Out Of Place

-Ben Keller

Hello, all, and namaste from India.

Frequent visitors here know that I travel a lot, and my turn to submit a blog entry happens to fall on a business trip to one of the furthest destinations I’ve been from my home, India.  I’m currently in Delhi, but I’ll also visit Chennai and have a quick stop in Rome before I return to the States.

As a writer of crime fiction and an international security consultant, I can hardly avoid seeing everything through the lens of an investigator.  As such, I’m constantly on the lookout for things that might pose a security risk.  Things that could become a problem.  Unfortunately, danger doesn’t always announce itself clearly.  The first signs of danger might only be small things that are out of place, and the investigator relies upon such things.  As the Lord of all fictional investigators Sherlock Holmes said, “The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious.”  Without those subtle variations from the norm, an investigation is that much more difficult.

Since one of the reasons for my trip was assessing the level of risk to my company’s international travelers, I was on the look-out for these potential precursors of trouble.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t very observant when I landed, jetlagged, and made it to my hotel at about 3:00 a.m. local time.  One immediate difference stood out at the hotel:  the wonderful service.  I was greeted by three hosts who didn’t simply hand over the keys, they took my bags and walked me personally to my room.  This was a pleasant change of pace.

After a little sleep, I ventured out into the district I was staying in outside Delhi.  I was trying to replicate the practices of an average business traveler in order to identify and assess what potential risks they might encounter.  I hailed a driver and drove to nearby restaurants.  I spent some time at a local shopping center.  Inside, I saw such exotic Indian merchants as MAC Cosmetics, Cold Stone Creamery, and McDonalds.    Despite a real risk of fried foods, this was depressingly ordinary.

The next day, I ventured out of the city center, and went to Agra, and the most famous tourist destination in all of India, the Taj Mahal.  The journey there held few observations, except for the traffic conditions.  Even on a Sunday morning, lanes were seen as merely suggestions and cars and jitneys veered in and out of each other’s way with a lack of collision that was frankly impressive.  While the boldness of the pedestrians crossing busy streets like a life-size game of Frogger made me a little nervous as an American, I knew it wasn’t different than the practices in many, many other parts of the world. 

But as we drove on, more differences began to appear.  Cell phone coverage was intermittent, a rarity for those of us accustomed to ubiquitous internet availability.  Not a risk per se, we humans actually functioned without data on our phones for thousands of years.  My kids were shocked to learn that even in my lifetime, road trips were not navigated by our phone’s GPS system, but by carefully consulting the series of maps in your glove compartment.  I made a note to ensure our travelers were aware of the need for advanced planning when cell phone coverage might be interrupted.

The closer we got to the Taj Mahal, the more things began to seem out of place.  Here, I saw cows wandering freely in the streets.  Not a risk, but not ordinary either.  Cows belonged on a farm, or in extreme cases of runaway silverware, jumping over the moon at the very least.  As we parked and took an electric tram from the parking are to the east gate of the site, we were approached by an unusually high number of children and infant-laden women, asking for a few rupees.  Finally, as we paid our fare and collected our shoe coverings required to enter the sacred space, I saw a few monkeys.  My companion told me that when some traveling tourists arrived and learned no food was allowed inside the site, they were forced to throw out any snacks they had brought.  The local monkey population had learned this was a reliable spot to find assorted fruits and other food, and their numbers abounded at sunrise.  So the monkey pictured here may not have been out of the ordinary, but he still looked sketchy to me.

Then, we went through the gate and made our way to the main entrance of the grounds.  I’ve attached a picture, but the picture simply doesn’t do it justice.  The Taj Mahal is a magnificent building that defies easy description.  And as I toured it and learned its history, perhaps the greatest “out of place” observation of all was right in front of me.  As legend has it, the Taj Mahal was ordered built in 1632 by emperor Shah Jahan to serve as a mausoleum for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who tragically died in childbirth.  Construction took 22 years, and employed over 20,000 workers and over a thousand elephants.  With special non-porous marble and painstakingly etched inlaid jewels, the cost of the construction was inestimable. 

But perhaps the most impressive of all is the symmetry of the entire structure.  Four towers flanking the structure, minarets, are placed at strategic angles not only to topple away from the main structure in case of earthquake, but to also direct the eye toward the pleasing balance.  Verses of the Quran inscribed along the arched entrances (in inlaid onyx, not paint) gradually increase in size the higher it goes, all to give the illusion of a uniform size to the eye.  The mosque structure built to the west of the tomb (another thing out of place – my experience told me Muslims faced east to pray, but on the other side of the planet, Mecca is to the west!) was flanked by an identical but generally unused structure to the east, all for the sake of balance.  Symmetry.  Uniformity.  Everything in its place.

And at the precise geometric center of it all was the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal (well, a replica of her tomb, the actual is in an unadorned room exactly below the replica).  All corners are at precise angles to the tomb.  One can see a direct line all the way from the northern entrance of the building, through a seam in the hand-carved marble lattice screen shielding the tomb, all keeping perfect line with the fountains in the reflecting pool south of the opposite gate.  Everything in precise geometric symmetry.

Except one thing:  the grave of the man who ordered the tomb built in the first place.  After he ordered construction to begin, Shah Jahan grew gravely ill.  Sensing a succession was in order, some of his sons began battling for control in anticipation of their father’s imminent demise.  They were surprised by Shah Jahan’s recovery, but they already had a taste of power.  One son deposed his father and locked him in prison.  After many years in prison, Shah Jahan died.  His son had his body placed next his beloved late bride in the center of the famous structure.

But it seems obvious that Shah Jahan never intended to be buried there.  Some legends say that he had plans to build a shadow image of the Taj Mahal, this one made of black marble, situated across the river in a seeming extension of the perfect symmetry.  There, the legend holds, is where Shah Jahan intended his final resting place to be, with a silver bridge forever linking his tomb to his wife’s.  (I won’t point out here that the legend of his plans to build a similar structure seems to conflict with another legend that says Shah Jahan had one hand severed from all the workers so the grandeur of the Taj Mahal could never be replicated.  Hey, I’m a storyteller… the last thing I want to do is kill the magic of a good legend!)

Once seen, it’s impossible to un-see.  For a structure so painstakingly built with perfect symmetry and harmony around Mumtaz’ tomb, seeing Shah Jahan’s tomb right next to hers sticks out like a sore thumb.  It by no means detracts from the overall beauty of the site, but it is clearly… out of place. 

On the ride back to my hotel, I reflected on that as a tourist, an investigator, and a writer of crime fiction.  I was struck by the irony of the very person who strove so hard to achieve perfect symmetry became the only unsymmetrical thing in the whole place.  I thought about how the human brain approaches pattern recognition, and how the greatest detectives in both reality and fiction can spot those outlier details better than most.

And finally, in terms of the world of writing, I thought about all those other “abnormalities” I’d observed so far here in India, and I realized that my internal dialogue had become my very own unreliable narrator.  All those things I found unusual were simply a part of daily life for a vibrant, prosperous country of more than a billion people.  In reality, only one things was out of place.

Me.

I truly love traveling to new places and seeing new ways of living.  I love hearing new legends and the stories other peoples tell themselves.  I’ve found my trip to India so far to be quite an education, and I can fully appreciate how the Taj Mahal is considered a wonder of the world.  The next time you travel to a new country or a new mystery novel, I wonder if you’ll be able to spot what’s out of place.  Maybe it will have been staring you in the face all along!

2 thoughts on “Out Of Place

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