"He's India's biggest film star -- sort of like Harrison Ford, Clark Gable and Cary Grant rolled into one."
"He must really be something."
The next afternoon, our guide invited us to visit the Kalkaji Mandir, one of Delhi's most important shrines. The temple looked drab from the outside, but the inner courtyards teemed with devotees and noisy, colorful worship activities because it was the beginning of the 10-day Dasara festival. Incense in the air was so thick it muted the beating of ritual drums and strains of a harmonium. A Brahman led us to the inner sanctum.
I was astonished to see my mother, who lights the Sabbath candles every Friday evening, kneel reverently to receive a blessing from a bearded, half-naked priest. Following our guide's instructions, she then pressed her head to the ornate silver altar -- upon which an image of the goddess Durga danced -- and prayed. Her view of worship was identical to mine: a holy place is defined not by convention but by what we bring to it.
Outside in the courtyard, wailing infants were getting their heads shaved with straight razors. Once shorn, the hair was offered to the goddess and red swastikas were painted on their bare scalps.
"Oy," said Mom, who at last seemed rattled. "Why are they doing that?"
"In India, the swastika is an ancient design," I said. "The Nazis stole it, but that doesn't matter here. To Hindus and Buddhists, it's still a symbol of good luck and a sign of protection by the gods."
"The religion here," she said, shaking her head. "It's all-encompassing. I had no idea."
When I try to name the influences that made me a traveler, I think mainly of movies, which made me long for the universe that lay beyond the suburban tracts of Plainview, N.Y. But I suspected a paternal cause as well.
Dad and I were never close, and he died of heart failure when I was 30. Once in a while, though, when we would drive into Manhattan together, he would open up. One story that stuck with me was set near El Paso, Texas, when Dad was in the service.
"Your mother was pregnant," he said. "And I'd just been discharged. I was driving away from the base, alone, down one of those long, flat highways you find in the South. After miles of this, I came to a junction where a dirt road snaked off and disappeared into the hills.
"I stopped right there and stared up that road -- thinking of all the places I wanted to see, all the adventures I'd never had. . . . I could take that road, disappear and live the life I'd dreamed of living. Or I could do the right thing and go back to your mother."
There seemed little doubt that wanderlust was in my genes. And it had twice brought me to the city of Agra, where the magnificent Taj Mahal rests on a vast marble plinth along the Yamuna River. I first came in 1979, as an astonished 25-year-old, and now, a quarter of a century later, with Mom.
For the first-time visitor to India, the Taj is an unforgettable highlight. Nothing compares with walking through the domed gateway and watching as Shah Jahan's marvel in marble explodes into view.
"It's awesome," said my mother, gaping at the pearlescent dome and slightly tilted minarets. "Every aspect of its design is perfect -- down to a level that approaches magic."
The Taj does this for everyone. All who visit are beatified, united by a common sense of awe.
We strolled together around the grounds, watching as the sun descended and the creamy marble morphed into orange, pink and blue.
"It's like a dream come true," my mother whispered, then laughed. "Though I can't honestly say that."