You want Hashish? I have good Hashish, why I wonder am I asked this question time and time again in whispered tones on streets and back alleys in Varanasi by furtive little men? I conclude that I must have the look of a man that does a lot of pot, or that perhaps I appear to need to do so. I am not entirely happy with either scenario, looking into the bathroom mirror in my room, staring back at me is a slightly hairy looking fellow. He needs attention, a month in India and six weeks or more since my last visit to a Barber. In India everything happens on the street, the barber is no exception, I settle on an amiable looking chap with a rickety old chair and an umbrella, a haircut in the shade is necessary for me at least. We exchange broken English and settle on a price of 150 rupees, less than £2 for a shave and an haircut, I figure he’s overcharging me, but I’m paying far less than in the UK, so we are both happy.
He begins by wrapping my shoulders in a grubby and rather smelly cloth, then Hindi Scissorhands sets to work. As he leans over me I become transfixed by his teeth, pan-stained and rotten beyond anything I can imagine, shades of brown and red, he smiles on oblivious. As he leans over me I am aware of his body odour, his arm-pit close to my nose, he smells of India, of old sweat and grime and labour. My instinct is to pull away, to make distance, but there is nothing to do other than let my Englishness go and accept. Hair done he lathers up a stumpy shaving brush that has seen better days, out comes a cut-throat razor, my safe zone is breached once again, until he opens a packet of Wilkinson Sword Razor blades, I calm down, Wilkinson Sword, I think of my father shaving, always Wilkinson Sword Razors, I am happy. He splits the blade in two , inserts half in the cut-throat and scrapes away. As I sit in the chair and look at my hairiness gradually reducing every few minutes a passer by will pause at the barbers mirror, pick up the comb he is using on me and then comb their own hair, check themselves once again and if happy with what they see place the comb down and walk on. It happens again just a minute or two later, each time the barber says nothing, I just watch and stare as stranger after stranger pauses at the mirror and picks up the comb he has been using on me, England this is not, but who am I to question.
When I think the barber is finished I motion to get up, he presses me to remain seated. He picks up a slab of something that looks like a clear bar of soap and begins to rub it over my chin, Indian after shave he explains, funny smelling stuff it is, then he reaches for a bottle with a cloudy milky liquid in it, pours a dollop into his hand and rubs it into my scalp, again I have no idea what it is. Next I am rather surprised when he begins to thump my head, I assume this is normal, in India at least and sit there. He spends another ten minutes pummelling my head and shoulders. You like? I reply yes, it seems a shame to disappoint him.
As I look at myself in his mirror, work done, I decide that I no longer look like Pot-Man, I am happy, I pay & he smiles, I thank him and say a silent extra thank-you to the great unknown for having the good fortune to be able to pay for my own dentistry.
I leave Varanasi in the dead of night, well, 4am to be exact. I am heading up into the Hills five hundred kilometres away, fourteen hours by train. Two porters carry my ridiculous quantity of luggage through the winding back streets of the city towards the rail station, no cars penetrate this labyrinth. In the darkness as I walk behind the porters I think of time, of the centuries this city has been here, these cramped streets, lives lived on top of another, of how I could have been here 500 years ago or a thousand and there would be no difference. My porters eventually get me to a road where vehicles can move and me and my belongings are loaded into an auto rickshaw. It’s dark and he has no lights, he carries me to the rail station, the train arrives five hours late, the platform is awash with bodies, I eventually climb onto my train and find my berth. I am in a daze, the heat and the lack of sleep is taking it’s toll, there are four bunks in my section of the carriage, two are already occupied, on the berth opposite me is a woman, under sheets, she turns and faces me, I smile, she smiles back, she is I guess in her thirties, the other occupant is a man, perhaps in his sixties, a few minutes later it becomes clear they are together, I try to work out the relationship, is it a father and daughter, or husband and wife, I settle on the later. As I lie in my bunk I can’t help but look at her from time to time, she has the most perfect lips, her face is beautiful, her eyes closed in sleep. Every once in a while she wakes, her face looks rather sad, I come to the conclusion that this old man is her husband, that she is unhappy, that she is locked into a relationship she doesn’t want with a man that is far too old for her. My lack of sleep sends me into a strange land, I am not sure if I am dreaming, I am in a tale in which the lady with beautiful lips asks me to rescue her, we run away, there is a happy ever after, then I shake myself metaphorically, I have been in the sun to much, or need to sleep, my mind is wandering. I must sleep………………
When I wake the woman has gone, her aged man with her. My train pulls into my station, Haridwar, I take a cab and drive for another three hours climbing uphill all the way, along gorges and steep curving roads. Almost 24hrs after leaving Varanasi I arrive at my final destination, I flop onto my hotel bed and sleep until sunrise. I wake to the sound of running water, pulling back my curtains I look at the garden beneath, immediately beyond flows the Ganges, not the leviathan Ganges of downstream, but a river in its youth, cascading over boulders and pebbles, crystal clear, 2000+ kilometres from its meeting with the sea in the Bay of Bengal. Then flashes of brilliant blue and red catch my eye in the tree below my window. It’s a Kingfisher, I’ve seen this bird many times before, but always on the front of a beer bottle. This is the first time I’ve seen the living breathing version. My God, its a stunning little creature. this is my favourite Kingfisher, my best, alive.