A Different Way to Achieve Immortality

I opened the paper some months ago and came across a funny article about ear hair that transported me back to my Peace Corps days in village India, over half a lifetime ago. The article was by local columnist David Shapiro, who must be about my age – give or take a few summers – because he wrote, quite entertainingly, about a battery-powered ear- and nose-hair trimmer, a gift idea for males, like me, who have started on their second half-century.

“Can you imagine if teen-agers had nose and ear hair?” he wrote. “They'd incorporate it into their fashion statements and we'd see kids walking around with nose-hair dreadlocks and ear-hair pigtails.”

That's what brought me back to Rajnagar (informal translation from the Hindi: Kingston), the north-central Indian village in which I learned a few of life's lessons while working as a Peace Crops volunteer from 1968 to 1970.

It was in Rajnagar that I met a guy with the most astonishing ear hair I've ever seen. Singh (I can't recall his first name) was the local police chief. Like a great many of those in law enforcement and the military in India, Singh belonged to one of the warrior castes – many of whom have adopted this family name, which means lion. (Singh is also the most common surname among India's Sikhs, a people with a proud martial heritage.) Men of such castes, I observed, often take pride in some outward manifestation of virility, usually involving hair. Outrageously long moustaches are the most common display. I remember one handlebar job whose owner doubled it back on itself, creating a horizontal figure eight (or, perhaps more appropriately, the mathematical symbol for infinity).

But Rajnagar's police chief was clearly a man who wished to display not merely virility, but individuality. He did not wear a moustache. Perhaps it was because he preferred to save his moustache wax for his luxuriant ear hair. No, he did not wear it in pigtails. His fashion statement was two stiff, brush-like appendages, which protruded the better part of an inch on either side of his face. They jutted out perfectly horizontally, carefully waxed, groomed and trimmed, each the diameter of a small, jet-black dowel. They looked like perches for a pet finch or other tiny bird.

Singh and his “ear-staches” would doubtless have occupied a modest niche in my memory in any case, but an incident that took place midway through my service in Rajnagar absolutely assured his immortality in my mind.

It began one evening as I was returning to Rajnagar by bus from a day-trip to Chhatarpur, the district town (equivalent to a county seat in the United States), about 30 miles away. When my bus pulled in to the village just before Rajnagar, a young man at the bus stop spotted me in the window and said, “Your friend has come to see you. He came by parachute – or maybe balloon, I'm not sure which. He landed in a wheat field a mile or so past Rajnagar.”

Now I've got to stop and explain a couple of things. Unlike most Indian villages, Rajnagar was not completely off the beaten track. It was just three miles up the road from the village of Khajuraho, famed for a fine complex of ancient temples. As an architectural monument alone, even in a country like India that is awash in such riches, it would probably still be a notable draw. But the temples at Khajuraho share a distinction with only one other site in India – and few others in the world: a series of thousand-year-old stone reliefs as explicitly erotic as anything you'll ever see on the Internet.

Needless to say, a place like this would draw its share of foreign tourists. Most of them flew in and out and never made it up the road to Rajnagar. But every few months, some intrepid explorers would show up in a car, having driven all the way from Europe, and a few of these occasionally ventured past Khajuraho, to Rajnagar. Invariably when this happened, someone would tell me my “friends” had arrived.

Of course, none of them were actually friends of mine. And certainly none had ever arrived by balloon or parachute. This was a distinctly new twist. I did, however, have a tiny bit of context with which to try to assimilate this peculiar bit of news. And that was that the Soviet Union, which enjoyed warm relations with the Indian government, was trying to discredit the Peace Corps, accusing us, in pamphlets available in a wide selection of Indian languages, as well as in English, of being spies.

The best course, I felt, would be to stifle my curiosity about what might have happened in a field outside the village, and just go straight home and mind my own business. Needless to say, no foreign visitor came to see me that evening.

The next morning, as usual, I got on my bicycle at 7 o'clock and headed over to the bus stop, the social center of the village, where I generally had breakfast at a tea stall. This was not going to be an everyday kind of morning, however. Just as I coasted to a stop, a bus pulled in. This was way too early for a regularly scheduled bus – and this one was coming from the wrong direction, too.

When the door opened, out came Singh, followed by several policemen. Singh led the march up the street toward police headquarters, his subordinates close behind. They were bearing booty. One of them carried what looked like a modest-sized styrofoam cooler. This box, however, was clearly not meant for a picnic. It trailed a spaghetti-like tangle of cords that were still connected to a hastily folded heap of plastic sheeting – a large, deflated balloon. The rest of the khaki-clad policemen carried the pile of cords and sheeting and marched up the hill behind Singh and the cooler carrier. Following them, having materialized seemingly out of nowhere, was virtually every small boy in the village, and quite a few of the men, forming a procession that would have done the Pied Piper proud. I joined in, of course, and quickly worked my way toward the front.

Once at the police station, I took advantage of my status (as a Hindi-speaking foreigner, I was basically everybody's friend) and stepped inside to observe the proceedings. Singh sat at his desk, ear hair at rigid attention, as a subordinate began opening the “cooler,” whose “lid” was fastened by wing nuts, not at the top, but the side.

Once the side panel was removed, we could see that the “cooler” was divided into several compartments. In one there was a timing device. It had a dial, marked from 0 to 72 around a twist-knob. From behind the dial, wires snaked out, leading to a good-sized Eveready battery. This told me instantly that the device, whatever it was, was not of Indian origin, since Eveready batteries were not sold in India at the time. Another, sizeable, compartment was filled with granules that looked like fertilizer, but which I guessed were a type of explosive.

It was the largest compartment that held the solution to the puzzle. It was packed with water-stained leaflets. Printed in color, on high-gloss paper, the front was emblazoned with the flag of Nationalist China (Taiwan) and a portrait of its then-president, Chiang Kai-shek. It was not a contemporary photo of the aging leader, but one from a distinctly more youthful period. The message, scrolling vertically down the pages, was entirely in Chinese characters.

With my interest in history and world affairs, I put it together in an instant. The device had been launched from Taiwan – some 2,500 miles away – with the intention of having it drift over the Chinese mainland, where the timer would trigger an explosion and scatter Chinese Nationalist propaganda to those living under Communist rule. This, after all, was at the height of the Cold War. But something had gone wrong, water had infiltrated the “cooler,” and the device had failed to explode, drifting instead over practically the entire breadth of China, finally coming to rest in an Indian wheat field.

The picture was not, however, quite so clear to Singh. As soon as he laid eyes on the pamphlets, he stared at the strange-looking script. This was not the sort of man who might let unfamiliarity with something stand in the way of an authoritative pronouncement. “Aha!” he said in the tone of one who has made a momentous discovery – and in English, no doubt to impress his subordinates – “It's in French.”

French, as in “French leave” and “French kissing,” was a concept I'd heard broadly applied in India to anything improper or suspicious. A little-known legacy of the British Raj, it would often elicit snickers even in the lower, non-English-speaking echelons of India's rural civil service. So Singh's conclusion, while comical to me, was quite understandable. I gave him a sketch of the relevant history. He'd never heard of Chiang or the Nationalists. The English teacher at the village school, quite a knowledgeable guy, vouched for my information. Judging by the way Singh's eyes lit up, this made his prize even more valuable. After all, India had fought a fierce border war with China only a few years earlier, in 1962.

Singh's “French” remark would probably have immortalized him for me even if he didn't wear his ear hair in faux finch perches. But the twin images are ineradicable, creating a mental picture far more vivid than any columnist's imagined “ear-hair pigtails.”

And I've always wondered how he wrote the balloon incident up….



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