Monthly Archives: April 2013

Off the Top and Around the Ears

Kohinoor Gents Parlour

Before living to India, I would probably have avoided that faded green door, the one leading to a hole-in-the-wall establishment labeled “Gents Parlour,” but now I go regularly, making sure to carry some small bills.

Kohinoor Gents Parlour is where I get my hair cut in Jodhpur, and it may be one of the world’s cheapest barbershops. For a plain, no-frills haircut (the only kind I ever get), they charge just 30 rupees. At the current exchange rate, that’s about 55 American cents. You can barely buy a plastic comb for that price in the States. It’s a fraction of what I would give an American barber for the tip alone. Although the guys at my favorite barbershop in my hometown do a great job, they can’t compete on price. They charge $14 for a normal haircut, which seemed reasonable until I came to India. Now it seems exorbitant. For the prices to even out, I’d have to get at least two Indian haircuts per week, or one American haircut every four years. That would make a simple trim as infrequent an occurrence as voting for president.

Why is the Kohinoor Gents Parlour so cheap? I still haven’t completely figured it out. Ketaram, the senior barber, whom I assume is also the owner, clearly doesn’t make a lot of money. Even if he clips eight customers an hour, a very liberal estimate, he’ll only bring in $4.40. That’s a high salary by Indian standards (minimum wage for skilled labor in Rajasthan is $3.43 per day), but much of it will go back into the shop. With scissors, hair products, rent, and that heated shaving cream that only barbers seem to have, the costs add up.

This man will gladly cut your hair for just 30 rupees.

This man will gladly cut your hair for only 30 rupees. Getting him to smile for a photo is a different matter.

Of course, Ketaram can make due with fairly little income. Although not everything in India is as relatively inexpensive as a haircut, prices are pretty low. It’s easy to prepare a meal for an entire family for less than two dollars, and a three-bedroom apartment can cost less than $200 per month. But even with that in mind, a 55-cent haircut still seems ridiculous.

On Sunday, I got what was probably my last haircut at Kohinoor Gents Parlour. I’ll be leaving India exactly one month from today, so the next few weeks will involve plenty of other “lasts” as well. During these final days, I’ve resolved to appreciate the details of this city, the little things that I won’t be able to find anywhere else and that ultimately I’ll miss the most. That’s why I’m writing about my barbershop. Back in the States, as hair gradually elongates from my scalp and begins to droop over my eyes, I’ll pine for the days when I could get it trimmed for just 55 cents. And that green door will be a world away.

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Shocks and Tremors

Boston cap and Jodhpur turban

The room vibrated with a force both subtle and profound. I first noticed the sensation coming from my chair and turned to see if someone was shaking it. Nobody was there. Then I saw that the desk was shuddering as well, and so was the picture of Gandhi hanging on the wall, and so was the wall itself. The ground was moving slightly but rapidly below the room, below the entire city of Jodhpur. An earthquake.

The quake’s epicenter was about one thousand miles away, near the Iran-Pakistan border, where it registered 7.8 on the Richter scale. In the surrounding villages, mud houses collapsed and crushed dozens of people, leaving over 30 dead and many more injured. It could have been much worse, as far as earthquakes go, but any large-scale of life and health is a tragedy and should not be dismissed through comparison. As the shock traveled further from its origins, it lost strength, and by the time it reached Jodhpur, it hardly constituted a minor disturbance. I felt only the dull remnants, the reverberations of a distant catastrophe.

Earlier that day, I had been reading of explosions in my hometown. Bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, injuring bystanders, and destroying brave legs that had just run nearly 26.2 miles. Right away, I called loved ones to make sure they were okay. The incident dominated my email inbox and Facebook feed, my primary connections to many people I cared about. I found myself glued to the news, ostensibly waiting for the latest developments but really seeking an answer to the unanswerable question of why. My thoughts were with the city where I grew up.

A few days later, as Boston locked itself down in search of a suspect, I discovered that a mouse had taken up residence in my suitcase, the same bag that had held all of my possessions when I made the journey to India over nine months earlier. I released the mouse into a field across the street, but she left behind three newborn babies, wriggling masses barely identifiable as rodents. I picked them up between my fingers and put them into a plastic container with some cookie crumbs and popcorn kernels. They had no hair, only translucent skin red from the warm blood underneath. I could see the beating of their hearts and the inflation of their lungs; I watched their tiny hands grasp for a mother who would never return. When I checked on them yesterday morning, their red color had drained to a pale white. I tossed the whole container into the trash.

Life is fragile and vulnerable, and it can end in an instant.

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A Festive Mess

Holi supplies

I was red, I was blue, I was purple, and then I was hot pink. It’s impossible to go through Holi and maintain a single color the whole day, especially not your natural skin tone. If someone had taken time-lapse footage of me, I would have looked like a malfunctioning chameleon, flashing all sorts of bright colors in a bizarre and alarming display. And across India, millions of other people underwent the same transformation.

Holi is one of the world’s most distinctive holidays, a festival of color that turns every face into a canvas for radiant dyes and powders. The main way to celebrate is to go around and spread color on friends, relatives, neighbors, and even complete strangers. Originally, the colors came from naturally occurring substances like mud, spices, or flowers, but now most of them are synthetic. I’ve heard that the chemicals used for the dyes can cause skin rashes and cause other unpleasant effects, but luckily I didn’t experience any lasting damage, other than a purple hue on my toenails that still hasn’t quite subsided.

Holi colors

The powder is yours.


We’re all just dyeing to celebrate Holi.

I’ve heard several stories about how the color-throwing got started. Most of them involve Krishna, one of Hinduism’s most popular gods. Known for his playful nature, Krishna was fond of games of pranks.  He used to enjoy flinging colors at his consort Radha, and she would toss them back at him. In honor of this lighthearted pastime, the tradition is repeated every spring on Holi.

The most religiously significant aspect of Holi is not actually the color but a large bonfire that occurs the night before the colorful festivities. It commemorates a much less cheerful story. In ancient times, the demon king Hiranyakashyap wanted his entire kingdom to worship him, but his son Prahlad became faithful to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu preserver of the universe (it may have been worthwhile going with Vishnu just for the sake of convenient pronunciation). To punish this insolence, the demon king ordered his sister Holika, who was immune to flame, to throw herself onto a blazing bonfire with Prahlad on her lap. She did, but to everyone’s surprise, the fire consumed her and left Prahlad unscathed. The yearly bonfire commemorates this triumph of faith and bears the name Holi in recognition of the immolated demoness (that’s about the only feminist conceit in this story, and it hardly makes up for the unsavory implications about the role of women in India).

Sticks laid out for a ritual bonfire on Holi.

Sticks positioned for a ritual bonfire on Holi

But it’s the color that gets worldwide attention, and for good reason. The festival is a brilliant and captivating sight. Holi is probably the only day of the year when it’s acceptable to turn a stranger purple. On the streets of Jodhpur, the scene was a hectic frenzy of airborne colors, rhythmic drums, and faces so altered that they seemed almost alien. It looked like an apocalypse orchestrated by the Blue Man Group.

Often the chaos gave way to eerie quiet, as draining dye formed muddy rainbows on the side of the road. During these lulls, roving bands of teenage boys swarmed passersby and covered them with color. The mobs could get a bit rough, especially with women, and it wouldn’t have been a good idea for a single female to travel alone. In general, most people knew better than to go out unprepared. Several of my friends refused to leave their homes at all.

The Pink Man Group

The Pink Man Group

Despite the occasional boundary crossing, Holi in India is a fantastic celebration. Many religions observe lively holidays at springtime, but in terms of sheer amusement and spectacle, Holi takes the cake. After the bonfire, it’s all about having fun, with no crucified saviors or enslaved peoples to drag down the buzz. And when else do you get to make a total mess of everyone you know?

Striking a pose while playing Holi


A typical Holi face


If school were held on Holi, this kid would be too cool for it.


All Holied up

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Case Closed


I’ve been working on a colorful post about Holi, but that will have to wait a few days. Something else has been on my mind recently, another unpleasant visit to what’s becoming my least favorite place in the universe—the Rajasthan High Court. On the bright side, the saga of my stolen camera might finally be over (if you missed the previous installments in this saga, see Requiem for a Camera and Scouring the Drains of India).

I absolutely did not want to go to the High Court. I expressed those sentiments in my last blog post on the subject, and then I expressed them again when a police officer arrived at my workplace a few days ago. However, the officer met with my supervisor and roped my organization into the whole mess. It was an unfair abuse of power, putting me in a very uncomfortable position. Closing the file became a professional matter, not just a personal one. I had no choice but to comply.

A couple colleagues went with me to the High Court, and we found the appropriate office. I was supposed to meet the magistrate, but the people inside didn’t look like they held much authority. After some interactions in Hindi, I was told to wait. I’m not exactly sure what happened next—it all went down while I was waiting outside—but about fifteen minutes later, I learned that an advocate was coming to argue my case. What case? I just wanted the police to end the investigation so that they would leave me the hell alone. Why did I need to hire a lawyer? It seemed like I was on trial, for nothing more than filing a police report.

I started shouting about corruption, and people stared at me. Well, I thought, let them stare. They should know that to an outsider, this whole system seems ridiculous.

When the advocate arrived, he claimed that I needed his help because I didn’t have enough experience at the High Court. He didn’t realize that I had experienced far more at that place than any rational human being should ever be made to endure. The advocate also claimed that he needed to confirm that I was the right Ben Soltoff, not an impostor. Had he looked at me? I was clearly the only Ben Soltoff who had ever dealt with a case at the Rajasthan High Court or who would ever deal with a case there in the entire course of human history.

Then the advocate produced a form in Hindi that presumably granted him power of attorney, and I wholeheartedly refused to sign. I didn’t understand what the form said, and even if I had understood, I probably wouldn’t have agreed with it. The advocate told me that I would need to come back another day for an English version.

Fat chance.

I wanted to resolve the issue as soon as possible, so I stormed back into the magistrate’s office. There was a man sitting there in a dark robe and fancy shirt. He looked like a magistrate. Striding confidently to his desk, I handed him the form that had been given to me by the police officer and demanded, “I want to setter this mattle right now!”

The magistrate ignored my unfortunate spoonerism and looked at the form. Then he pulled out a file that contained my original police report.

“Who was it that snatched your camera?” he asked.

If I had known the name of the kid who stole my camera, then maybe he would have been on trial instead of me. “I don’t know who it was. Just some little kid.”

The magistrate skimmed through my file. “Do you have any doubts?”

Oh, I had plenty of doubts. I doubted that the Rajasthan Police ever managed to successfully enforce the law. I doubted that the Rajasthan High Court played a productive role in society. I doubted that any Rajasthan bureaucrat was qualified for his or her job. And most of all, I doubted that it had been wise to trust the Rajasthan authorities in the first place. But I also doubted that I could say all that and still get out of there in a reasonable amount of time.

“No, your honor, no doubts.”

The magistrate took out a form saying that I gave permission for the police to close the case and that I would come back if they ever caught the perpetrators (which will never, ever happen). I signed the form, and the magistrate shut the file. Case closed.

I have no idea what the advocate would have done if I had hired him. My meeting with the magistrate lasted all of two minutes, requiring no legal expertise whatsoever. And no one ever questioned whether I was the real Ben Soltoff.

But beyond my own personal inconvenience and confusion, what bothered me about the incident was the inefficacy the justice system. In order to be sure that this was uniquely Indian problem, I emailed a family friend who happens to be a lawyer. Here’s his response:

There is no process here [in the U.S.] involved with closing a case like that. When someone files a police report, reporting a crime, an investigation will commence. Yes, some investigations are more involved than others. However, when they are done, if no charges are filed or no further investigation is going to happen, all they do is tell you. The complainant doesn’t have to do anything else. In fact, the complainant has no role in the process. Appearing in court for anything therefore makes no sense, since no court proceeding has begun and there is therefore nothing for a judge to rule upon. Technically, the complainant has no standing to appear in court for anything.

Must be unique to India, and wherever else the filing of a police report begins a “process”.

In India (or at least Rajasthan), anyone who files a police report becomes beholden to the police department. The burden lies with the victim, not with the law enforcement agency. When the crime is a stolen camera, this process constitutes a minor annoyance, but what about more severe crimes? Imagine if a rape victim had to go to the High Court in order to give permission for her rapist to walk free. It’s no surprise that the majority of rapes in India most likely go unreported. The inadequacies of the Indian police were a key issue during the Delhi rape protests this past winter. If nothing else, my troubles with the stolen camera have shown me just how right those protestors were. The Indian justice system is broken, and it greatly needs to change.

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