Leaving India and the best shave in the world

India, my Love

Justin Rowlatt, frequently also featured on Osho News, looks back on his three years on assignment reporting for the BBC from South Asia and, in particular, India. Published on June 16, 2018.

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I’ve never been lithe enough for yoga or patient enough for meditation, but during my time in India I did discover a path to a kind of transcendence: a street shave.

Getting one has become something of a ritual for me on a quiet morning. I’ll cycle lazily to the local market and to Balwant Singh.

His stall is just a table with a mirror propped on it under a spreading peepal tree, but he does the best shave in the world. You sit on the rickety chair and then he takes over. He won’t tolerate any distractions. Try and look at your phone and he’ll push your head back firmly. But that’s fine by me. It takes a full five minutes to work the lather into my stubble to his satisfaction. Then he fits a glinting new blade into the cut-throat razor and gets to work.

It is sitting there in the all-enveloping heat – feeling the gentle scrape of the razor and savouring a whiff of ginger from the bubbling pan of chai on the neighbouring stall – that the reality of leaving India hits me hardest.

Balwant Singh
Balwant Singh’s stall is just a table with a mirror propped on it under a spreading peepal tree

The pang of loss is so strong, I wince and tears well in my eyes. I am amazed how powerful the emotion is.

Life in India has been so wonderful that I can’t quite believe that the dreary pragmatism of schools and work opportunities have persuaded us to give it all up.

Balwant pushes my head to one side and gets to work on my other cheek.

I’d been terrified when we left London more than three years ago on that chilly February morning. I was worried the children wouldn’t be happy, that we’d get ill, that we would miss the security of home.

Instead, a great warm world of adventure and excitement opened up for all of us. We began a new life of noise and colour – all lit by brilliant sunshine. We’ve met wonderful people and have had incredible holidays.

An insistent finger pushes my head back so I am staring up through the green leaves to the blue sky. Now the razor is on my chin.

I remember the thrill of waking up before dawn to head out on the latest assignment.

I’ve dodged the police during the political upheavals in the Maldives, hiked up a frozen Himalayan river to discover how solar power can transform even the most remote villages, sipped opium tea with a peasant farmer as India’s Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi considered his political future, come face to face with a wild rhino one night in Assam and crouched in the belly of a plane to watch M16s refuelling over the snowy mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

I’ve been lucky to be in South Asia at a time of great change in the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consolidated his power in India, deepening divisions of faith. Meanwhile Afghanistan has become more dangerous than ever. I’ve seen the aftermath of car bombs in Kabul, and cowered at the airport as Taliban shells rained down. In Bangladesh, I was there when the Rohingya refugees fled in their tens of thousands from the horrors of the military crackdown in Myanmar.

Balwant gets the brush out and starts lathering me up again. He always shaves twice.

There have certainly been times when I’ve wondered if I am cut out for this kind of work.

I broke down in tears on air when I reported the 52 bodies I’d seen lain out on the rubble after the Nepal earthquake; I couldn’t sleep the night after we visited the hospital in Kashmir where every bed seemed to have a young man blinded by shotgun fire from the Indian police. But perhaps worst of all was the carnage I saw when we wangled our way into the barracks where some 140 Afghan soldiers had been massacred by the Taliban.

Shaving alum
After every shave, Balwant Singh smoothes the customer’s skin with a crystal of astringent alum

Balwant Singh’s top tips for the perfect shave

– Always work the lather in for a good few minutes. This softens the bristles, gives you a cleaner, smoother shave and reduces irritation.
– Balwant uses a new blade for every customer to ensure a really close shave and minimise the risk of infection. Home shavers don’t need to be so scrupulous, but a sharp blade always gives a better shave.
– Don’t just shave once. A “twice-over” means a much closer shave and ensures no stray bristles escape your attentions.
– Buy a crystal of potassium alum – you can get them online. This natural astringent closes your pores, reducing irritation and staunching bleeding from small nicks or cuts.
– A mentholated moisturiser will soften your skin and ensure it doesn’t go dry. It is also deliciously cool, particularly when shaving in hot weather.
– Do use an aftershave. Like the alum it tautens the skin, acts as an antiseptic and leaves you feeling fresh and clean.

Balwant takes a slightly grubby towel and wipes the last of the foam from my face. Then he picks up a crystal of astringent alum. It stings as he smoothes it over my skin.

I realise I wouldn’t have missed a moment of it. Every horror has been balanced by hope.

Take India. There may be breathtaking inequalities and injustices but it is hard not be optimistic in a country that bubbles with activity and enthusiasm.

In Bangladesh, my abiding memory of the Rohingya isn’t humiliation and misery but strength and resilience.

In Afghanistan, spontaneous protests demanding peace began in Helmand – the epicentre of the Taliban’s resurgence – a few months ago. They have now spread across the country.

And we went on a family holiday in Nepal the year after the earthquake and hiked up to the valley where I’d seen those corpses laid out. Everywhere people were rebuilding their homes.

Pink moisturiser
After the alum, Balwant dabs livid pink moisturiser onto his customer’s face

Now Balwant is dabbing livid pink moisturiser onto my face. He pushes my eyelids close and begins to work it vigorously into my skin.

The spasm of sadness that gripped me as I sat down has completely passed. It isn’t that I’m not still upset to be going, but I realise my emotion is a positive thing; a mark of how important my time here has been to me.

I smell the cheap aftershave a moment before Balwant places his hands on my cheeks. As he lifts them off, the alcohol evaporates; deliciously cool in the summer heat.

That’s the lesson leaving a place you love teaches: it insists you be present for every moment, to experience everything fully.

I pass Balwant a 100 rupee (£1.11, $1.47) note and thank him. We smile.

We should all live as if we are about to leave, I reflect as I walk back to my bike. That way you realise the true value of what you have.


Justin RowlattJustin Rowlatt has been a correspondent for Newsnight, Panorama and Channel 4 News. He’s presented business on the Today programme, has fronted many radio and television documentaries and was also one of the team that launched BBC 1’s ONE Show. In February 2015 he became the BBC’s South Asia Correspondent, based in Delhi.

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