The Khan men of Agra

In India, a moment of trust opens the door to a traveler's richest reward.

By Pamela Michael
Published November 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

One good thing about monsoons, I thought to myself, peering out the milky window of the Taj Express: They sure keep the dust down. I surveyed the approaching station from my uncertain perch between two lurching cars, ready to grab my bag and disembark purposefully. Despite the early hour, the platform slowly scrolling past me was packed with people.

Of the dozen or so bony hands struggling to wrench my suitcase from my grip as I stepped off the train at Agra, perhaps two were porters, four or five were rickshaw drivers, three or four were taxi drivers and maybe a couple were thieves. The sudden rush of mostly barefoot men in states of (un)dress ranging from rags to britches brought me face to face with the difficulty of "reading" a person's demeanor or intentions in an unfamiliar culture. What to do?

I already knew from my few days in New Delhi that I would have to choose one of these men -- not because I didn't want to carry my own bag, but because I would be hounded mercilessly until I paid someone to do it for me. It's a defensive necessity, and an effective hedge for women traveling alone who must rely on their own wits and the unreliable kindness of strangers -- the taxi-wallah as protector and guide. In Delhi, though, the competitive tourist market is based more on ingenuity and charm than intimidation. Many of the drivers had developed very engaging come-ons, my favorite being the rickshaw driver who purred, "And which part of the world is suffering in your absence, Madam?"

My reluctance to hire anyone apparently was being interpreted as a bargaining ploy. Several men had begun to yell at each other and gesture toward me, ired by the low rates to which their competitors were sinking for the privilege of snagging a greenhorn tourist fresh off the train. Not wanting to see the end result of such a bidding war, I handed over my bag to the oldest, most decrepit-looking of the bunch, deciding I might be able to outrun (or overtake) him if I had to and also because he had an engaging (if toothless) smile.

Triumphant, he hoisted my bag on top of his turban and beckoned me to follow as he set out across the tracks. For the first few minutes the old man had to fend off a persistent few rival drivers who thought they could convince me to change my mind by casting aspersions on the character, safety record and vehicle of the man I had chosen -- whose name, he told me, was Khan, Kallu Khan.

Halfway through the station, in a particularly crowded spot, Kallu handed my bag to another (much younger and, I theorized, more fleet-footed) man. "Hey, wait a minute!" I protested.

"My cousin Iki," Kallu assured me.

"So, what's he doing with my bag?" I asked.

"Helper," I was told. I went into red-alert and quickened my pace to keep up with Iki and my luggage.

As we reached the street it began to rain again, part of the deluge/blue sky monsoon cycle to which I had become accustomed. Over my objections, Iki put my bag in the trunk of their car, a battered Hindustan Ambassador that was unmarked except by mud, no reassuring "Agra Taxi Company" emblazoned on the door. "Thief might steal suitcase in back seat, Madam," Kallu explained. I acquiesced -- the dry shelter of the "taxi" looked inviting and I was worn down by the ceaseless demands on my ability to communicate, decipher, make decisions, find, respond, protect, etc. that travel entails, even in a four-star situation, which the Agra train station was decidedly not.

Once under way, my relief at having escaped the crowd and rain was somewhat
dampened by my realization that I was on a rather deserted road with two
men who were probably making the same kind of un- and misinformed
assumptions about me that I was making about them. I peered out the rain-streaked window to my right to get my bearings and to take in some of the
sites I had come to India to see. I was also tentatively toying with escape

All I could see was a blur of red, towering overhead and as far into the
distance as I could make out. The Red Fort, of course. I had done my
homework, so I knew the walls were 70 feet high, surrounded by a moat. On
my left was a long stretch of sparse forest, separated from the roadway by
a crumbling, low iron fence.

Suddenly, Iki pulled the car over on the left and stopped alongside a
broken place in the fence. Kallu got out of the passenger side and opened
my door, saying, "Now I show you something no tourist ever see, Madam."

"That's all right, let's just get to the hotel. Tomorrow is better," I

"Please, Madam," he insisted and, sensing my concern about my
suitcase, he added, "Don't worry. Iki stay here with your bag."

I was already chastising myself for being so naive and trying to decide how
much real danger I was in when I looked -- really looked -- into Kallu's eyes for
the first time. They were kind -- kind and bloodshot, but kind. In an instant
I made the sort of decision that every traveler has to make from time to
time: You decide to take a risk, trust a stranger, enter a cave, explore a
trail, act on intuition and experience something new. It is this giving
oneself over to a strange culture or environment that often reaps the most
reward, that makes travel so worthwhile and exhilarating.

As if to affirm my decision, the rain stopped. "OK, Mr. Khan, you show me,"
I said.

We walked down a muddy path through a stand of stilted trees,
leaving Iki behind, smoking a bidi. My courage faltered a couple of times
when I caught a glimpse of a spectral, loin-clothed man through the leaves,
but I said nothing and slogged on, hoping for the best.

It came quickly and totally unexpectedly: an enormous mauve river, its banks
aflutter with river-washed tattered clothes hanging from poles and
vines -- the work-in-progress of dhobi-wallahs, the laundry men. Directly across
the river, luminescent in a moisture-laden haze, was the Taj Mahal, seen
from an angle that, to be sure, few tourists ever see and shared with
affection by a man who clearly derived great pride from its grandeur. The
monument's splendor was all the more striking, its manifest extravagance
even more flamboyant in contrast to the faded homespun garments flapping
rhythmically in the humid monsoon breeze. We could only stand there and
beam at each other on the shores of the mighty Yamuna, the Khan man and I. I like to think it was a sweet kind of victory for us both.

Pamela Michael

Freelance writer and radio producer Pamela Michael is the director and co-founder of the River of Words Project, an international children's environmental poetry and art program, sponsored by International Rivers Network and the Library of Congress. She also wrote and produced the acclaimed radio series "East Meets West: Buddhism in the United States," which was narrated by Richard Gere.

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