Travel: Warm rain on the Agra road: Janet Suzman: from Delhi to the Taj Mahal, Agra

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The Independent Culture
'IT'S A killer,' said Janet Suzman. 'When you arrive in Delhi, the heat is unbelievable.' Having grown up in Africa, the actress was more prepared than most for the worst that the sun can throw at us. But even she was amazed by its power.

'You give in to the heat. You move more slowly, you think more slowly.' It helps if you wear flowing garments of Indian cotton, as opposed to the stiff-upper-lip uniforms of the British Empire. 'Wearing clothes with belts and buttons is daft.' It doesn't help if you are garbed like Lady Mountbatten in her St John's Ambulance Brigade uniform during the last days of the Raj.

Unfortunately, that was exactly how she had to dress for her three months in 1983 while filming the television mini-series, Mountbatten - Last Viceroy of India. (The production was financed by another empire on which the sun has set, that of Brent Walker.)

'Actors are terrific tourists, very intrepid. You get inside advice from people like the camera crew. You don't feel like a tourist, you feel like a denizen. I had two days clear to start my acclimatisation and I thought, 'Now is the time to see this fabulous building'. ' The fabulous building in question was the Taj Mahal. At her Delhi hotel, aptly named the Taj Palace Hotel, she booked a coach trip for herself and Joshua, her three-year- old son.

'I said, 'I've got my little boy so it must be an air-conditioned bus,' and they said, 'No problem'. I was told we would leave at five the next morning.' They did not leave at five the next morning, of course: 'Whatever Western concepts of punctuality you have are immediately diluted by the Indian laissez-faire view of things.' The coach, for example, was not quite what she had in mind: 'We kept getting dripped on and there was a slurping sound. Finally, we realised there was a tank on the roof, like a swimming-pool, which was leaking - this was the air-conditioning]'

Needless to say, it proved of limited efficiency as they slurped their way south, 150 miles through the state of Rajasthan as the vulture flies: 'We were sweaty and fanning ourselves, but there was a wonderful mood on the crowded bus; people were very jolly. There were lots of Indians and very few tourists. In Africa, where spaces are gigantic, you travel for hundreds of miles without seeing anybody. If you see a walker, you wonder where he or she came from. But in India you realise how many millions of people there are; the road was crowded with processions of people walking who knows where and, occasionally, a mad jalopy overtaking us.

'You'd look at the fields and see camels; they plough with camels. We stopped for lunch and outside the restaurant there really was a fakir playing a flute to a mongoose which was standing on its hind legs and looking a bit ratty. There was a Lost City on the way, Fatipur Sikhri, a great, red Mogul city on a hill. We walked through room after room with mirrors in the ceilings.' Here they saw 'elephant mews', stables designed not for horses but for the largest land mammal. 'They used to stage elephant fights. At Agra we saw some elephants parked like cars in a car park. They paint their elephants in bright colours and intricate patterns. We went on to its hilltop fort. Elephants take you up; you climb a ladder on to the howdah fixed to its back, and they sway up to the massive, crenellated walls. Joshua was wide-eyed; everything was so wonderfully 'other'.

'Finally the sloppy old bus arrived at the Taj Mahal in the late afternoon. This is the most undisappointing building in the world. It was unbelievably lovely, with the faint flush of the setting sun on its white marble. You wander about, murmuring; like any awesome thing, it does make you go very quiet. You take off your shoes as a sign of respect, so it's very clean.'

The Mogul emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal on the south bank of the Jumna River as a memorial to his favourite wife, who died in 1631 after 20 years of marriage. Work began in 1632 and lasted 20 years, with the 20,000-strong workforce, ranging from master builders to calligraphers, on the site every day. From its massive plinth to its delicate filigree, it proves the claim that the Moguls built like Titans and finished off like goldsmiths.

It is not just a monument to the emperor's wife; when the emperor died in 1658, he joined her in the mausoleum. But it is named after her, or rather, a corruption of her name, Mumtaz Mahal. Gardens surround it and visitors entering the gates have to fight their way through one of India's saddest and most common sights - beggars waiting outside.

Over the river is his palace, 'an airy, pillared structure with cool courtyards and terraces where the sun can't shine. From here he could gaze at the poem in marble he had built in his wife's memory.'

The coach party crossed and looked back from the palace: 'You see what he saw.' Janet can still see the view of the mausoleum, thanks to her snapshot with a tiny Joshua in the foreground and, framed in the arches of the palace terrace, the Taj Mahal itself. It also shows the sun well on the way down, which, anywhere in India, is a good place for it to be.

'Dusk in Delhi is magical; you long for the moment when the day ceases to blaze. The sky becomes soft and heavy. A calm settles and the noise of the day becomes more muffled. A faint coolness starts to intrude and you are very grateful.' Dusk just outside the Taj Mahal is something else again.

Finally they piled back into the bus. If the trip had a schedule, they were certainly way behind it. 'It started to get dark - and then the monsoon arrived. Not only was the 'air conditioning' leaking - but now the roof was also leaking with the rain. Sheets of water were pouring down - and the windscreen wipers didn't work. Every so often the driver would stop to get out and wipe the windscreen with a cloth.'

Brought up in the high veld of Johannesburg, Suzman is used to the heavens putting on a show: sheet lightning, hailstones, the works. This was different: 'The sky just emptied its tank on to the earth. It was warm rain. You could just make out through this Niagara the rump of an elephant in the headlights, its colours running as the paint streamed down its flanks. The headlights would catch all these wet people, still walking in the rain.

'We stopped for a coffee at one of the roadside cafes. Everybody was pretty and cheerful, with ravishing smiles emerging from wet heads of hair. Everything was gleaming.' It was around 3am when the sodden bus eventually delivered them in Delhi.

'I couldn't have had a better introduction to India. I felt I'd tasted the place, got a whiff of it. Joshua says he remembers the Taj Mahal.' His other memory today is of the beggars. 'The poverty is unbelievable,' says Suzman. 'You stop giving, eventually. You can't feed them all, you can't be a social security department, a walking DSS. Joshua remembers the little, dusty children, plucking at his clothes; he was the same size as them, and a curiosity.'

Small children find it hard to adjust their body thermostats to the unaccustomed heat, and after 10 days Joshua returned with his nanny to England. Later, Janet's sister from Boston came to stay. 'She left terribly early in the morning and at my bedroom door, as she turned to wave, she said: 'I haven't finished with this country yet'. And I understood that feeling.'

It was 10 years before Suzman was back in India. Last November, courtesy of the British Council, she was lecturing to students in Delhi. To illustrate a particular meter, she began quoting the Shakespearean sonnet 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'. The reaction was, on the face of it, rather odd: 'There was a burst of derisory laughter.'

Then she realised. Comparing a mistress to the furnace- like conditions of an Indian summer is no way to gain her favours. If only Shakespeare had said that she was as lovely as a wet monsoon night, with rain sluicing down fit to drown an elephant, he would have gone down rather better on the Indian sub-continent.

(Photograph omitted)