Zerky at the Taj Mahal

Letters to Zerky Cover

December 24, 1967
From JoAnne’s diary

The Taj Mahal has sixteen outer walls and sixteen smaller sides, surrounding the tomb. Standing in one room you can see two rooms to the right, two more to the left, the tomb room, and the room beyond it and the view outside. With the aid of semi-translucent marble, this creates a feeling of being in a hall of mirrors without there being any mirrors at all. This effect is heightened by optical illusion patterns in some of the tile work on the columns, by the pools of water on three sides of the Taj, and by the river on its fourth side. The only colored ornamentations are a few simple floral designs. So effective is all the white marble that it makes the surrounding red sandstone buildings look garish. People who understood show business did the landscaping of the Taj. They knew how to wow an audience. You do not see much of the Taj until you step through the gated openings in the walls and then wham, that magnificent profile silhouetted against the sky. Bravo!

Ghara, a bird sanctuary, is near Agra. While we were on the road today, we saw a fantastic variety of birds. Along with the omnipresent vultures and ravens were some wonderful green birds of the brightest hue. There was also a gorgeous raven-sized turquoise feathered bird. We saw many sandpiper types, some of them being waterfowl with delicate pink-tinged wings and absurd long yellow bills. I also saw a limping bird and some fat grey quail-like birds. In Switzerland I collected wildflowers, in India I shall collect birds.

December 24, 1967

Tonight is Christmas Eve. On our way to Shivpuri National Park today in the rain, we came across a truck lying on its side diagonally across the road. There was no one around and I don’t know what happened.

The tilled countryside has gradually turned into a jungle-like mixture of underbrush, vines, thick-leaved bushes and trees. The English language signs are our guideposts along the road. Frequently they are covered over with paper, or else painted over entirely. The Hindus want Hindi rather than English to be India’s sole official language, and currently there are riots going on in Lucknow over this, riots in which cars, trucks and buses bearing English language numbers are being burned. Car owners are covering their license plates with cardboard on which crude Hindi numbers have been hand-painted. In Madras, however, they are having riots protesting the use of Hindi. Most of the riots are in Calcutta, however, which appears to be the riot capital of the world.

Despite the lack of signs, we finally managed to find the DAK bungalow at Shivpuri National Park, where we have arranged to see the animals tomorrow at 6:30 AM.

Now we are now settled in our bus on Christmas Eve after having given Zerky a set of blocks and a feathered bird. Earlier today we saw many sandpiper type birds, along with some waterfowl with delicate pink-tinged wings and absurd long yellow bills. We also a funny limping bird, and some fat grey quail-like birds. In Switzerland I collected wildflowers, here in India I shall collect birds.

Earlier today on our way to Shivpuri National Park in the rain, we came across a truck lying on its side diagonally across the road but with nobody around. We don’t know what happened.

The tilled countryside has gradually turned into a jungle-like mixture of underbrush, vines, thick-leaved bushes and trees. In addition, the English language signs—our guideposts along the road—have more and more frequently covered been covered with paper, or painted out entirely. The Hindus want Hindi rather than English to be India’s sole official language. There are riots going on in Lucknow over this in which cars, trucks and buses bearing English language numbers are being burned. Car owners are covering up their license plates with cardboard onto which crude Hindi numbers have been hand painted. In Madras, they are having riots protesting the use of Hindi. Most of the riots are in Calcutta, however. Calcutta, the riot capital of the world.

Despite the lack of signs, we finally managed to find the DAK bungalow at Shivpuri National Park, where we have arranged to see the animals tomorrow at 6:30 AM. It is now Christmas Eve and we are settled in our bus. We gave Zerky a block set that turned out to be too old for him, and is very badly made to boot. Then, just as we had poured ourselves a Merry Christmas drink, he decided to make our silent night a smelly one with an attack of diarrhea. Not knowing whether it was the tuna for lunch or dysentery, I hastily covered half an Intro-Viaform pill with sugar, told him it was a Christmas plum and sighed with relief when he took it like a sucker.

We wonder how safe the water is. It comes from an open well, and is continually running in the nearby john. The concept of maintenance does not seem to exist here in India. How many millions of leaking faucets might there be in this water-poor country? For lack of a faucet washer, a river was lost.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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