A friend loaned me her copy of Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story Of The Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down A President by Jeffrey Toobin and so in the last days of his presidency, I read the intimate details of Bill Clinton's troubled sex life. I read it on the plane over the Atlantic Ocean, I read it in the Bombay apartment where we are staying with family, and I continued it on the train to Delhi and the north, home of the ancient Mughal empire.
We visited Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur in an eight-day trip where we saw forts that were 1,000 years old, visited the Taj Mahal, and saw many other very old palaces and tombs from the glorious history of ancient India. In the capital we visited The Red Fort, Shah Jehan's palace which he built in 1648. Today two-thirds of it are still used as an army base, but the rest is open for visitors to see the lavish quarters where the emperors lived, held court, and planned the elaborate tombs and forts that they built.
Just a few weeks before our visit, terrorists had attacked the army compound at Red Fort so security was tight as we entered. For once, I was glad to look like a tourist. With my fair skin and American accent I was not likely to be confused with a Pakistani commando. The downside to this was that I was a target for the numerous hawkers outside the fort selling everything from film to jewelry. I would find that the hawkers got worse as we continued of our journey.
In Delhi we also saw our first tomb, this one belonging to the emperor Humayun, Shah Jehan's great grandfather. When I first saw the huge brown and white building with its characteristic bulbous domes, its majestic beauty took my breath away. I would have a similar experience at the Taj Mahal - which deploys some of the same architectural techniques.
It was at Humayun's Tomb where I first encountered a repugnant practice that almost turned me into the quintessential Ugly American. The price of admission was 10 rupees - about a quarter in U.S. money. That was the price for Indian citizens; for everyone else it was $10 - forty times more! The gross unfairness of this would haunted me for the rest of the trip (even though my in-laws would never let me pay for anything).
On the way out of Delhi we stopped by the only 20th century landmark we would see - the Baha'i Temple. Built in 1986 in the shape of a blossoming lotus flower, the temple makes quite an impression on the landscape of New Delhi. It draws hundreds of visitors every day and the day we visited was no exception. There is no admission charge, but you do have to take your shoes off before entering.
We traveled by car - a multi-purpose vehicle made by Toyota called the Qualis - and made the 125-mile journey to Agra in about four or five hours. Along the way we spotted our first camel. The large beast was pulling a cart filled with recently harvested sugar cane. The camel made a big stir in our car. Our merriment must have been amusing to our driver, who spoke only Hindi. In fact, we would see hundreds of camels in the coming days, so many that we no longer paid them any mind. The next day, we would even go to the Taj Mahal in a cart pulled by a camel.
People come to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, the seventh wonder of the world. It is a popular honeymoon destination for Indians and Europeans alike. (One poor newlywed at the hotel where we stayed was so preoccupied that he walked through a plate glass door leading to the main lobby, shattering the glass and his ego in one loud crash.) The bookstores were filled with various versions of the Kama Sutra, the Hindu love guide. It seems like a great place to come on a honeymoon.
Bill Clinton was not on a honeymoon when he came to Agra last year. He didn't even bring his wife. He was just a head of state taking an official holiday near the end of his term. The first U.S. president to visit India since Jimmy Carter, Clinton's visit caused quite a stir in the subcontinent. In Bombay the locals say the restaurants and hotels where the presidential party stayed immediately raised their prices and still saw business multiply.
In Toobin's book A Vast Conspiracy, Clinton is portrayed as a lonely deceitful man willing to put his presidency and his family at risk for a tawdry affair with a young intern. As I read of the scheming lies of Linda Tripp, of the conservative forces bent on destroying Clinton by any means necessary, and the love-struck silliness of Monica Lewinsky, I couldn't imagine how Clinton must have felt as he visited this most romantic destination. Did he buy a copy of the full-color illustrated Kama Sutra, available for less than 500 rupees in the hotel bookstore? What did he and Hillary talk about when they discussed his trip? Would she forgive his many transgressions, if he built her a monument such as the Taj Mahal?
As we rocked along on the rough road leading to the gates of the Taj, I felt a sense of excitement and dread. I had wanted to see the Taj Mahal for as long as I could remember. Now it was just down the road. Could it possibly live up to my expectations? How could it be as magnificent as everyone says?
Upon hearing that his favorite wife, Arjamand Bano, had died in childbirth, the emperor Shah Jehan said, "The light has gone out of my life." He vowed to build the greatest beautiful monument ever built by a man to his woman. And he did just that (with the help of 20,000 workers and the wealth accumulated by his Mughal ancestors).
After entering the main gate, there is a path of about 60 yards surrounded on both sides by galleries that once served as markets. Then a large yard leads to another gate and past this, in the distance . . . the Taj Mahal. You can catch glimpses of the structure from outside the gate but it is only after passing through that you get your first look at the architectural masterpiece.
The initial view is mesmerizing. The Taj Mahal is said to be the most photographed building in the world, but mere film cannot capture the depth and wonders of this building. Words can only hint at the magnificence of this memorial to love and sorrow.
I worried needlessly. The Taj Mahal does not disappoint. The images my mind captured from that day will stay with me forever.
For the last leg of our trip, we traveled from Agra to Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajisthan. Bill and daughter Chelsea stayed several days in "The Pink City." We visited Amber Fort, which is over 1,000 years old. Built along side a mountain, you can reach it by two methods: jeep or elephant. The elephant ride, along side a steep cliff only takes a few more minutes than the jeep. Once inside the fort we bought coconuts for our elephant, Munni. She took it in her mouth, dropped it to the ground, cracked it with her large foot, and then ate up the good parts. She was very gentle and we took many pictures of her and her mahout.
By this time we had toured several palaces but Amber Fort was exceptional. At one point we entered a courtyard surrounded by 12 apartments - one for each of the king's wives. The hallway around the apartments was designed so that the king could walk without being spotted by the women whose apartments he was not going to visit. Jealousy was alive and well even in medieval times. Wonder what Clinton, for whom the fort was closed for two days, thought of that?
As we drove down the hillside back to the hotel it was just past midday. Several of the elephants were going home, their mahouts reclining, napping contentedly. The elephants knew the way home.
By the time Bill Clinton came to India, the United State was heading home without his guidance. He was impeached in 1999 for lying about a sordid affair with a younger woman in his workplace. Afterward Clinton was a sort of prisoner without bars. He only came to India because he had nothing better to do. Al Gore did not want him on the campaign trail, so the disgraced president spent his time traveling.
Shah Jehan died a prisoner at Agra Fort. From his room he could look down at his lasting monument, the Taj Mahal. In Bill Clinton's prison there was no such view.