Come Ear! – a short story from India.
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 sunshine washed over Allan and I as we strolled through one of Delhi’s expansive public gardens. In contrast to the pig trough of Paharganj, this was really beautiful. A vast blanket of lush green dotted with colourful clusters of well-tended plants and flowers. Moreover, the entire park was spotless. Not so much as a stray chocolate bar wrapper in evidence. Better still, it wasn’t at all crowded. Just pockets of whispering families picnicking on the grass and a silent, doe-eyed couple passing by hand in hand. Furthermore, on a nearby bench, a trio of moustachioed males munched on samosas whilst holding a passionate post-mortem on a recent cricket match. The whole scene felt about as authentically India as I could have ever imagined.
Rewind to the day of my frenetic arrival and I wouldn’t have believed an atmosphere such as this possible in New Delhi. Picking out an especially quiet corner of the grass, Allan and I began leafing through our guidebooks in the hope of forming a hit list for the day. After a while it was Allan who spoke: “The Lotus Temple isn’t far from here” he said, with an arched eyebrow.
A few minutes later 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. In fact, he was now scuttling over and sitting next to us, busily unlocking a small wooden box.
He was a disheveled looking creature with skin like cooked rubber and a sharp odour of curried spices. A mixture of flavours I couldn’t quite identify. “Yes please sir, let me show for free!” he proclaimed. But before I could object, he swiftly inserted a long wiry rod into my ear! “Please no move, very dangerous!” he warned, gripping my arm while sucking on his yellow teeth. In the meantime, 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.
Come Ear! A short story from India.
All I could do was sit and fight 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. Hence 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. Here, 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. And quite possibly clogging up my brain. Desperate to capitalise, the crafty old goat dug out a small notebook from within the box and enthusiastically pushed 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, with their too-good-to-be-true references.
‘‘Devda is generally cleaning ear in the bost way’’ wrote someone claiming to be Andy from Windsor.
‘‘My ears never feeling so beautiful. In summary, a true profeshinal’’ stated Joe from Sydney.
‘‘Above all, Devda wash the ear like Celine Dion singing the ship song!’’
This last one, 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 certainly admired 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.
His good mood having evaporated a little, I watched as Devda firstly replaced the cotton wool pad with a fresh one (a good sign). “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. Somehow 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 whilst Allan shook his head in disbelief and fired up the camcorder. ‘‘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 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 the shorter of the two. Meanwhile, the other boy rustled inside something which in a previous life may have been a plastic bag. “We fix sir no problem, 200!” said tall boy without looking up. Thus he produced a number of items that were presumably just the tools for the job. My agreement, it seemed, wasn’t necessary.
By now a crowd of locals had started to gather. And they were all staring at the curious sight of us 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 had my ears cleaned by 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. And so my good humour began to wane until I wanted nothing more than for this ridiculous charade to end.
Eventually, 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, lastly, applied a coat of polish. All that was left now was to buff them both to a dull shine. Gratefully accepting their money with wide toothy grins, the boys bid me adieu and scampered off in search of more shoddy shoes.
Come Ear! A short story from India.
But when payment time came for Devda the ear cleaner, he wasn’t so graceful. Counting out his 250 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. It was 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. Suddenly I felt anxious to break free from the zombie-like circle around us and get away from everyone.
Gathering up our stuff, Allan and I made our escape. And so the crowd parted, following our movements as we headed for the park exit. Consequently, Devda hopped after us, becoming more and more agitated as he gave chase. “Sir I using special medicine, 100 Rupees more!” he whined. “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!!!”
“Fifty more, thirty more! Please sir for you fifty Rupees nothing… special medicine!!!”
However, Devda knew no shame and his pursuit continued right up to the iron gates. Here 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 ear! Come eaaaaaaar!”
He’d ruined the whole experience now and, as a result, 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.
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