The best bit about getting to Agra is, well, getting to Agra. The 200-kilometre drive from Delhi to the Heritage City — as Agra now self-importantly refers to itself — takes you across an urban landscape that typifies not the present but the future. The Yamuna Expressway, this stream of hard concrete, cement and tarmac, flows uninterruptedly before your eyes, like a river, like a dream. At certain hours of the day, the grey-white of the tarmac exactly matches the colour of the sky, so that the distant horizon seems to dissolve into empty space, and you, doing close to a hundred in your car, seem to be making zero progress.

It’s only when the road curves or ebbs or falls — eerily aqueous these movements — are you able to finally get your bearings. The white surface of the tarmac below is marred, at every 500 metres or so, with carbon-black skid marks of vehicles, which, by the looks of these wayward traces all coming to an abrupt end, had gone dangerously out of control: a terrible reminder that you are on one of the worst accident-prone zones in the country. You’re subjected to conflicting impulses: while the stretch ahead invites, even inspires you to speed up, the warning signs everywhere — the skid marks below, and the hoardings proclaiming from above that “life is valuable” — make you want to lay off the pedal.

You think of that great bard of the autobahn, the British writer J.G. Ballard, and his fantastic novel Crash — its detailed, forensic portrayals of car crashes (“A concertina of metallised death”), and its unusual poetic imagery, drawn entirely from two of the most definitive symbols of urban life: the automobile and the motorway. It would have been apt had the organisers devoted a whole session to the life and work of Ballard at the Taj Literature Festival, the third edition of which was hosted in Agra last week. But this wasn’t to be — Ballard remains a forgotten writer in England, his home, let alone in India, where his work never got its due. 

Besides, the Ballardian world ends with the end of the Expressway here. The city of Agra does not offer the urban experience that Ballard had come to cherish and, in a way, celebrate in his writings. It is the curse of being close but not close enough to the national capital that has relegated Agra to the position of what urban planners call a “Tier-II town”. Now, the Expressway has brought it even closer to Delhi. But only time will tell whether this new passage will bring in more wealth, more people, more diversity, more culture to this city, or else merely prove to be, for the disillusioned, the fastest route out of Agra.

The trope of leaving Agra for some place better is by no means a modern one. Consider the case of the poet Mirza Ghalib, who was born in Agra in 1797, only to leave town and make Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Delhi his adopted home. Ghalib was more or less tracing the same path that another Agra-born poet, Mir Taqi Mir, a legend in his own right, had taken a few decades before him. One of the sessions at the Taj Literature Festival, titled “The Sufi Saints of Agra”, was aimed at commemorating the works of these two great poets, who seem to have been slipped out of the collective memory of contemporary Agra.

Ghalib’s birthplace here, somewhere around Kala Mahal, is today a “girls’ inter-college”, according to a news report. The city, till date, lacks a memorial or even a street named after the great Agra poets. This no doubt is symptomatic of the times we live in, when philistinism is seen as a high virtue. But there’s something else at play here: a city that already houses a wonder of the world can’t afford to keep too many icons. And so it was that all the great poetry, the real heritage of the Heritage City, was overshadowed and swallowed up whole by the monumental presence of the Taj Mahal.

It is blasphemous to visit Agra and not pay touristy obeisance to the Taj. Anyhow, the Taj remains in sight no matter where you are, no matter where you look. Like the portraits of the Great Leader in the capital of North Korea, there’s no avoiding the many paintings, photographs, sculptures and other kitschy representations of the Taj Mahal in Agra. All things — including the names of restaurants, hotels and, yes, literature festivals hosted here — remind you to make that inevitable visit to the great mausoleum. Visiting Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal — and not having your photographs taken with your back towards it (the ultimate insult to a work of art) — rebels against logic; it undermines Agra’s position in the contemporary world. If everyone decided to not see the real Taj Mahal, would anyone then come to Agra? And would anything then be left of this city?

The turnout at the Taj Literature Festival was understandably thin, as most people presumably were paying a visit to the Taj Mahal over the weekend. Organising any event in Agra, at any time of the year, is always going to be bad timing, since generating attention and attracting a crowd is always a struggle here. This year’s festival hosted some sane voices from the world of books, like the critic Jai Arjun Singh and author Avirook Sen among others. But very few of us were out there listening to them.

Festivals nonetheless are great crowd-pullers. One only has to add a dose of celebrity to them. Thus, the presence of the Bollywood figure Vidya Balan at the local literature festival. “What time is Vidya Balan coming?” I heard a member of the audience ask someone over the phone, paying no heed to the ongoing discussion on the life of Gandhi before us, that included the brilliant scholar Pushpesh Pant and publisher Pramod Kapoor.

Meanwhile, at the venue of the Taj Mahotsav, a celebrity-driven gala event being hosted virtually next door to the Taj Mahal, the crowd was so heavy that it led to traffic situations and roadblocks. Here, there were no literary pretensions. And the revellers, wearing bead necklaces and crowns made of flower petals, seemed to also have forgotten, if only for a few hours, Agra’s past and the greatest symbol of it looming nearby. A fine achievement, I thought, in a city where all the road signs are pointing at one place alone: Agra’s golden past, carved in marble. All the road signs, except one: and this particular sign directed us straight towards the future and straight out of Agra. It said: “Yamuna Expressway”.

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