Characters, part 2

Previously I wrote about some of the odd people I’d met in Jhapa district, namely Sunjay the Islamic Extremists and a child named Time Pass.

I’d now like to write about some of the odd Birganj-wallahs that have crossed my path since coming to this town. These folks are recurring points of conversation with my other Birganj friends.

Here are some of my favorites.

Burning Man

He was the first blatantly mentally troubled person I crossed paths with in Birganj. He’s hard to miss. He always wears shorts, the ones with the fake dollar bill sewn onto a pocket, and has a stripped polo shirt that is, oddly, moderately clean.

Sometimes, fires must be lit.

Sometimes, fires must be lit.

He’s the guy who digs in the garbage and takes out the things that other people throw away. Like pieces of cardboard or posterboard.

What he does then is take some charcoal from a nearby garbage fire that’s cooled and draws some sort of symmetrical design on it. I’ve seen one and it looked like arrangements of the crop circles people in the US are familiar with.

Come to your own conclusions. He draws and scribbles and draws and erases and finally produces something of an odd design. He then produces and cigarette, which he smokes with much satisfaction, as he burns his drawing the street. And the moves on.

One time I asked a local from Birganj, a friend, what the guy’s story was.

Oh, him? He is crazy, he told me while twirling his finger around his ear to further drive the point.

No one seems to know anything about him. I’ve never seen him going into the local shops asking for money. Instead I see him sitting quite quietly outside of the Ganesh temple doing a whole lot of nothing.

And then he’s off . . . to burn something.

Burning Man is really the quintessential lunatic. He’s non-violent and does things that are interesting but that don’t in any way disturb others. Contrary to what you may think, setting fires street-side downtown is not odd.

I’ve never seen Burning Man yell or scream or make any sudden movements. I’ve occasionally caught him sitting outside of the shops that sell TVs watching whatever happens to be broadcasting, but no one seems to mind. Or notice. Or care.

What I’ve learned from Burning Man is that Birganj is like the Phoenix. It is rising from the ashes of the fire consuming it. During the monsoon it does feel like the place is on fire.

And with so much sun baking my brain, Burning Man’s antics seem a lot more . . . significant. He constantly smokes cigarettes, too, just to burn something, I imagine.

Screaming Man

The anti-Burning Man character of Birganj is Screaming Man. Screaming Man is violent and very, very threatening. But not in a dangerous way, if that makes sense.

His presence is unnerving, yet inviting because he is so completely unaware of a world outside of him. He’s gotten his name because, well, he screams a lot. He also collects sticks that he carries with him.

Birganj main street alive with people.

Birganj main street alive with people.

Once there was a small program including a debate-off being held downtown on sanitation and a community’s responsibilities. The boring speeches had finished and the debates had begun.

The debaters were all students from local schools, both private and public. A girl won from one of my feeder schools. I was pleased. Anyhow, while the students were debating I did a little walking around to take some photographs.

At the other end of the platform where the students were speaking, Screaming Man was there. He was also wearing the new Birganj youth club T-shirt. God knows how he got that.

Anyhow, he was standing there, facing the debaters and screaming and screaming and screaming and having a bundle of sticks and screaming.

There was the girl, berating the audience about their duty not to throw trash in the street, and there was Screaming Man, wearing the damn YCC T-shirt, yelling about the color green.

The first time I met Screaming Man was quite, well, personal. I had just walked outside of Himanchal Cabin when I came face-to-face with Screaming Man. He was screaming. He was also wearing one of those short lungees, which he lifted up to expose himself.

He then began wagging his penis around with his hands on his hips as if he was doing something resembling the jitterbug. He’d placed his bundle of sticks on the ground next to him.

Birganj, all of it.

Birganj, all of it.

And then one time I saw him standing in the middle of Ghantaghar. He was screaming. He had a bundle of sticks. He was standing with a bundle of sticks and screaming in the busiest intersection in town.

A rickshaw was trying to ply the traffic when he bumped Screaming Man, who, if he not already been screaming, would have started.

Actually what he did was stop screaming and grab on of his sticks out of his bundle. He took three steps back and then suddenly lunged forward throwing the stick javelin-style at the rickshaw wallah.

His aim was true and the stick struck the rickshaw driver in the middle of his back, which seemed quite painful, because the rickshaw wallah then fell of his rickshaw and writhed around on the ground for a bit.

Screaming Man began screaming.

The Master

The Master is extraordinary. A dumb thing to say, but still, there are too few superlatives that I can use with a man with as much skill, poise, and incomprehensibility as The Master. Besides just calling him ‘The Master.’

The clocktower lit up one night in Birganj.

The clocktower lit up one night in Birganj.

The Master is a barber. No. That’s not right. That’s not enough. The Master is an artist. Wait. Not enough. The Master is a genius. Not right. It’s an insult to the man, to the man who takes an hour and a half to give a normal shave and trim to a guy like me.

Most barbers can sit you down, give you a shave, trim your eyebrows, and pummel your head and shoulders (usually referred to as a ‘massage’) within 20 minutes. The Master takes just under two hours.

Knowledge of The Master was given to me by Luke Shors, who is dead.

(He’s not really dead but when he left Birganj in April 2002, we began using past tenses when speaking of him that suggested he had died. Luke would have liked that, I told Ashish one time, seeing a star chart he’d found at the Peace Corps library. Yeah, I know, but he’s in a better place now, Ashish said, comforting me.)

Anyhow, dead Luke Shors once told me of The Master. I went. I saw. The Master’s hands touched my face and afterwards, somehow, I was a better person.

His razor graced my face with the precision of a stealth bomber’s sub-atomic warhead gracefully wafting through the window of a family’s mud hut in Afghanistan. It was so astounding that it was frightening.

Suddenly, Birganj didn’t seem so bad.

This hell of a city had given me something wonderful. The beauty of it made me compose haiku and even reconsider ugly, like the pigs near my house feasting on the semi-decomposed carcass of a street dog. Its wonderment made me write a haiku after seeing the family of pigs feasting on that semi-decomposed street dog carcass:

   This little piggy
     finally had a hot breakfast—
       of some dead street dog
   Snap crackle and pop,
     its pungent carcass eyeless
       yet looking at me.

If The Master started a cult I would join—just for the shaves. If you’ve never had an elderly Nepali man shave you, at that a shave that takes one and a half hours, then you have no idea what I’m talking about.

For the sake of science, I will explain, in order, exactly what happens when you go for an appointment with The Master:

  1. You approach the door and The Master looks at you, silently
  2. The Master tells you where to sit (You cannot sit before this since there are six chairs and you just don’t know which one)
  3. The Master remains seated, watching 1960s Hindi movies on a black and white TV that you helped pay for (You pay 50% more than others)
  4. The Master takes a sheet, which he begins wildly whipping (You didn’t expect such virility and strength in The Master since he looks over 60, but he is wearing a muscle T-shirt)
  5. The Master puts the sheet over you, tucks in your collar, which takes 10 minutes to perfect He pauses, watching the commercials
  6. The Master then collects a variety of odd, steel instruments (You do not question)
  7. As if he is also a ninja master, suddenly he grabs your head from behind and slams it against the headrest of the chair, nearly decapitating you (Yet you are still relaxed, maybe from the incense, maybe from the half-naked pin-up of Hindi star that you are now gazing at)
  8. The Master looks you in the eyes and further into your soul, but only through the mirror you face, of course
  9. He asks you, Everything good? (You have been there 20 minutes thusfar)
  10. You answer, Everything’s good
  11. He then takes a handful of water into his palm and slaps you across the face, which turns into something of a massage
  12. He takes the brush and lotion and begins lathering your face
  13. He stops and walks outside, spitting up what sounds to be the largest throatal phlegm known to man
  14. He finishes lathering—Again, he looks into your soul and ask, What do you want?
  15. And as if he was a lumberjack, he chops at your face with the razor, gauging perfect pressure and angle (You know he is The Master; you do not worry that he may be drunk)
  16. Tea arrives and everything pauses
  17. He finishes shaving you, including trimming around the backsides of your ears and around the back of your neck
  18. More water, more beating about the face (You must tolerate this, it is purifying you)
  19. The then produces a polished rock, somewhat coarse, that he rubs aggressively into your face, which hurts
  20. He stops, goes outsides and spits again
  21. The Master returns reinvigorated and maliciously rubs many balms, creams, and lotions with high amounts of alcohol that scortches your skin inside out
  22. Your face is burning as if it has been dunked in sulfuric acid, yet you are still being Zen
  23. The Master beings the head massage, which, let’s face it, consists of being punching in the back of the head
  24. You remind yourself for the hundredth time to say, Shave, no massage
  25. The Master takes his scissors and comb and begins trimming your facial hair, which is a meticulous process
  26. You watch in the mirror as he singles out hairs, considers each, then trims accordingly
  27. He finishes trimming and takes the sheet off you and outside, which he whips wildly
  28. More water, another slap, something like a massage
  29. He reexamines your face, uses the razor to touch up
  30. More balms, lotions, tonics, and some baby powder
  31. The Master then takes a towel and wraps it completely around your head and begins drying you off (You consider this is what it would feel like if your head was chopped off and put into a dryer)
  32. The Master combs your hair and asks you again, Everything good?

Honestly, I haven’t been back to The Master in months. While his shaves are extraordinary—unlike any other shave I’ve gotten in Nepal—the other places are, well, gentler.

And these days in Nepal we could all use a little gentleness.