‘What are you looking at? Focus, dammit!’ Yura, my private trainer, a tall, muscular and very entertaining ex-professional hokey player reprimands me as I turn to look up and back while continuing to walk on the treadmill at a good pace.
‘You have to be careful with this thing!’ He points at my right leg, supported by a large metal brace worn over yoga pants. We’ve known each other for years, Yura and I, and I understand that he is only being grumpy because he cares – and disapproves of the way I got my injury. ‘Why did you, of all people, have to fight, huh?’ he sighed looking surprised, amused and upset at the same time when I first limped into the gym in St. Petersburg a month after my ACL reconstruction.
‘Mila, please,’ he pleads with me now as I try and fail to shift my gaze away from the gym’s upstairs boxing area. There is hardly anyone ever training there but today I can hear someone punching the big black bag, and the sound hurts yet excites me.
‘I miss Muay Thai,’ I admit, looking guiltily at the frowning Yura, ‘I’m surprised that I do, but I do!’
‘Obviously,’ he replies after a long pause, ‘your eyes are all lit up like the Rostral Columns! Crazy woman!’
‘Maybe, I could…?’
It’s as if someone’s emptied the world’s entire supply of Coffee Mate into this morning: the fog floats thick but light in the cold winter air engrossing the Yamuna Highway, and the orange sun is the only thing I can see anywhere outside. Manosh is driving at 100km per hour in the direction of Agra, and after he plays the last song on his smartphone, a Nigerian dance tune, we are out of music, and it is quiet in the car.
It has been eleven weeks since my ACL operation, and I’ve been in India for the past three of them. I first travelled to Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka, the City of Palaces as it is known, famous the world over, in addition to the architecture, for its Ashtanga Yoga schools. I decided to take classes at one of them to help speed up my rehabilitation: a change of scenery and a little exercise, I thought, would be ideal for the purpose. Unfortunately, the romantic idea of doing yoga in India did not interest me in practice: I believe, I felt more out of place at the yoga studio than I ever had at a Muay Thai gym. Who would have thought? It took me the whole of three days to figure out that yoga wasn’t going to suffice to prepare me, neither physically, nor mentally, for a possible spring climbing expedition. And so on New Year’s Eve I booked a ticket to Bangkok from where I would fly to Phuket to resume my Muay Thai training at least 4 months before I would be allowed to do so by my doctor. I would have to train wearing my orthosis, risking re-injury, with 10kgs of the extra weight I’d gained after the surgery and the cardiovascular fitness of a decaying corpse. Instead of dwelling on the many negatives of my decision, I chose to simply… move. I was, after all, in India – a country with no shortage of spectacular sites to visit. In the few days I had left, I rather frantically travelled to the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe, Bangalore, New Delhi and now Agra and Fatehpur Sikri.
It takes Manosh and I just under four hours to get from New Delhi to Agra. The coffee-creamer fog melts away as the warmth of the sun permeates the air, and I see, hear, smell the busy streets which snake around the Taj Mahal, one of the world’s greatest wonders. Like the absolute majority of tourists, I am in the city to see the ethereal mausoleum built of the finest white marble – a monument to love of unparalleled beauty and grandeur. Unlucky for me, the president of the Maldives is in town for the exact same purpose, and just happens to want the Taj to himself for the morning and afternoon, so I am left with plenty of time and little to do with it.
‘It starts with an ‘F’,’ I tell Manosh, who is trying to think of something to show me while we’re waiting for the Taj to reopen for general public.
‘Is it in Agra?’ he asks.
‘No, I was told it was about an hour’s drive away. A friend of mine said there was a very special place within the ‘F’ place – a tomb of a saint where one could make a wish.’
‘Fatehpur Sikri, Madam?’
‘Yes, that’s the one! Can we go, can we go?’
He hesitates. ‘It’s a bit far, Madam. Maybe, one hour driving. Not good road.’
‘If you want, we go.’
Madam certainly wants to go, and the ever-obliging Manosh obliges yet again and drives through mud and dust, over dents and bumps, past grazing cows and wandering people. Shy and embarrassed of his English at first, he slowly starts to relax and is soon speaking to me about his family, friends and his job. Before the hour is out, I’ve learnt of his sister’s motorbike accident and marriage, his father’s diabetes, his boss’s temper and his outrageous work schedule: Manosh sleeps about 2 hours a day and is the first person I meet to consume nearly as much Red Bull as yours truly. Still, he cannot afford to marry or have children. ‘It’s an ugly life, Madam. I don’t want to share it with anyone,’ he tells me. I have no consolation to offer and go instead for a quiet ‘I understand,’ regretting the unnecessary lie even as I mumble it.
When we arrive in Fahtepur Sikri, a festival is ‘raging’ in town, and it is impossible to drive. My visit is quick, noisy and confusing as I am pushed in and out of the main gates of the fort by the Saturday crowd of pilgrims. Have I made that wish by the white tomb of Salim Chisti? Have I even seen the mausoleum? I hardly know, and I certainly understand nothing.
Next, we drive back to Agra and to the Taj Mahal. It, too, is swarming with tourists, local and foreign, yet, somehow, I barely notice their presence. The moment I am shoved through the main gate to catch my first glimpse of the indescribably beautiful Taj, everything else pales, slows and quietens down. ‘Beautiful’ is the word that exists to describe just such marvels, seen with the heart rather than the eye: the Taj glows in the evening sunlight as it hovers somewhere between the tangible and the surreal. While I wait to be carried into the tomb chamber by the wave of people, I press my fingers against a perfectly carved white marble flower on the wall, and it is here where I make my wish, where, in spite of the clamor around me, I can really hear my heart. Writing this now I still remember how warm and smooth the man-made marble flower felt under my hand. Not only did the Taj Mahal turn out to be the most beautiful creation of human imagination and hand I had ever seen, but it also took me back to my white mountains: I touch them, I leave, I die – and they stand, unchanged and glorious, for lifetimes and lifetimes. Somehow, this thought is a reassuring, soothing one. It is, unlike the rest of India, something I understand.
Manosh and I return to Delhi late at night. I would hug him, grateful as I am for his sincerity, kindness and for the wonderful trip we’ve just shared, but instead we simply shake hands: the vast gap between his life and mine is not something I can reach across. I thought his country, India, fascinating, hectic, mesmerizing and, yes, wildly beautiful, but I certainly don’t belong there any more than I do in Thailand, where I am now headed, or in Russia, where I was born. The one place where I feel a sense of belonging is somewhere I may never be able to return, but whenever I see so much as a semblance of it, I am, for moment, at home.