A funny story on how I became Mr Singh for one day

I am in India, somewhere around January 1996, and after a 10-day visit to Papaji in Lucknow, it’s time for me to head toward Pune, that had previously been my home for almost five years (mainly during the time that Osho was in his body). Upon inquiring about a flight ticket, I discover that tickets for tourists cost exactly double the Indian fare, which is all I had been planning to spend. Looking into my wallet, I soon understand that if I want to stay a few weeks in Pune, I have to purchase a “native” ticket. 

So I ask an Indian friend to go to the Air India office and buy a ticket for me in, of course, an Indian name. But what name? The first one that comes to my mind is Rajneesh – since I am not very familiar with Indian family names – but somehow that feels a little too loud. The second one that pops up in my mind is the name of the music shop in Laxmi Road where I used to buy all my instruments, Adjmer Singh. So this is the name I give him for my ticket: Mr. Singh. Yes, it sounds good. 

As I wait outside of the Air India office, I am thinking about who this Mr. Singh is going be. He is obviously a Sikh, born in India but grew up in London, and that’s why he can speak only very little Hindi (alas, I cannot speak any Hindi!) and he’s now visiting his native country after many years in England. 

Once I get my ticket, I realize that the most important factor for me is to wear a turban like every Sikh worth the name would do. I find a fabric shop and, to my total surprise, the clerk tells me I need at least four to six meters of material! 

I buy five, and as I walk toward my hotel I look all around to see if I can find a Sikh and get an idea how to make this turban. My eyes move from Muslims wearing their small round caps, to Hindus wearing white Gandhi caps, to hatless Indian businessmen in Western-style suits, to a couple of sadhus with nothing on their bodies but colored ashes and a perizoma… but not a trace of a single Sikh on this road. ‘Well,’ I tell myself as I go up the stairs to my hotel room, ‘I will make one myself. It cannot be that difficult!’ 

After spending all evening in front of the mirror – trying hard to get something around my head that resembles a turban – I realize it is not that easy. I also know that it has to be really slick, since it’s the centerpiece of my camouflage. So the next morning, after my toast and chai, I go downtown determined to get hold of a Sikh – this time with a certain urgency because my flight to Poona is departing the next day at 3 pm. 

I trudge back and forth through the market all morning and cannot find any trace of a walking turban. I am feeling very discouraged. Suddenly, as I step in front of a perfume shop, my eye is caught by a big red turban on the head of the guy behind the counter! 

I walk in, and carried by the enthusiasm of having finally found what I was looking for, I start buying all kinds of soaps, toothpaste, perfumes, lipstick, kajal and whatnot. Once my bag is full enough to satisfy at least three of the most exigent Indian ladies, I start making friends with the guy (who, after my long shopping catharsis, is now very friendly towards me). 

When the conversation reaches the right climax, I tell him that after many years of searching, I have realized I have to turn my faith towards the Sikh religion. My only concern, I tell him, is that I am not sure if I am going to look good wearing a turban. He promises me that I definitely will – and to prove it he asks me to come back the next morning at 10 am when he opens his shop, and he will make one for me. (Bingo!) I gladly accept his invitation while making a quick calculation to make sure that I will have enough time to get ready and reach the airport in time for my flight. 

The next morning at 10 am I am standing all excited in front of his shop, which is still closed. At 10.30 I am still standing in front of his closed shop but I am not so excited anymore. At 11 o’clock I am really worrying that I am not going to make my flight, and I start walking up and down the street, scanning for another Sikh. With no luck… and feeling on the verge of depression, I start wondering why they call this city Lucknow. 

Finally at 11.30, at a typical Indian slow pace, my man arrives. He opens his shop, and to my surprise, in just five minutes he wraps around my head the most beautiful and regal turban I could have ever hoped to wear! In the process of making it he shows me how it can be put on and taken off just like a cap, without having to re-do the whole thing, as the inside folds are held together by big pins. 

When his creation is finished, he looks at me and with unconcealed pride says, “I knew from the very first moment you walked into the shop that you were one of us!” 

Feeling reassured about my appearance but not yet totally comfortable, I rush back to my hotel room and complete his work with some beautiful Punjabi clothes and shawl, darkening my eyes with kajal and curling the ends of my mustache upwards, Salvador Dali style, fixing them in that position with some thick coconut oil. 

As a final test, I go next door to introduce Mr. Singh to my traveling companions from Maui, Dhiru and Mukta. When Mukta opens the door, her jaw drops open. It takes her quite a few seconds before she screams, “Shastro, you look fantastic!” Now, Mukta was born into an Indian family, so I take this as confirmation that Mr. Singh is going to have no trouble passing! After spending a few minutes with the excited girls, who wish they had a camera, I head for my first real fire test – the airport check-in counter. 

It’s clear to me that the only way to keep anybody from talking to me in Hindi is to start the conversation myself in English. I hand over my ticket at the counter and, with a strong Indian accent that I have been practicing for many years, I ask if my plane is on time. (Little did I know that all that practice would turn out be so useful.) “Yes,” says the guy behind the counter, “everything’s normal: the plane is only 40 minutes late… and you will have a stop-over in Bombay.” 

So far so good. On my way to the toilet (am I nervous?) I walk past a big mirror on the wall. There, out of the corner of my eye, I see someone that I don’t recognize. I turn to face the mirror and a Kiplingesque character greets me – almost a past-life flashback! I am really amazed and pleased with my appearance, which seems to touch a well-known space inside myself. 

Once I am seated on the plane, I feel quite comfortable as Mr. Singh, even though my head and ears are boiling hot under five meters of material! But all the sounds are muffled and soft, and in such a noisy country having an ear filter is a real treat. Through the thick layers of fabric, I keep hearing an announcement in Hindi. The only word I can understand is ‘char’, which means ‘four’. Somewhere in a dark corner of my mind, I start wondering if the message is at all related to me, since I am sitting on seat number four. As an echo to my thought, I see the hostess walking toward me (as she gets closer my heartbeat becomes faster) and finally what I was really afraid of happens – she stops right in front of me! 

I can’t believe it! Have they already uncovered my fraud? With my heart now beating where 30 years ago I had my tonsils, I am waiting for her to utter the Hindi sentence that will throw me into total darkness. “Sir, you forgot to identify your luggage. The plane is waiting for you,” she says in what seems in this moment the most beautiful and sweet Indian accent I ever heard on Earth, “Could you please go outside and identify your suitcase?” 

“With pleasure,” I tell her with a big smile on my face, feeling the blood starting to move again through my whole body and my heart going back to where it belongs. 

Once we arrive in Bombay I find out that I have to get on a different plane to go to Pune and that I have to go through a security check. Not good. So I find myself standing in front of a guy wearing a uniform that looks like it has been worn a couple of years too long. He has very dark skin and doesn’t exactly look friendly. I sense trouble. He grabs my bag, opens it and, pulling out one thing at the time, looks at me and starts questioning me in Hindi! 

He holds each item in front of my nose and says something in a very coarse tone. Wishing my parents had sent me to study Hindi instead of English, the only thing I can do is try to guess what he is asking and then answer in English. 

With each item the tension between us is clearly growing. 

It seems like neither of us is going to give up – he is not switching to English (could he?) and I am not switching to Hindi (I can’t!). I also suddenly realize that in my pouch-belt I am carrying a lot of dollars! That could mean two things: either I am an Indian carrying illegal foreign currency (in those years it was still illegal), or I am a foreigner traveling under a false identity. Either way I am in deep trouble. Meanwhile, the contents of my bag have been almost completely emptied on the table. The air is thick and the feeling between us is like a violin string that has been pulled way too tight! I am waiting for it to snap in my face any second… 

His hand reaches once more inside my bag and pulls out the last thing. The moment the box of tea appears in front of me, I look straight at him and scream “CHAI!!!” 

Immediately the violin string is released to its normal tension. The air is breathable again. “Aah! Chai, chai!” he repeats, stuffing all my things back in the bag with a big smile and shaking his head from side to side. The magic word – one of the five I know in Hindi – has created a bridge between our two separate worlds. To my astonishment, he gives the bag back to me without even looking into my pouch-belt, and makes a sign to me that I can go now, uttering another of those five Hindi words I know: “Chalo!” [Go!] 

The rest of the trip is just like cruising. And when Mr. Singh walks out of the Pune airport, I enjoy immensely that I am not being assaulted by beggars asking for baksheesh and don’t have to haggle over the taxi fair. I feel totally one among others, at home. 

“Ahh, yes,” I say to myself, feeling the warm turban as a soft pillow between my head and the headrest on the taxi driving toward Koregaon Park, “it’s great to be an Indian in India!” 

~ Shastro

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