I focused intently at the ground as the stick inched deeper and deeper into my ear. The hardened, dirty fingers holding the stick seemed steady, but not steady enough to completely ease my fear of upcoming pain or perhaps even worse.
I was on my first trip to India. I had spent an afternoon roaming the streets of the Colaba District of South Bombay. Having meandered through the somewhat leafy and quiet residential lanes, I came upon PJ Ramchandani Marg. Stretching along the coast from the Gateway of India monument, this road offers excellent views from its seaside wall, where one can watch the dark waters of the Arabian Sea push out towards Elephanta Island. I took a seat on the wall, among resting taxi drivers, snack-sellers, a few young, hand-holding couples and a strange-looking man carrying a wooden box slung over his shoulder.
The debate was difficult. I had chosen to visit India in order to immerse myself in as many aspects of this fascinating culture as possible. As a result, I had already accepted and participated in the concepts of the squat toilet, street food, holy pujas, second-class train journeys, baksheesh and human-powered ferris wheels (a whole different story!).
But there was just something different about this man. He was tall and dark, barefoot and shirtless, with long, grayish black hair tied up into a haphazard bun. He bore a mysterious smile that could have easily belonged to the most good-hearted soul or to the devil himself. The fact that he wanted me to pay him twenty rupees to ram a five-inch-long stick of wood into my inner ear also added to my hesitation.
He had introduced himself as “The Cleaner of Ear”. From the start, he kept repeating a variety of unintentional yet catchy slogans such as “Clean ear, good ear” and “I clean, you hear better". I brushed off his initial sales pitch but as any good Indian salesman learns to do, he proceeded to inch closer with his wooden apparatus despite my rejections. “Get that stick away from my ear!” was a demand I used often but quite unsuccessfully. I actually had to use a considerable amount of force to keep his hand away from my face, as if I was defending myself from a knife attack.
After thirty seconds of squabbling back and forth, the usual crowd of two dozen curious Indian onlookers surrounded us. It is almost as though a group of twenty Indians are assigned to every arriving foreigner, with the sole purpose of gathering around in a tight circle whenever any heated, strange or comical interaction takes place.
I thought about screaming at this man, this self-proclaimed “Cleaner of Ear”, and just running away. But as I built up the courage to yell, he made one last attempt to convince me.
“One ear I clean for free – no rupees,” he suddenly offered.
Well, how could I turn that down? So, as any good Jewish boy would do, I immediately took advantage of this excellent bargain, not wanting to disappoint my mother. I heard a taxi horn, some children giggling and the sound of waves splashing against the wall upon which I sat. Accepting that those might be the last sounds I would ever hear out of my right ear, I released the man’s arm and allowed him to begin the procedure.
By the time he reached the depth he had been searching for, there did not seem to be much of his "tool" left sticking out of my precious hearing cavity. For about ten seconds he kept that crude, and most likely re-used stick, in a location that felt unsafely close to my brain, using a technique that involved some gentle scraping, wiggling and several quick bouts of twisting and turning.
Finally, with my personal crowd of spectators still standing around, the stone-looks on their faces providing no reassurance that this was not just a trick the locals played on unsuspecting foreigners, the ear cleaner removed his twig from the depths of my ear.
“See, look. Dirt. Shampoo. Soap,” he stated, so proudly listing the items he had apparently removed. He then put the end of the stick only a few inches from my eyes. Speechless, I stood up, horrified by what I saw. An almost one-inch-in-diameter glob of multi-colored gunk stared directly at me with a look of extreme anger at being uprooted from its home. I cursed and cringed at the grotesque sight.
The ear cleaner moved to the other side of me, clearly interpreting my visible disgust as an agreement to proceed with the other ear. But I was not having any more of that. The nastiness of what came out of my right ear produced the opposite effect. I did not want to see that happen again; I wanted to be as far away as possible from this man and his stick. I started to walk away, determinedly clearing a path through the still present crowd, the ear cleaner clinging to my arm, confused at my escape yet determined in his efforts. I dragged him for nearly twenty feet before I finally stopped, turned around and spoke firmly, “No more ears".
At this point, he understood that he was out of options, that my left ear was going to remain unclean. “Ok, no more ears", he repeated as he began his retreat. I continued walking towards some unknown destination, stepping over piles of trash, animal waste and thinking of the stenches, the living conditions I had witnessed during my travels in this country. I suddenly found it to be quite absurd and revealing that I was most disgusted by what came from within my very own self.