The Golden Lights

golden lights

The Golden Lights

I sit between the window and a girl from Bombay. She is leaving her boyfriend, who lives in England, to resume work for an IT consultancy firm. She talks about IT for a while and I have no idea what she is talking about. On one occasion, she uses the word “technosolutions.” She is open, intelligent, thoughtful, downcast. It seems a most mature sadness. As the nose of the plane lifts off the ground, we bemoan long-distance relationships. The lights of London look like a magical emblem. If people in ancient times had seen that road, striped with golden pools of light and threading through the blackness of the earth, they’d have thought it a band of pure god: dreamtime, songlines. The girl from Bombay talks of the global economic slowdown. Incredible that on the train this afternoon, pulling out of Hackney Central, an old Caribbean man talked to me about this exact same issue. From India to London to the Caribbean islands, our world is threaded on this same golden gently-glowing string.

I Become the Sikh

When I flew to India nine years ago, I sat next to an ancient Sikh who refused to eat anything but fruit, babbled in prayer at takeoff and landing, and painstakingly collected every kinked white hair that detached itself from his beard for storage in the breast pocket of his shirt, as if terrified of losing pieces of himself on the flight. Now I sit next to a smart, pretty girl who works for an IT consultancy firm. Is this chance, or have things changed?

In attempting to cut a sort of rubbery vegetarian sausage with my plastic fork, my breakfast tray somehow leaps from my hands and sprays fragments of hash brown over a wide area, including the girl’s right shoulder and all of my chest and lap. I spend the next ten minutes carefully picking them out of folds in my clothes and wrapping them in a napkin. Perhaps things have not changed after all; it’s just that the girl has become who I was nine years ago, and I have become the lunatic old Sikh.

Too Much Peace

The tour guide tells me of the beauty of Kashmir. “Too much peace. Too much paradise. Too many mountains.” He uses “too much” as a compliment. I like this. “When you go there, all your dreams will come true. It is like a second Switzerland on earth.” His friend tries to take my hat. Politely, I take it back. Later he catches me up again beside a wall of pasted-up newspaper sheets to explain the current political crisis. The Prime Minister will lose a vote of confidence. The BJP will take power from Congress. (In the event, this does not happen; Congress wins the vote, and on the main bazaar of Paharganj they celebrate by lighting firecrackers in the middle of the road. Rickshaws and motor-scooters swerve. Sacred cows jog away in alarm. Some people guide the cows to safety.) Still later, he bumps into me again. Writes his name and number on a travel agency card. “My name is Bharat Singh. He was a famous freedom fighter. The British hang him.” “I apologise,” I say, “for my ancestors.” He shakes my hand. He is missing two fingers.

The Ear-cleaning Men

The ear-cleaning men pursue me through the park. I am being pursued by ear-cleaning men. They have showed me faded photographs of young Westerners like me having their ears cleaned; the expressions on these young Westerners’ faces are quite extraordinary. They have showed me a book of written testimonials in which people from all around the world describe how much they have enjoyed having their ears cleaned. They have taken hold of my ears and peered inside, telling me how dirty they are, and given a preparatory poke with one of the long cotton-swabbed silver instruments they carry tucked between their foreheads and their red bandanas. The older man has assured me that he’s been cleaning ears for forty-five years. I attempt to make my escape across the park. One of the written testimonials claims that the process “removes the evil from your ears.” But I don’t want the evil removed from my ears! I want the evil to remain in my ears, so I have something to block out the calls of the ear-cleaning men as they rapidly close in from behind.

The Nigerian

“Which church you are?” asks the flat-faced Nigerian who has decided to sit opposite me. “No church,” I say, “I’m an atheist.” “But you have a religion?” “No, I don’t. I’m an atheist.” “You believe in God?” “No.” “But you are a Christian?” “No.” He cannot take this information in. He simply doesn’t hear it. “Indians don’t speak English well. They do not understand you. They are an underdeveloped people. They need to be socialised. How much change you give me?” he asks the restaurant owner suddenly, leafing through his wallet. “I keep five rupees back,” says the restaurant owner, “I was going to give it to you tomorrow.” He looks a little alarmed. “What? You keep five rupees? When were you going to tell me this?” “You were talking, sir. I didn’t want to be rude.” The restaurant owner gives me a secret sad and sympathetic look. The Nigerian gives me an angry leer. I don’t trust this man. He has weird eyes. “Don’t give that man anything,” the restaurant owner hisses at me as the Nigerian talks for a moment on his phone. When he has finished the conversation, he leans in close to me and says: “Indians do not want to be friends. They are underdeveloped. It’s so hard to meet Indian gays.” I don’t know whether he said gays or guys (Indians are easier to understand). But he wants to know the name of my hotel, so I take the restaurant owner’s advice, and leave without giving him a thing.

Magical Sack

"Drum?" asks the man, pulling out a drum. “No drum, thanks,” I say. “Pipe for smoke?” “No pipe, don’t smoke.” “Snake-charmer flute?” He has one of these too. “Genuine-leather riding crop? Postcards? Chess? Backgammon?” They appear in his hands one after the next. Where is he getting all these things from? He is only wearing a shirt and shorts. Perhaps he has a magical sack that stores unlimited items. “Magical sack?” I would like to ask. “No magical sack,” is all he would say. “Chess? Backgammon? Drum?”

Traditions of the Caste

The soldier – khaki uniform, rifle, four-foot bamboo cane – searches bags at the entrance to the Delhi metro. He does not actually search them, however. Instead he makes an elaborate show of carefully lifting the corner of each flap between thumb and forefinger, and narrowing his eyes as if this will somehow permit him to see the entirety of its contents. His job, I see, is not to search bags but to be the searcher of the bags, so that when a terrorist bomb goes off the government can say: “It’s not our fault, we did our best. We have soldiers searching all the bags.”

In a similar way, the man on the platform whose job it is to organise passengers into neat queues in preparation for the train’s arrival is not meant to actually ensure that everyone boards in an orderly way – as soon as the doors open, chaos ensues – but to be the man who makes people form queues. And so the tourists take photographs of monuments they don’t want or need. These are the traditions of the caste.

Miracles of Self-propelled Human Transport

One crippled leg folded over the other, seated on a low wooden cart, a flip-flop on the palm of a hand acting in place of a foot.

Two men: one with no hands, and blind, the other with eyes but no legs. The blind one pushes his companion in a cart, using the stumps of his elbows, while the legless but fully-sighted man issues directions.

A boy without the use of his legs dragging himself along the ground with his hands. Each hand holds a small wooden block; they make the sound of hooves.

The Jama Masjid Mosque

Children fly their small square kites on the steps of the Jama Masjid mosque. The mosque is not a mosque at all but a piece of sculpted air. It’s as if they papier-mâchéd an onion and then took the onion away, but instead of saying “that was a papier-mâchéd onion” you say “that was papier-mâchéd air.”

We are studied with sweet bewilderment by quiet men in white robes. Pigeons crenulate the outside dome. Delhi recedes into its pink haze, a rusted city at the bottom of a lake. This morning I caught a taxi before dawn, when the streets were still wet from the rain and full of sleeping cows, and saw these men like carrier bags floating through innumerable archways. A man was wheeling a vat of hot tea along an empty street. Amazing that this can be, after all, a sweet and peaceful city.

The Problem with Foreigners

Soldiers stop our bus a few miles outside Jammu. “They say we can’t go on,” says our friend. “There is a mob in the road ahead. They make trouble for buses.” “But the soldiers are letting other buses through,” I say. “Yes, but we are a government bus. It’s the bus the soldiers care about, not us.” Soldiers are everywhere on this road, scowling and swinging bamboo canes. After making us wait half an hour they motion us to go on. “Has the mob gone?” I ask our other friend. “No mob,” he says, “just some rocks on the road.” So the mob has become a landslide. Our journey for the next six hours reveals evidence of neither. Later someone else tells me there was a suicide in Jammu; this is why the soldiers were uneasy. “As a protest?” “Yes. There are many troubles.” “Was the person Muslim or Hindu?” “I am not certain,” is the regretful reply.

Truckloads of soldiers constantly overtake on the narrow mountain road. Sandbags, machinegun nests, cigarettes, guns. The wooded hills are dense and green with wild marijuana. The script on the walls of shops and temples juggles between Hindi and Persian. We stop to buy fruit and vegetables from a market hanging on the edge of a mountain. Our friend offers me a cucumber from the three he has bought. “I can buy,” I say, out of Englishness. “I know you can buy,” he says, “but I am offering. That’s the problem with foreigners – you always can, but when something is offered, you do not.”

Sleep is Better

Past glories are remembered here. I am shown a delicate china plate, flower-patterned, from the days of the British Raj. Only this and some teacups and saucers remain; painted dishes for marmalade and jam. “All others destroyed in the fire,” he says. “Everything goes. What now?” His father and his father’s father maintained houseboats like these. Ceilings and verandas of carved cedar wood, steps that dip down to the water. But then the roofs were not made of tin, but carpeted with grass. The houseboats drifted from lake to lake; now the government sets mooring locations. That Kashmir is like a children’s book, and just as far away. An English winter fantasy: snow piled feet deep, snowshoes woven from grass, wood-smoke over the lake. “What now we have?” he asks again. The lake has shrunk to half its size, and there are soldiers everywhere. The Indian tourists just want to make noise, and they use their hands to eat. “When I put down teaspoon on saucer,” he says, “you cannot hear a sound.” His father taught him how to serve. He still wears that pride. “I’ll tell you more!” He is drifting away, balanced on a shikara boat, waving his hands in the air. “When I come back, I will tell much more. How it was, before then.” But when we next see him, one hour later, he is sunk in exhausted sadness. His head is almost between his knees; he can hardly speak. After the length of two cigarettes, he stands and brushes his knees with his hands. “I think, sleep now,” he says with a smile. “Yes, sleep is better.”

The Saffron Man

I am buying saffron from the Saffron Man. The Saffron Man has a tin about the size of an encyclopaedia, stuffed full of saffron from Kashmir. From his bag he also takes a delicate pair of hanging scales; into one bowl he drops a three-gram weight, and into the other he drops three grams of saffron. “Three hundred rupees,” says the Saffron Man. I hand over three grubby brown notes depicting Gandhi’s crumpled face. A small crowd has gathered, as it always does. The Saffron Man waits for a moment or two, and then takes a second tin from his bag. “You want s–?” he asks; a word I cannot remember. “What’s s–?” I ask. He opens the tin. Hands me a lump of something that resembles sticky black tar. “What is it?” I ask. “S–,” he replies. I smell it. It doesn’t smell of anything at all. “What is it for?” He shrugs and smiles. “What do you do with it?” “Millik,” he says. “You put it in milk?” “Yes, millik,” he says. “Do you eat it? Is it medicine?” He shrugs again. He isn’t saying any more.

“What is this?” I ask the growing crowd. “S–,” one gentleman replies, “for make you power.” “For power? It makes you strong?” I ask. I really want to know what it is. I’ve never seen anything like it before. “Do you eat it?” “Drink with millik,” he says. “But what does it do? Do you use it?” I point at the man. He looks uncomfortable. “No,” he says, in an evasive kind of way. “Why not?” I demand, trying to narrow this down. He looks at his feet; his friends look away. Like the Saffron Man, he isn’t saying any more.

The Saffron Man slowly puts the s– back in the tin, and puts the tin back into his bag. Then I feel a hand on my arm, and a man’s face close to my ear. “Only… for … the… pants,” he hisses, and then fades quickly back into the crowd. “Ahh! I see! No, I have no need of that!” I say, perhaps a little too quickly. But the Saffron Man seems to think I do. He meets me again a few hours later, as I am trying to enjoy some chai. “You want s–?” he asks again, now that we are alone, one man to another, with no crowd to judge. “For expansion,” he adds, with a helpful gesture; obviously a word he has subsequently learnt. “Not for me,” I say again, “no, don’t need any expansion.”

He frowns, and leaves me in peace, for now. But he may be back. He may know something I don’t. It may come to pass that I will find myself hoping and praying to meet him again, with his bag and tin and scales, in some disappointingly unexpansive future hour of need.

Eggs are not Possible

“Yes, what you like?” asks the restaurant owner. Or perhaps he is not the owner. He just happens to be in the restaurant. “Omelette and coffee.” The restaurant owner thinks. “Coffee is not possible. Tea is possible. Omelette, I do not know. Wait, please.” We sit down. He goes out and comes back after a few minutes. “Eggs are not possible.” “Why not?” I ask. “Problems in Jammu. Road closed, fifteen days.” “The road is closed for fifteen days? Why?” “Problems in Jammu,” he says. “So there are no eggs?” “No, eggs are not possible.” This doesn’t make much sense to me. Jammu is a nine-hour drive away. How can this possibly effect the local distribution of eggs? “If you like,” says the restaurant owner, “I make aloo gobi, rice, paratha. Maybe –” he thinks for a second or two – “maybe thirty minutes.” We leave the restaurant. We want an omelette. Perhaps it wasn’t a restaurant at all (there didn’t seem to be a kitchen). We attempt breakfast in another place. It’s air-conditioned; there are no flies; surely they will have eggs here. “Yes, what you like?” asks a uniformed waiter. “Omelette and coffee.” “No.” “No?” “No, eggs are not possible.” “Why not?” “Strike in market,” he says. “Problems in Jammu. No eggs in town.” I cannot believe this. This town must have eggs. I’ve seen chickens! Only last night we marvelled at a street-side stall that sold omelettes of truly unbelievable size: if I stretched my arms full-length, the tips of my fingers would only just touch the edges. I want to say: “You’re being ungrammatical. Eggs exist as a possibility; eggs are not only possible, eggs are a fact. It may be possible, indeed, that this town crashed its entire egg supplies on producing that outlandish pile of omelettes, or maybe militants have indeed struck at the vital egg supply chain to Kashmir – the global jihad will stop at nothing to disrupt and dismay the population – eggs may be hard to come by, my friend, but eggs are possible. Now I want an omelette.” But I know the only reply would be: “No, eggs are not possible.” We settle for tea and butter toast.

Must Keep Trying

“You cannot leave this place today. There are security issues. No-one may proceed.” We are attempting a return to Srinagar after three days of a Hindu pilgrimage, but the army has shut down all the roads. “You must stay in this camp until 3 a.m., and then leave as part of a military convoy,” we are told. Is there no other way? We are filthy and exhausted; last night we slept in a temporary slum 14,000 feet up in the Himalayas. Our friend Salil has a brother who knows an officer working at this base. A local man says he will drive us to Srinagar, if we get special permission to leave. “Follow your conscience, Nicholas!” Salil shouts as I make my way towards a sandbagged machinegun post; myself, the driver and the Hindu holy man who attached himself to Anna and I on the far side of the mountains. We are thoroughly searched, the sadhu most of all. He has nothing to search except a grubby white robe and a cotton shoulder bag containing apples. His ID paper says: ‘the above noble man is a pious man and a devotee of Lord Shiva.’ Once clear of the checkpoint, I am led to a sorrowful official with a dachshund face, doubtfully eyeing a telephone. “No,” he says, “it is not possible. There are security problems on the road. No-one can go to Srinagar. I am sorry.” Then he says in exactly the same tone of voice: “Go to see my superior. Perhaps he will say it is possible. If he says it is possible, then you may go.”

I am led there by a jolly soldier who chuckles and slaps me on the back. “You are married?” he asks. “Yes,” I lie (this ruse is meant to cut down on hassle for Anna). “Any children?” “Not yet.” “Oh ho!” he says. “Ho, I see. You try, but nothing happens. Am I right? You try, but nothing is forthcoming, yes?” I try to protest, but we have reached the next tent. I am led to a stern-looking man at a desk. “No, it is not possible,” he says. “I cannot allow it. Please, sit down.” He asks my name and occupation. I try to make it sound respectable. After a few minutes of guarded small-talk, he rises and says: “You will come with me. I will take you to the Camp Commander. You will explain yourself to him.” We cross the base to a small tin hut. He knocks, and respectfully ushers me inside. The Camp Commander is half out of bed, and looks as if he has recently suffered an enormous tragedy. His head is sunk deep in his hands; he answers the officer’s tentative enquiry with nothing but a troubled moan. I am ushered out quickly; the door is closed. “You see,” says the officer, “nothing can be done.” But now the jolly soldier has joined us again. “Have you enquired to the District Chief of Police? I recommend you state your position to him.”

On the way across the camp again he cracks jokes about my impotence which I am too exhausted and confused to counter. (He is most insistent on this point; perhaps he’s on commission from the Saffron Man.) My ‘wife’ is sitting with our bags, surrounded by a crowd of about thirty people who have all taken an interest in our plight. I leave her there with Salil and the sadhu and make my way towards a distant plastic awning, under which sits the District Chief of Police. The District Chief of Police is the exact stereotype of a corrupt Third World official. He has heavy stubble and lazy, sliding eyes, an ugly pockmarked nose. He sits surrounded by subordinates who take hits off a hookah pipe. Before him on the plastic Coca-Cola table is a handgun and a walkie-talkie covered with flies. “No. Nothing leaves this place,” he says after I have made my case. “No pilgrims, no tourists, no foreigners, nothing. No. I cannot permit it.” A subordinate offers me a cigarette. “So it’s definitely not possible?” I ask. “No.” We sit in silence for some time. He glares at the flies on the walkie-talkie. After some minutes, he repeats: “It is absolutely not possible. Nobody can leave.” “OK,” I say. I wonder if I am expected to offer a bribe, but have no idea of the protocol. So I just wait. He sits and smokes. His face I associate with dripping concrete cells, rubber truncheons, electric shock machines. He is absolutely assured of his power over men. At one point he says: “You can go.” I stand up. “Sit down,” he says. I sit down. Still, he waits. After five more minutes he glares up and says, without the slightest explanation: “Your driver is waiting. You can go. Bring your luggage and wife.”

We say goodbye to the waiting crowd. Hugs for Salil and the sadhu (the sadhu we’re forced to leave behind as a condition of our departure). The jolly soldier is in the crowd. I hear hoots of laughter, and look up to see a dozen faces grinning at me. “I tell them you try, but nothing is forthcoming,” he cries, not even trying to conceal his mirth. “You try, but no results! Am I right? So, you must keep trying!”

A Special Shaver's Love

The barber whips up the lather with a small shaving brush, and liberally applies it to my face. He shaves my three-week beard with a cut-throat razor, using small flicking motions and wiping the excess lather on the back of his hand. Then he lathers me up again and uses a second blade to skim off the last remaining memory of stubble, pinching my skin lightly as he goes to ease out the follicles. Various salves are applied to my face. Various unguents follow. I could almost fall in love with this man. It’s a special shaver’s love. He slaps and rubs with his fat oily fingers, tenderly cupping the side of my head in his arm. All the while he is shrieking in Hindi to someone on the far side of the road, but I know he cares about me. It’s a special shaver’s love that women could never understand. The last lotion is the best: it makes my face burn and sing with cold fire, and I rise from the barber’s chair like Poseidon emerging from the deep. I am Poseidon. I’m a freshly-shaved god. As I stroll down the crowded street, humming to myself and smoking a cheroot, these words run through my head: “It’s a fine thing to be a man.”

I catch sight of myself in a mirror a little way down the road. My lips look small and pouty-pink. I am chewing the inside of one cheek. I look like a startled pig.

I Prefer Humankind

Minding my own business, I am suddenly accosted by a man dressed up as a grotesque monkey being. His face is painted bright red, with a thick black smear running up his top lip, which gives the impression of a cleft pallet. He has an elaborate crown on his head, a hairy tail dangling behind him, and an enormous golden club clutched in his fingers. Extremely alarmed, I grab his hairy arm as he tries to smear my forehead with paste. “No, no, it’s OK,” he croons, and then emits a revolting snort which I imagine is meant to impart simian encouragement. I am not encouraged. He twists his arm free and succeeds in daubing red paste between my eyes. “I am Hanuman, the monkey god,” he says, as if this explains everything. “I have come to give you puja.” Puja means blessing. I don’t want to be blessed; certainly not by something that looks like an extra from The Labyrinth. He makes his snorting sound again, thrusts a medallion against my forehead and knocks his golden club against each of my shoulders. Then he screeches in my face several times and says: “One hundred rupees.”

I argue. “I can’t give you a hundred.” “It’s OK, I have change,” he says, rapidly switching from a monkey god to a businessman. “But I didn’t want that.” “I gave you puja. You have been blessed by Hanuman.” “Yes, but I didn’t want to be blessed.” I’m afraid he’s going to snort again. I don’t think I can handle that snort. I look vaguely in my wallet, hoping for small change. There is only a note for fifty rupees. “Twenty?” I say. “Fifty,” he replies. “You have been blessed by Hanuman.” Now I just want him to go away. Lamely, I hand over fifty rupees. By way of thanks he makes gibbering noises, and then bounds away to harass some other mug.

Next morning, I come out of my room in search of the two mangos we’ve been saving. A perfect way to start the day: a breakfast of delicious mangos, so ripe they melt in the mouth. But the bag is empty. The mangos are gone. Furtively scaling the opposite wall is a large monkey with one of our mangos in its mouth, the other clutched tightly in its fist. After it has gained a safe distance – if there were stones about, I would throw them – I am forced to bear the indignity of watching one of the monkey god’s minions insolently gorge itself on my morning mangos. Every so often it glances at me, mouth and fingers dripping with juice. Its expression is one of utter indifference, even when it stuffs more mango in its face. Hanuman seems to have something against me. I think I prefer humankind.

Banana Masala

At the banana stall in the rain, a young man with a loopy smile is fumbling open a jar of green paste. “What’s that?” I ask. “Masala,” he grins, smearing it on his banana with a spoon. “Masala, for bananas?” I ask. “Yes!” he cries delightedly. “Masala banana! Banana masala!” We both laugh a little too loudly. His eyes shine with maniac glee. “Dr-i-i-i-inking!” he giggles, showing me the bulge of a whiskey bottle tucked into the waistband of his trousers. Ah. Now I understand.

The Burning Ghat

This is where they burn the dead bodies. Boats arrive, stacked high with wood. Men bear stretchers towards the flames. Something flops out; it might be a leg. “Look, here comes a corpse!” cries the man I imagine will ask me for money, plucking at my elbow. I don’t look. I don’t want to be in this place. Tourists look on in bored fascination, trying to sneak photographs. I know when the skull cracks in the heat the soul attains moksha, salvation, but I don’t want to see a stranger’s skull crack. I don’t want to see a stranger’s soul. “Burning is for learning. Cremation is for education.” So goes the man’s creepy little mantra. I start to laugh. “It’s not a joke, man,” he says with deep disapproval. Now he wants me to make a donation; I should buy wood for someone’s funeral pyre. “Some people give two hundred dollar. Two hundred dollar is very good karma.” I offer him nothing; I want to leave. Rightly, he becomes offended. “You don’t come back here tomorrow,” he says. “You have bad karma – you don’t come back.”

The alleyways leading away from the ghat are utterly dark; things squelch underfoot. Smoky light illuminates house-scenes: naked children, sleeping cows, the gigantic, ridiculous faces of gods. A man smears a statue red with his hands. A monkey’s shadow creeps across the wall, but I cannot see the monkey. Here there is a lamp-lit skull, sitting on a windowpane. It doesn’t surprise me at all, somehow, until I realise it isn’t a skull but the living, staring face of a man, eye-sockets sunk deep in shadow. Through the rat-maze clutter of lanes, a swirl of the oily river. The Ganges is swollen; temples are submerged. It feels like a drowning city.

Opium Karma

These things I see at the burning ghat: great piles of wood, the greasy brown river, a dozen slimy water buffalo slopping around at the shore. Six fires, each of which contains a corpse. The bodies slung on the pyre with no ceremony, wrapped in their red or white funeral shrouds. A man’s naked torso – burnt away to the waist – prodded up into sitting position by a worker with a bamboo pole, then flopped face down into the flames, useless arms lolling. Up closer, the back of a human head, skin and flesh melted away to reveal the crenulated line where skull has fused to skull. The heat is immense and terrifying; it feels as if my own skin is melting; I think of that naked skull.

And in the half-collapsed building behind, whose latticed windows overlook the pyre, ancient people wait to die and be thrown on the fire themselves. To right my bad karma, I give money to a woman so old she looks as if her skin has been crumpled up and smoothed out every morning for the past hundred years. Her eyes are milky; she has no teeth. She places blessings on my head. This money, I have been informed, will go towards the cost of the timber on which she will be burned.

“Did you go to the burning ghat? Did you give money to the old mama?” asks an intelligent little girl later, attempting to henna my hands against my will. “Yes, I gave some money,” I say, imagining she’ll think me a kind-hearted soul. “Ooh, very bad,” she scolds. “The old mama spends all that money on opium.” It looks as if my karma is fixed in inverse proportion to the old crone’s daily opiate intake. Stoke up the flames and let’s fly to nirvana. It’s only life and death.

Almost Immaculate Conceptions

Varanasi ghats: The burning ghat is so sacred that bodies make no smell when they burn. The following bodies do not burn at all: holy men, pregnant women, lepers, babies and victims of cobra bites. These bodies are ferried into the Ganges, and sunk with heavy stones.

Jain temple, Sarnath: The Jain priest explains to us how peacocks reproduce. These birds are so pure they make no physical contact; instead the male peacock lets a single tear fall from his eye into the female’s open beak. This tear, somehow, contains the sperm. It’s an almost-immaculate conception. This is why Jain monks use only a fan of peacock feathers to brush the tiny insects from their path.

Holy cave, Amarnath: “Oh, my goodness, I was incorrect!” exclaims Salil, translating the words of our holy man. “The baba does not just get buried up to his neck! No, he is entirely buried from tip to toe – no-one can see him – he goes without food, drink or even breathing for ten days! Can you imagine that?” This annual ritual is the holy man’s private prayer to Parvati, goddess of love and devotion.

The Man Cleans My Ears

I return to the hunting grounds of the ear-cleaning men. I’ve decided to submit. I want my ears cleaned. There’s great relief in the act of surrender; my mind is calm and prepared. Slowly I step onto Ranjiv Chowk, waiting for their charge. But no red-turbanned men emerge to pursue me. No-one seems interested at all. On my second circuit of the park, I turn to find a solemn, portly man walking at my side. He wears a long garment of white lace, and his hair has been hennaed bright orange. “Perhaps you will come to sit with me, sir? Only for five moments.” I agree to sit with him. Perhaps he can tell me where I can find the ear-cleaning men. “But I am an ear-cleaning man. My father, my grandfather, my uncle, my brothers, and my son. All of us are ear-cleaning men. It’s an ancient family business.” “But where’s your red turban?” I ask, as a test. With a flourish, he plucks it from his pocket. They say heroin dealers can spot junkies from the look in their eyes. It must be this way with ear-cleaning men. Or maybe they can smell the wax. With perfect grace and solemnity, this one has drawn me in.

“Oh my god,” are his first words as he pokes around with a twist of cotton wool. “Oh my god. My god.” “Is it very bad?” I ask apprehensively. “Oh my god,” he says. “Is there a lot of wax?” I ask. “My god. You are a dirty man indeed.” He shakes his head and groans as if he has suffered a personal blow. “You are a very important boy,” he adds in a suddenly softer tone. “And your ears are the most important part of you.” He twists my head parallel to the ground and pours liquid from a little bottle into the cup of my ear. I see a long silver implement pass through his chubby fingers. Then I feel the sensation of scraping, deep inside my head.

It’s a great act of faith to let a fat stranger poke around inside your head. I try to move my head away but he clamps it in his arms. I see another implement, this one with a little hook on the end, emerge from somewhere in his sleeve and pass from my field of vision. Then I feel a tugging sensation in my ear canal. “Open your mouth!” he commands. I do, and the pressure subsides. “Look,” he says. “My god. My god.” He has extracted a lump of hard wax the size of half a conker. I am genuinely appalled by its size. “You see?” he says, “you understand?” He wipes the wax accusingly on the back of my hand.

It takes him ten minutes to clear both ears. The lumps of wax keep coming. It’s like altitude dropping in an aeroplane; the sounds come clean and clear. When he is finished his fat head lolls, his heavy eyelids droop. “My mind … is spent,” he moans dramatically, like a clairvoyant emerging from a difficult trance. “Thank you,” I say. I really mean it. A bubble has popped around my head. He’s removed the evil from my ears. He doesn’t respond. He is overcome. “My god,” he says. “My god…”

Matchstick Mouth

I remember this man by the road in Rishikesh. The man with teeth like a mouthful of matchsticks. A thicket of spines bristles from his mouth; his lips drool open to the chin. He looks like one of those deep-sea angler fish, except that he has no phosphorescent light, just a collection of rags, batteries, machine parts and cannibalised radios, twisted wires and engine fragments spread at the side of the road. He is some kind of collector of parts; as proof of this inexplicable trade his hair, skin and fingernails are black with worked-in grease. Only the yellowing quills of his teeth protrude through flapping purple lips. Squatting in his machine-part shrine, he looks like the goddess Kali. People make offerings in the same way: a bent nail, a broken padlock, tossed on the blackened pile. All the ugliness of India is here, and all its little gods. Also, he seems to be constantly smiling. Or maybe it’s just the fact that his mouth doesn’t close.

You leave a country the moment you step through the airport’s sliding doors. You begin the process of forgetting as soon as the air-conditioning cools the sweat on your skin. As my plane taxis across the tarmac, I left India long ago. But as it lifts its nose from the ground – and later, somewhere over Iran – somehow, I think of him.