In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
The warm glow of the early morning sun washed over Allan and I as we strolled through one of Delhi’s expansive public gardens. In stark contrast to the pig trough of Paharganj this was beautiful, a vast blanket of lush green dotted with colourful clusters of well-tended plants and flowers. The entire park was spotless too, not so much as a stray chocolate bar wrapper to be seen. Better still, it wasn’t even crowded, just pockets of whispering families picnicking on the grass. Here and there silent doe-eyed couples passed by hand in hand, while on a nearby bench a group of mustachioed males held a passionate post-mortem on a recent cricket match.
Rewind to the day of my frenetic arrival and I wouldn’t have believed an atmosphere such as this possible in Delhi. Picking out a quiet spot on the grass, Allan and I began leafing through our guidebooks in the hope of forming a hit list for the day. “The Lotus Temple isn’t far from here” Allan said, with an arched eyebrow.
We’d been settled for no more than a few minutes when a head unexpectedly popped out from behind a nearby tree. “Yes please!” said the head cheerfully and before we could respond a man had emerged, scuttled over and was now sitting next to us, busily unlocking a small wooden box.
A disheveled-looking creature, his skin looked like cooked rubber and he carried a sharp odor of curried spices, a mixture of flavors I couldn’t quite identify. “Yes please sir, let me show for free!” he proclaimed. But before I could object, and to my utter disgust, he’d steadily but swiftly inserted part of a long wiry rod into my ear. “Please no move, very dangerous!” he warned, sucking on his yellow teeth and gripping my arm as I flinched. Allan watched in mild amusement as the old man wiggled the rod, his face screwed up in concentration like some sort of deranged circus performer.
I found myself fighting the urge to jump up and push him away, to express my outrage at being violated in such a manner. But he had me by the ear so to speak and was clearly holding all the cards. So I waited and slowly but surely the man inched the rod back out. “Please sir look!” he squealed, proudly shoving the evidence of his satisfaction in front of my skeptical eyes. At the end of the rod was a clump of attached cotton wool home to a considerable mass of thick, gooey brown earwax. It was a filthy sight and yet at the same time I found myself fascinated by it. All the while the old man watched me intently, visibly pleased with my state of suspended horror.
“I am ear cleaner!” he claimed, puffing out his bony chest. “Ear is very dirty I best clean only one time needed ten year for you 400”. He said this seemingly without breathing. Regarding him blankly, I could see his eyes were wide, expectant and full of hope. Turning my attention back to the rod, I felt repulsed by the thought that I had another three or four scoops of this crap still in my ears, quite possibly clogging up my brain. Desperate to capitalise, the crafty old goat dug out a small notebook from within the box, before enthusiastically pushing it into my hands. “Please look, many people liking good”. Allan and I tried to keep straight faces as we skimmed through the book’s mock entries and their too-good-to-be-true glowing references.
‘‘Devda is cleaning ear in the bost way’’ wrote someone claiming to be Andy from Windsor.
‘‘My ears never feeling so beautiful, a true profeshinal’’ stated Joe from Sydney.
‘‘Devda wash the ear like Celine Dion singing the ship song… wonderful!’’
This last one, which remained understandably anonymous, tipped Allan and I over the edge and we broke out into laughter. His eyes darting back and forth between us, the old man nodded, chuckling along with our hysterics. “Yes yes” he said, clueless as to what he was agreeing with, his caterpillar eyebrows jiggling up and down. If nothing else I had to admire Devda’s determination to make his business a success. “Not 400” I told him firmly, “200!” There was a pause as he attempted to process this information. “300!” “250?” “275?” “250!” “Ok”.
His good mood having evaporated a little, I watched as Devda replaced the cotton wool pad with a fresh one (a good sign), a serious look pasted across his chiseled features. “Special medicine!” he said, dipping the rod into a jar of miscellaneous fluid. Noticing my less than confident expression, he shot me a yellow-toothed smile that I presumed was meant to reassure me. Special medicine huh? I guess I’d have to trust him on that one, though I couldn’t help but imagine the front page of the Hindustan Times the next day:
EAR POISONER STRIKES AGAIN!
Before I could formulate a concern the old man had set to work again, Allan shaking his head in disbelief as he fired up the camcorder to record proceedings. ‘‘You next!’’ grinned Devda, but my Scottish comrade was having none of it. ‘‘Not a chance!’’ he laughed.
The cleansing was an odd sensation that gave me a strange pang of satisfaction each time the rod resurfaced with its grubby contents. It was during its third voyage into my inner depths that I felt a sudden tugging at my toes. Craning my neck (no easy feat with a rod in your ear), I spied two gangly children pawing inquisitively at my boots. “Sir, shoes no good! They dirty and broken… here and here” said one, while the other rustled inside something which in a previous life may have been a plastic bag. “We fix sir no problem, 200!” said the older of the two without looking up. He then produced a number of items that were presumably just the tools for the job. My agreement it seemed wasn’t necessary.
A crowd of locals had now started to gather, staring at the curious sight of two pasty foreigners sticking out like the sorest of sore thumbs. It crossed my mind that they’d mistakenly concluded we were making some kind of movie. After all, Allan was filming me having my shoes (still attached to my feet) repaired, whilst I simultaneously underwent ear cleaning from a man best described as a wild-eyed witch doctor. As the number of onlookers swelled I began to feel like a zoo exhibit, some rare and exciting breed of endangered species. My good humour waning by the second, I began to get impatient, wanting nothing more than for this ridiculous charade to end.
After what seemed like an age the boys finished up on my boots. They’d scrubbed them clean, fixed an unravelled section of stitching and applied a coat of polish before buffing them both to a dull shine. Gratefully accepting their money with wide toothy grins, they bid me adieu and scampered off in search of more shoddy shoes.
But when payment time came for Devda the ear cleaner, he wasn’t so graceful. Counting out his two hundred and fifty Rupees in my hand, I felt refreshed… purified… lighter even! On receipt of the agreed amount he simply glared at me with a face of unreserved disdain, as if I’d just excreted on a batch of his wife’s freshly baked Nan bread. “If you happy sir why not 300?” he barked, his moustache twitching with indignation. “No… we agreed a price’’ I countered; keen to break free from the zombie-like circle around us. Gathering up our stuff, Allan and I made our escape, the crowd parting and following our movements as we headed for the park exit. Undeterred, Devda hopped after us, becoming more and more agitated as he gave chase. “Sir I using special medicine, one hundred Rupees more!” he whined, hot on our heels. “Look…” I said, pointlessly trying to reason with him, “first of all that stuff could be water for all I know. Secondly… we agreed a price!!!”
Devda knew no shame though and his pursuit continued right up to the iron gates, where he suddenly stopped as if a magical force field prevented him from leaving the park’s leafy confines. Standing there red-faced, fists punching the air, he accused me of being rich and spoilt, of cheating him and exploiting India. “Come here! Come ear! Come eaaaaaaar! Fifty more, thirty more, please sir for you fifty Rupees nothing… special medicine!!!” He’d ruined the whole experience now and my patience with him had run its course. “Go away!” I shouted. Stomping his foot on the ground like a petulant child, he screwed up his face so violently his eyes disappeared beneath the folds of his sunbaked skin. Crossing the road and leaving the park behind, I looked back one last time. Finally beaten, Devda ‘‘the bost ear cleaner’’, ‘‘the true profeshinal’’ trudged back into the wilderness clutching his little box of magic tools.
‘Come Ear!’ is the second part of my short story series Incidents In India.