Despite its Raj-inflected history, modern Allahabad was a trying place for the non-Hindi speaker. The manager of the Harsh Ananda had promised to find me an English-speaking driver the next morning, but when I went to the desk, he gave an almost Gallic shrug, as if to say, Je suis désolé, monsieur. But perhaps young Utkarsh could be of assistance?
Utkarsh Dwivedi, who said he was twenty and looked barely old enough to shave, had just come off duty at the front desk. He looked uncomfortable at being pressed into service, especially when I told him I wanted to visit a neighborhood called Mirganj. How long would that take in a taxi?
“Only five minutes approx,” he said.
“But we cannot go there.”
“It is a very bad place. I know this. I was born there.”
“Bad in what way?”
He looked at his shoes. “It is a red-light place.”
This was embarrassing. I didn’t want him to misconstrue my reasons. What I wanted to see in Mirganj was the house where Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister after Independence, had been born. Utkarsh eventually agreed with some reluctance, but first he insisted on showing me the tourist sights of Allahabad, such as they are, even though I’d seen most of them the day before.
We found a decrepit, rattling Ambassador taxi. As we slalomed through the traffic, I asked Utkarsh how long he had been in the hotel business.
“Three or five years approx.”
He indicated points of interest as we proceeded along M. G. Marg—the cathedral, the Big Bazaar Shopping Mall, the nineteenth-century public library with its riotous mix of Indo-Saracenic and Scottish baronial architecture, McDonald’s.
“Now we will go to Chandra Shekhar Azad Park,” he said. “Today there will be a special celebration there.”
The park was a pleasant island of greenery and groomed walkways. Originally it was called Alfred Park, named to commemorate the visit in 1869 of Prince Alfred of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, second son of Queen Victoria. It was the venue for the All India Lawn Tennis Championship and the annual Flower and Dog Show. After Independence, it changed its name to honor Chandra Shekhar Azad, an anti-British revolutionary and leader of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. (Azad means “the free,” a name he gave himself during one of his numerous appearances before a judge.) The police cornered him in Alfred Park in 1931, and there was a shootout. A film called The Legend of Bhagat Singh features a highly colored reenactment of Chandra Shekhar’s death. He is pinned down behind a tree, bleeding from gunshots to the shoulder and leg, down to his final bullet. He scoops up a handful of Indian soil, lets it slip through his cupped palms with a mournful expression, raises his steepled hands to heaven, murmurs, “So much sacrifice,” and puts the gun to his head rather than allow himself to be captured. The tree is still there, and next to it is a commemorative plinth.
There was an off-key racket of tubas, trumpets, and snare drums that grew louder as we walked in through the park gates. There were eight musicians, and nearby, eight soldiers lined up in an honor guard, dressed in khaki with scarlet shakos, black-and-red belts, and white puttees, carrying colonial-era Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles. A white Ambassador with a blue light on the roof drew up beside them, and a middle-aged man climbed out. “Chief of police of Allahabad,” Utkarsh whispered.
An ancient man in a white dhoti, with a Nehru cap perched on his head, had been standing at full salute, or as much as his bent back allowed. When the brass band stopped, he raised a battered antique bugle to his lips, took a couple of shallow, labored breaths, and squeaked out a few notes. He showed me a photograph in a plastic slipcover that was pinned to his chest, next to a rusted badge with the tricolor flag of the Indian National Congress. The photograph showed him, a good deal younger, playing his bugle. The caption below it identified him as Bhagwat Prasad, a freedom fighter who had joined the struggle against the British in 1942, the year in which Gandhi issued his final call for independence and Subhash Chandra Bose formed the Indian National Army. So that made the old man ninety, at least.
A man of curious appearance was busy shepherding a group of schoolchildren, more girls than boys, into tidy rows on the steps below the statue of Chandra Shekhar Azad, which was hung with marigolds and showed the hero in pensive mode, bare-chested and resting his chin in his hand. The man led the children in a chant. “His spirit has met with God; may God bless his soul.”
When the ceremony ended, the man walked over to me briskly. He was barefoot, dressed in a bright red dhoti over black pants, a waistcoat with harlequin panels of shocking pink and silver-spangled purple silk, a flat cap with alternating bands of sky blue and gold, a shock of black hair with the texture of steel wool gathered in a bun, and a beard in which several birds could have nested comfortably. His eyes somehow managed to combine kindness, ferocity, and an ethereal remoteness.
He presented me with a business card that was almost as eccentric as his appearance. It read:
I wanted him to tell me more about these credentials, but there was no time; the children were calling him to duty, and to find out more about the International Moustache Dancer, I had to track down one of these books of records and do a little research.
Limca is what Indians call a “cold drink,” a lemon-and-lime–flavored fizzy soda produced by the Coca-Cola Company. It sponsors the local equivalent of the Guinness World Records, whose editors say that by far the largest number of submissions they receive, each requiring weeks of independent verification, comes from India. The Limca book “salutes the quest for excellence” and says it is aimed at an audience of “insatiable info-buffs and quizzers.”
If the insatiable quizzer were to be asked the name of the person wearing the largest-ever mantle of bees, the correct answer would be K. P. Vinodan of Kerala, who once coaxed thirty-five thousand of the creatures to settle on his body for more than twenty-four hours while he stood by the roadside sipping liquids from a glass bottle. Other examples of excellence include the largest number of saliva bubbles blown without stopping (sixteen thousand, seven hundred and twenty-two over seven hours, by Asokan Chillikadan of Madhya Pradesh); the most slices cut from a single cucumber (one hundred and twenty thousand and sixty, by Professor S. Ramesh Babu of Bangalore); the greatest distance walked while balancing a full bottle of milk on one’s head (a hundred and four kilometers, almost sixty-five miles, by Milind Deshmukh of Pune). The resonantly named Yezdi F. Canteenwalla, also of Pune, had devoted thirty years of his life to the challenge of creating the largest-ever ball of rubber bands, using four hundred and twenty thousand of them to produce a bouncy sphere measuring twenty-one inches in diameter
There were so many mustache-related records that they could have taken up a chapter of their own. The longest ever recorded belonged to seventy-yearold Kalyan Ramji Saini of Rajasthan, a place of epic facial hair. It grew to more than ten feet and trailed on the ground for some distance behind him. By Limca’s account, the growth was quite accidental. After an eye operation, doctors had recommended that Mr. Saini refrain from wetting his face for three weeks. By the end of this dry spell, the prodigious mustache already reached thirty inches, more than waist-length in other words. The mustache of Naik T. Sudarsana Reddy, identified as a civilian driver from Hyderabad, was a more modest affair, not quite twenty inches, but his special skill was to use it to lift two empty cooking-gas cylinders weighing 35.4 kilos, or seventy-eight pounds.
Eventually I found the entry for R. K. Tiwari. Oddly, Limca identified him as “Rajendra Kumar of Allahabad,” but it was clearly the same man. No mustache had ever achieved comparable celebrity or been put to greater public purpose. Tiwari’s mustache dance involved candles, four of them nestled symmetrically in his great black beard together with an equal number of unlit objects that resembled chopsticks. He could make the candles jump around in time to music (“any musical instrument in any rag and Dhun”), one at a time, in pairs, all four in unison. Later I found an obscure blog post, which he had perhaps created himself, that described the dance as “a marvelous technique rendles [sic] by the controlled movement of facial muscles with Yoga, the artistry in this dance is very subtle ang uniue [sic].” Zipping around on a scooter painted in rainbow stripes, the international mustache dancer had taken his act to the Cricket World Cup to bring good luck to the Indian team, to the International Yoga Festival at the Hotel Ganga Resort in Rishikesh, and to the huge crowds that assembled in Allahabad each year for the Magh Mela.
Back at the park, the crowd was dispersing, Bhagwat Prasad squeezed out a few more notes, the Ambassador whisked away the chief of police.
“Time to go to Mirganj,” I told Utkarsh.
His eyes darted from side to side, looking for some deus ex machina that would spare us the ordeal of the red lights.
“But you are wanting to see the home of Nehru. It is Anand Bhavan.”
The taxi driver was holding the door of the Ambassador open for us.
“Anand Bhavan,” Utkarsh told him. He turned to me and hazarded a smile. “You will see, it is beautiful. And it is stone-throwing distance only.”
Excerpted with permission from On the Ganges: Encounters with Saints and Sinners Along India’s Mythic River by George Black. Courtesy of St. Martin's Press.