Night descends on Varanasi. 365 days, 400 festivals. Down to the Ganges, the holy Ganga, all roads lead to.
Marigold garlands, oil candles, incense, rice offerings. Walking through red splashes of betel nut spit, red tooth dentistry. Watch the cow. Sitting families on the rough stone steps that lead inexorably to the river, into the river. Everything comes from and returns to the river.
Darkness now, the full moon watches us all. The revolution of the cycle, there is no end, only rebirth. Life is roaring through me, pushing, tugging, holding, jostling, bumping. It’s the streets. To know one you need to know millions. Stories, pictures, images, soaking through the dirt of my temples. Reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie at present, slowly he and this are making sense. But never can it.
Fireworks are let off, great hoary skyrockets from an overcrowded boat, sparklers, showers of phosphorous. Crackers booming. Hand held skyrockets, away they fly, sometimes not too well and crash and explode into the boats crammed 50m out into the river. The closer they explode the more the excitement. A thronging passion. Boats trailing lights behind them.
Fathers lifting their children above the crowd to see the lanterns and dancers. A live band, tablas and sitars and everything wails through a PA to make AC/DC proud. The nut seller, mixes and stirs. Vendors and beggars and the office dwellers and the holy and the merchants and everything colliding. Parents dropping kids pants to relieve themselves on the pavement, steps lined with beautiful glittering candles. Cows eating what they can. Tourists freaking out when locals talk to them.
Mothers, in their finest silks, pushing their kids into my arms to get a better look from where I sit, on the edge, the observer, the outsider. Yet inside enough to have an unknown kid shoved in my arms, to stop them falling. I speak to Nisha and her sisters, curious and bored at the same time. Fleeting connections. I stroke my beard, as Salman says, to stand out in India you have to be grotesque.
On it goes, into the night, like the river, forever.
Day is an hour away. 5am alarm, the river calls me. My throat is constricted, like something crawled in during the night and is now collecting a toll on the fetid air that I breathe. Black snot, black lungs. Down dark alleys, the old town, to the river. Full moon still watching me.
Beggars lining the path to the river, everyone comes this way. Early locals giving rice to them. Street cleaners scuffling in the gutters. The boatmen wait on the stepped river bank. The refuse of the night before pushed aside. A price is negotiated, a deal, the deal is always first, then proceed. Madhal, our boatman, pulling his oars against the current. Keeping close to the shore on our right. Moonlight on early bathers’ faces.
Clothes washers smacking the dirt from cloth onto rocks. A Gangetic dolphin jumps, breathes. Glow of the red sun to our left, rising above the distant sand bank and treeline. Its rays, cutting through the dust and fumes, form a red ladder on the river, beckoning me away. Old maharajah palaces, rough peeling plaster, guest houses now.
We turn upstream, warm winds from the new sun waft on me. Down the middle flow of the river, down down. The pink and red hues of the buildings lit up. Hundreds now on the river. Brushing teeth with sticks. Morning washing. Prayers, thanks, rituals. Submersion into the flow.
We stop at a burning ghat, 24 hours a day operation – 3000 rupees for a wood pyre, 150 rupees for the modern gas. Only sadhus, lepers, pregnant women and children are not burnt, instead straight into the river, pure. A man sits on the bank, looks calm. I take a photo of his funny constricted pose. Later, I find he’s dead. A pilgrimage to your death, a burnt image on my mind. A beautiful morning for it. Flies gathering now. Now a corpse in the river, white like a, er, corpse. Innards falling out.
Back to where we started, resisting the river. The washing, the purification, the relief the river instills, continues on the banks.
All come and go, I go, more come, to the river.
2200 hours. I psyche up for the battle ahead. Piss. Spit. Walk in circles. Climb on board and sit. Always sitting. I’ve done more sitting while I’ve been a so-called traveller than I did as an office worker. Bus is going nowhere, dispute over a seat. Someone in mine. Ticket-taker sorting out a poor lower caste family, 15 minutes of shouting. Get seat, away we go.
Immediately, the sound of a child throwing up into a plastic bag. Every bus I’ve been on has dried chuck stuck to a window or down its side.
Desert night, window doesn’t close, freezing cold draft. The guy next to me shares his blanket. I sit talking for a while. He’s in marketing. Discussion of marriage protocols, average wage, difference between India and Australia, salinity, eucalyptus trees, Rajasthan drought, cricket, and more cricket. The usual stuff in the haunted hours, plunging into the night.
We come to a stop. We have to back up because the road is too narrow through a village to allow another bus to pass. All’s well until we back into a house with a thump. No problem. We speed on, horn blaring, sleeping cattle scattering, dogs yelping.
Driver keeps chewing and spitting out the window. About 10 people crammed in the front compartment of the bus, all hands flapping – a discussion. Driver takes both hands off the wheel to groom his hair. He runs fingers through again and again. It’s an important consideration at 3am in the morning while doing 100km/h down a road built for a skinny Indian on a bike rather than a rattling steel bus with 4 bald tyres and 40 wide-eyed passengers gripping their seats. The driver keeps the accelerator hard pressed. Midnight roadworks become a high speed chicane.
Someone in a seat around me has the ability to fart on cue every 10km. May have been the guy with the TB-cough immediately behind me. He has great fun belching profusely after an early morning chappati and chai stop. He falls asleep with arms lapped over my head-rest. Man next to me falls asleep on my shoulder.
Morning sun up at Jodhpur. Steaming chai from street seller and Hindustan Times to read. Poor lower caste family searches under seats for fallen coins before they get off. Chai seller wants to “buy my beard” from me. Shave me?, I ask. “I want to buy your beard”, he states again, so I’m none the wiser.
Rajputs, warrior caste, here with deep desert-lined faces and twirling moustaches and turbaned heads. Early morning anxiety kicks in over a souvenir I bought days ago which I fear will not fit the intended. Beauty lost in its lack of use value. The tyranny of attachment + tourist shopping holiday stress = an anxious idle bus mind. Back on the bus to ease it, mind off it, back to a mental lesson in mortality.
New person sits down next to me, looks at me, rocks gently forward and breaks wind. An acrid Bhopal-strength cloud wafts down the aisle. It’s the only thing he says to me for the entire trip. Even the Indians open the windows. Countryside is monotonous scrubby desert country broken only with flecks of colourful sari wearing women with golden water jugs balanced atop their heads.
A truck-struck donkey is on the road. The bus slows, bus boy hanging out the door with one arm. We let people off in the middle of nowhere, before they follow some invisible track out there, which must be to somewhere, and disappear. Gentle chiming of goat bells in the distance.
Roads, arteries of the nation, prone to haemorrhage, over-turned bus on the side of the road. Fleeting high speed blurred memory, no point to dwell.
Onward onward onward, deadline to meet, race record to beat. We arrive, touts everywhere, pulling us into their jeeps to go to their hotels for their camel safaris. I make it out and into town, Jaisalmer, the golden fort, destination found.
I was two months without a haircut or shave. Now was the hour for deliverance. Some time on a Jaisalmer afternoon, I approached a red and white striped fronted barber’s door, next to the “Government Authority Bhang Shop”. Little did I know I was about to enter a house of cultured dreams.
I went to this emporium not because of word of mouth nor mere reputation. No tout was commissioned to send me here. I’m of the opinion it found me. The small weedy man standing in the doorway watched me approach. Oh that glint in his eye when he saw my hairy visage approaching! This hair artiste saw in me a lump of marble from which beauty would be carved.
A freshly shorn man was leaving, I immediately liked the look of his work. It had a style, an obvious cut, a life of its own. I climbed into his elevated chair, no words spoken, to this day I know not his name. Our union felt like Montague and Capulet drawn by deepest need. That slicing blade, resting within his soft aloe palm, was nothing without my hair, my manky beard, the mousy brown flopping disrespectfully over my ears. He wielded a blade (”Look, a new blade just for you, sir”) like a 30 year veteran at an abbatoir. His skill was not the result of chance, it was refined genetics. He didn’t work these streets to merely survive, he had obviously evolved and prospered.
Simply, he was my barber. Technically, he may have been a Shiva-loving snipper. But for those moments when his imagination stirred and he twirled the (lack of) styling prospering atop my pate, he was my buddha of the blade.
We couldn’t converse easily yet we talked hair in the universal language of client and stylist. A beard trim and a tidy up around the ears please, was what I needed. He nodded, hucked up some phlegm and spat enthusiastically into the street. “Excuse me, sir”. Always so polite. No excuse needed though. The sound of hucked phlegm has its own sweet melody, its own sweet science, in India. Like pissing on the nearest wall while waiting for a bus.
His real genius lay with the comb, scissors and cut-throat blade; the ability to cut from my grubby chin and cheek growth, enough, but not too much. When I think all is lost, he reveals a delicate eveness prepared by the eye to be worshipped by the eye. One of the reasons I love to be slashed at by a meticulous clipper is that I wear glasses. Glasses removed, I cannot see to intercede like a petty town council against the architect’s vision, until all is complete, finished, finalised. Glasses replaced, it’s only then that I see his work, the end of his dreams cut from the hairy morass of unkempt fibre that I once sported. No more cheap alley sniggers from the Rajput-led moustache and beard police. Now only reverence, worship of a vision splendid.
He circles my head like a desert bustard looking for more prey, homing in on those irreverent strands too long over my ears. This hair, like a fighter plane heading for the Pakistan border, is there then gone. Supersonic removal. The footwork so nimble, wrists so flexible. As I stare vacantly into the street at a pig about to eat a dead puppy, my maestro trims the last hairs from my moustache’s lip line. His blade is finally applied to my moistened fuzzy neck fur. The cleanest lines, defined, refined. This hair guru to maharajas, merchants and malingerers alike, is of the people and is the people.
He flows into those scalps he dutifully massages after winnowing all the dry split-ended chaff from untold craniums. He happily slaps and cracks – “Now a little reiki” – because he knows it’s the little bit extra which is the difference between mere barber and blade buddha. A quick bit of pressure point technique and calculated pounding to neck and shoulders and I’m floating. “Facial massage?” I decline, too much delirium for one day. I rise, press some rupees into his hand, wobble my head knowingly in time with his, and leave. Happy days indeed.