NPR logo On The Banks Of The Ganges: An Unforgettable Shave

Grand Trunk Road

On The Banks Of The Ganges: An Unforgettable Shave

For a relative pittance, the best shave of his life for NPR producer Nishant Dahiya. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR) hide caption

toggle caption

For a relative pittance, the best shave of his life for NPR producer Nishant Dahiya. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

NPR correspondents are taking The Two-Way with them along the historic Grand Trunk Road that stretches from the Bay of Bengal in the east to the Hindu Kush mountains in the west, across the Indian subcontinent. They're preparing an upcoming Morning Edition series about life along the route, and we've been getting reports from them since April 14. Click here to see all of the team's posts.

As Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep says, "a new generation is growing up along that ancient road" and the show will be telling the stories of those young Indians and Pakistanis who face vast opportunities — and vast problems. Meanwhile, here is the team's latest dispatch, which focuses on a brief detour off the Grand Trunk to the holy city of Varanasi:

By Nishant Dahiya

The Indian portion of our journey along the Grand Trunk Road is coming to an end. We're in the fertile lands of the Punjab, just across the border from Pakistan, and have covered some 1,200 miles across the plains of India. Looking back over two weeks of startling and unexpected moments, there's one incident — in the city of Varanasi — that has stayed with me.

Varanasi is Hinduism's holiest city and a magnet for visitors of all sorts: pilgrims from all over India; tourists from across the world; the touts and guides that follow them; the merchants and shops hoping to sell Varanasi's famous silk to them; and Sadhus, or Hindu holy men, in their saffron robes, with beards half-way down their chests.

Varanasi's ghats, as the banks along the river Ganges are called, are where all of these people congregate. In the many temples that dot the landscape, pujas, or prayer ceremonies, begin at the crack of dawn. Gently the sun rises, almost as languidly as the Ganges that flows a few feet away, and the ghats explode in a million colors and sounds.

Morning at a ghat. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR) hide caption

toggle caption

Morning at a ghat. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

Hindus believe that a dip in the Ganges erases all sins. Men, women, the young and the old, happily shed all inhibitions for a soul-cleansing plunge in the spiritually pure, if physically foul, water.

Hindus also believe that a prayer ceremony on the Varanasi ghats has higher significance than any other. Hundreds of pandas, or priests, sit on wooden platforms under grubby, cane umbrellas, just a few feet from the river, and perform their pujas. A typical puja might appease the Goddess Ganga (the Ganges is more than a river to Hindus; it's also venerated as a god), or one of Hinduism's millions of other gods. They might also be conducted to bring marital bliss; celebrate one's ancestors; advance one's future; or improve one's health. The priests — rotund middlemen, much-needed for a conversation with the divine — demand anywhere from a few cents to a few hundred dollars to conduct the ceremonies.

It was one such priest that I almost angered. Inadvertently. On what was a hot and muggy day, I saw a man sitting on a platform, admiring his face in a tiny mirror and looking rather pleased with what he saw. In front of him squatted a man, with a barber's accoutrements spread out in front of him.

The barber's tools. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR) hide caption

toggle caption

The barber's tools. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

A barber! On the ghats of the Ganges, while the river flows behind! Having grown up in India, there's not much that surprises me, but this did. You can go to the Vatican in Rome or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and I can promise you, you won't find a barber there.

Before I knew it, I found myself asking for a shave.

I almost didn't get one, because I mistook where the barber was sitting for his shop. Rather it was a panda's platform. The barber was only visiting him. The panda glared at me. I offered apologies.

Thankfully he softened. Then he invited me to sit on his platform, shoes and all, to get my own shave.

The barber — a small man with beady eyes and a gentle smile — sat me down on a mat, wrapped a dirty cloth around my neck, and went to work. As he lathered my face for a good five minutes with a tiny dollop of VI-John shaving cream (a brand I didn't know) and an ancient brush, I asked about questions.

He said his name was Mahendra Singh; that he was 33; that he had five children aged 14, 10, 8, 5, and 3. That the four eldest are studying in a private school. That he hoped they would have a better life than his.

Barber Mahendra Singh working his magic on NPR's Nishant Dahiya. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR) hide caption

toggle caption

Barber Mahendra Singh working his magic on NPR's Nishant Dahiya. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

As he told me about his life, and asked me about mine, Mahendra tore open a package of Zorik razors (again a brand that I had missed in the years I spent growing up in India), and got ready to shave with a straight razor. I felt uneasy. Zorik? On the banks of the Ganges, between the river's grimy waters and the mounds of trash piling up on the streets, it's easy to think infections.

It was unnecessary. He went about his job with the authority and assuredness of someone who had been doing it forever. Which he pretty much has. Mahendra dropped out of school at 14, and started working as a barber when he was 18.

As he shaved away, he quietly offered a massage, a facemask, to thread my eyebrows, and to trim my toenails. I declined. He didn't press. Finally, he wiped my face with the dirty rag, which I
mistook for the end. I was about to get up when he started lathering my face again.

And so we went through round two.

When he was done, I rubbed my palm across my cheek. Smooth. Not a nick anywhere.

Before letting me go, he rubbed an ancient-looking piece of alum on my face to soothe the burning, and said I should apply a face pack once a week after I hit 40 (in a decade or so). Apparently it preserves the skin's vitality. He didn't offer to apply a skin-whitening cream, the latest rage in India.

The cost for the best shave ever, the beauty tips and advice, at the most exotic of locations?

Twenty-five cents.

Morning along, and in, the Ganges. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR) hide caption

toggle caption

Morning along, and in, the Ganges. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)