomb (in Sikandra), the mini-Taj Mahal, and Fatehpur Sikri, among dozens of other smaller monuments.
Each monument has two entrance prices: the foreigner rate, and the Indian rate.
At first it seems surprising: the foreign rate is anywhere from 10 to 20 times more than the indian rate, and the difference between the rates increases exponentially with the popularity of the monuments. The peak is at the Taj Mahal, where the foreign rate is 750 rupees while the Indian rate is only 20 rupees.
The Indians argue that 750 rupees is only $15, which is a reasonable price of admission to a western monument comparable to the Taj Mahal. It allows the Indians to see their own country at a price that is affordable for them, while the extra money from the westerners will allow the monument to be kept up to a high standard. There is obviously a whole ethical dilemma involved in this which I won’t enter at the moment — suffice it to say, for the moment, you simply pay less if you’re Indian.
The fact is, all of us who are here on Fulbright grants, regardless of what we look like, are residents of India for the year. We get paid an Indian salary, we are registered with the FRRO in our cities, we have leases and pay rent on apartments in India, and we support the local economy in many ways. If we were really just tourists coming through for a few weeks, it would be one thing. But as far as I’m concerned, we’re locals.
Obviously, many of my non-Indian-looking colleagues have almost no luck persuading ticket officers and guards of this opinion, but for me, walking this funny middle ground of an NRI (non-resident Indian) allows me the advantage of ambiguity.
As I’ve gone about my life in these last months, I feel like I’m part of this constant game to discern what traits mark me either as a westerner or as an Indian. Is it my clothes? The way I hold myself? The way I interact with people? Is it the quality or accent of my spoken Hindi? As long as I’m alone, wearing Indian clothes and speaking Hindi, local rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers no longer suspect me of being a westerner. But at one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world, with each foreigner paying the price of about 38 Indians, surely I would have to bring my A-game.
The first monument I visited was Akbar’s Tomb. I simply said, “Ek tikkit” and pushed the correct amount for the Indian rate through the slot in the ticket window. The problem was when I reached security. I proudly looked the guard in the eye when I gave him my ticket, and I think my western forwardness tipped him off.
Immediately, he began questioning me to figure out exactly how Indian I really was. I had come prepared: I pulled out the seven page lease to my apartment in Delhi, and police verification document with my passport-sized picture plastered all over it. He was visibly taken aback (I don’t know how many people bring their leases to Sikandra), and examined it carefully. But by then, he knew I didn’t have a characteristic Indian demeanor, so he still persisted.
We engaged in a pretty lively exchange, which put my Hindi to the test. He asked me who various government officials of India were. I told him I was a musician, and didn’t know much about politics (to be fair, that’s pretty much the sad truth in the US, too. I would be great on a political JayWalking segment on Leno.) He asked me what my employment was, and I said I was a student at Delhi University. Which is also true: I’m affiliated there, and I have the papers to prove it. He asked if he could search my bag (a common tactic, clearly in search of a foreign passport, which I would have had with me if I was just touring around India) but found none.
Eventually, we were at a standstill: he asked me to go and get a foreign ticket, and I simply stood with my ticket held out in front of me saying, “This is my ticket,” in Hindi over and over again, refusing to let anyone else pass by me. He finally conceded, and let me pass.
This is definitely the first time in my life I have made any sort of scene in a public place. In America, you couldn’t have paid me to create a scene at Disneyland or in line for the Empire State Building. But here, things are different. People push, and expect you to push back (both literally and figuratively). In fact, the whole time this guard was questioning me, there was another woman guard standing behind him, grinning and enjoying the show. The whole experience was kind of exhilarating.
But as you can imagine, it left me a little worried for the Taj Mahal. If Sikandra was so stringent, I couldn’t imagine what tactics they had to tease out potential foreigners at the Taj. To be sure, I took extra precautions. I wore one of my older, more threadbare kurtis, and a pair of fuzzy bedtime socks that I bought from our market that I see local indian women wearing all the time. I made sure not to look anyone directly in the eye and said very little.
Luckily, at the Taj, there were three lines: one for foreigners, one for indian men and one for indian ladies. Against the backdrop of other similar looking women, I didn’t raise any eyebrows, and I got my ticket with no problem.
There were also two or three other ticket/security checkpoints. As long as I said relatively little and kept my eyes down, I didn’t run into many problems. The one scary moment was when a woman checked my bag, and asked me if I had any food – I probably just said something like, “Umm..” and she looked surprised and said, “Oh, English?” and I quickly said, “Nope, no food!” in Hindi, grabbed my bag and made a dash.
It’s interesting, aside from the obvious benefit of lower prices, I actually feel a great deal of pride in being taken for an Indian from India. Especially in recent years, I’ve met so many Indian women that I look up to and admire, and I’m fascinated by their subtle beauty and grace — traits that I’ve felt lacking in myself, and that I haven’t ever understood how to cultivate in a western setting. It’s probably just a romantic notion on my part, but each time someone takes me for a local here, it makes me feel a little closer to being that person.