On the morning of my sixth birthday, before I stepped off the airplane in Mumbai, India, then known as Bombay, my mother gave me a present, a Tammy doll. Tammy, more wholesome and sweet than a Barbie doll, had blonde hair, a comb and several outfits. Even more exciting was the carrying case – bright green, patent leather with a clear panel to show off Tammy and a lime green plastic handle… perfect for India’s color palette. The carrying case may have been the draw for my mother to purchase it, since now I could carry my toy for the rest of our trip through India, Thailand, Japan, Hawaii and back home to Pennsylvania.
Although an excursion to India in the 1960s by a young family from the U.S.A. may conjure images of hippies and ashrams, my parents could not have been further from that mindset. Yet, despite being Depression-raised and coming of age in the 50s, both had a yearning for adventure. My father, although he was never abroad before, was an avid Eagle Scout, while my mother had taken a 10-month trip through Europe with a college friend right after World War II. My mother’s sister and her family were stationed at a naval base in Japan, so it seemed like a great plan to visit.
The prospect of traveling around the world with two small children (my brother turned four just three weeks before we left) didn’t phase either of my parents. My brother and I were adopted, and perhaps after all the time and effort that had gone into trying to have children and creating a family, there was no way my parents were taking a long trip without us. So, we spent months preparing – getting our first passport pictures and so many painful shots in our arms and buttocks, I wasn’t sure it going to be worth it.
So there I was, embracing Tammy and her marvelous case with quiet delight. I was surprised that my mother had planned ahead to bring a gift and managed to hide it as we travelled by car and air half way around the world. My mother must love me, I thought to myself. That was the moment I had a conscious recognition of it.
And then we walked into hot, blinding daylight and slide into a waiting car to go to our hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace. The driver spoke some English and asked me about my birthday. How did the driver know it was my birthday? I said nothing, and retreated into shyness before jet lag hit and I closed my eyes.
Next I remember sitting on a big bed of an extremely sunny room with many windows. We were on a high floor, and there were even windows without curtains in the bathroom, which had white tiles with a few black ones as decoration. My mother had a fit about the cleanliness of the bathroom and had called for housekeeping. Actually, she called them twice and had two different people clean the bathroom. But, she still wasn’t satisfied, so cleaned it herself. Cleaning might have been her way to try to control the assault of the begging on the streets and the crowds that encircled our taxi.
After the cleaning and settling in, we ventured out to do some sightseeing. We had gotten out of our hired car to do a bit of walking, and a movement in the shadows behind a column caught my eye. I went to investigate. A man appeared, but he was missing his left arm at his elbow. Quite scared, I went back to my parents, with the limbless man in tow. My parents quickly had all of us get back into the car, but not before the man made a last effort for a few coins and waved his stump in my face through the open car window.
That night at dinner, the gracious India was embodied by the dining room and kitchen staff. The waiters proudly presented me with an 24” diameter birthday cake. Just one layer, it was about six inches high, with a dark dusty rose fondant icing. This was probably the bottom layer of a wedding cake. On the top of the cake was a parade of wooden animal and toy soldier candle hoIders – the same ones we had at home! My mother brought them with her, along with the trick candle that kept relighting, and had asked the people in the kitchen to put them on the cake. Another fantastic surprise. The inside of the cake was a deep maroon color. It was the most remarkable cake I had ever seen, and it still is.
Everyone in my family took a small slice. However, I was not the only person with a birthday in the dining room that night. Clearly, it was intended that this exceedingly large cake should be shared.
I carried the cake, with the help of my father, across the dining room to a table with many men, all dressed in the traditional Indian white garb with turbans. It was the birthday of a Maharaja, who seemed like handsome royalty to me.
They were in the middle of their meal, but the birthday Maharaja stood up and bowed to me, before he accepted the cake, still bowing, with two hands. My mother had taken off the “circus” and put the wooden holders back in her pocketbook, so the cake was no longer perfect – it also had the missing “V” where my family made the first cut.
Within that empty space of cake, the lives an American girl and Indian man intersected. That void transcended our different religions, ages, sex and circumstance. In that moment, we were two people celebrating a new year with each other in the dining room of the Taj Mahal Palace.
The ingenuity and kindness of the Taj Mahal Palace didn’t stop with the cake. My family went to the Mumbai airport to go to New Delhi, but our plane’s engine was broken. So we were stuck, and the Taj Mahal Palace came to our aid. Even though they had no rooms available, as some of the hotel was undergoing renovation, they opened a wing for us. They took care of us for more several days until another plane was ready to make the trip.
Decades later, I cried when I saw the Taj Mahal Palace ballroom burning and learned a 26-year old chef led people to safety before being shot and killed by a terrorist. I also heard that as masses assembled outside the hotel, the hotel served tea from huge metal bowls to refresh the crowd (a dichotomy of Indian compassion and British civility that could only happen in India).
Is it fitting that the hotel’s very name signified a legendary love and grief? The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was built by Shah Jahan after his queen and third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child. When I was six, I was not conscious of religious differences – it all seemed to be one God and one people celebrating the joy of birthdays, even if we might have come from different cultures.
Mumtaz’s tomb has 99 names of God inscribed in calligraphy on the sides. “O Noble, O Magnificent, O Majestic, O Unique, O Eternal, O Glorious…. ” Oh, that this world can get back there again – to the girl and the man bowing over a birthday cake.
Margaret H. Wagner teaches Gabrielle Roths 5Rhythms® dance/movement classes in New York City, as well as Westport/Norwalk, CT (where she lives and enjoys dancing on the beach). Margaret was a Bronze winner in the Elder Travel category of the Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards 2012, and her published works include a magazine and encyclopedia covering the film/television world. She has led 5Rhythms dance/poetry workshops at the Rubin Museum of Art and on the High Line park in New York City and created many visual installations for 5Rhythms workshops. Certified as a 5Rhythms teacher in 2005 and a student of the practice internationally since 2000, Margaret specializes in offering students the opportunity to first clear their creative pathways with movement and then discover what written poetry or visual art flows from there. Through the 5Rhythms, Margaret has been part of the core faculty at Omega Institute (Rhinebeck, NY), a faculty assistant at Kripalu (Stockbridge, MA), a visiting faculty fellow at her alma mater, Mount Holyoke College (South Hadley, MA), and taught at the Greenwich Hospital Center for Integrative Medicine (Greenwich, CT). Margaret was a participant in Open Floor and Dances of Ecstasy (documentaries of Gabrielle Roths movement work), a former volunteer docent and facilitator of family activities at the American Craft Museum in New York City, and a past Co-President and Board Member of Fairfield County’s Entrepreneurial Woman’s Network. Currently, Margaret also coordinates the Writers Artists Collaborative and Writers? Cafe for MouseMuse Productions in Westport, CT.
“A Shared Indian Cake Is Never Forgotten” won a Silver Award in the Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers category of the Seventh Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.