The majority of my birthdays escape my memory, but the one that’s burned into my brain most is when I turned 30 in Rishikesh, India.
It was September 28th, and the day was as hot and colourful as you’d expect from India. Myself and my Scottish friend Ange walked along the bustling roadside, during which a young local boy ran up to us with a cricket bat in hand. ‘Hello, mister! Your country?’
I told him.
‘Australia is number one! Shane Warne! Glenn McGrath!’ he shouted, giving us his best air-bat before running around a corner.
We reached the Ganges soon after, and with kids swimming and locals whack-washing their clothes, its banks were as lively as the images that had lured me here. The riverbank sand had a glittery metallic quality, and I walked ankle-deep into the water. ‘Shit! It’s freeeeezing!’
‘Aye, whot were ye expectin’?’
‘This is India, everything’s supposed to be balmy!’
‘Aye, but we’re near the Gangotri Glacier.’
Anytime I’d imagined the Ganges I’d envisioned an unsavoury picture of decomposing bodies and contaminated water, but with Rishikesh nestled in the Himalayan foothills, this section was as unspoiled as you could wish for.
‘I think I’ll go for a swim,’ I said, ‘but I dunno if I should take my pants off here?’
‘Why no’, huv ye got varicose veins?’
‘No, coz I’ve only got these translucent undies on.’
‘Och, ye’re in India the now, nobody cares!’
‘You coming in then?’
‘Noo, ah’m no’ strippin’ aff in front of these blokes over here.’
She was right, for the notion of privacy being utterly alien in India, as always we’d attracted a crowd. It was even common for western girls, daring to swim or suntan, to catch local lads wanking themselves in the reeds of the riverbanks.
I swam around until the holy water washed away enough old sins to make room for new ones. When I got out and dried off, the growing crowd circled in. ‘Hello, sir, will you be my friend?’
I sat on the bank, and Ange turned to me, her eyes seeming expressly occupied. ‘Can I ask ye something?’
‘I guess you just did.’
‘Don’t be daft. Why exactly did ye set oot oan this trip?’
I felt a familiar tension come over me as the inner breathing article loaded onto the front page of my head.
‘I’m not sure I want to bore you with it.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘anyway, ah’ve been sittin’ here watchin’ the river, and thinkin’ aboot yer birthday, and I dreamt up a wee verse I wannae sing tae ye.’
‘I’d prefer birthday bashes with a loaf of salami.’
‘Och, ah’m only jokin’, ya numpty! I knew it would get up yer kilt.’
‘Aye.’ I said.
‘Well, happy birthday and all. Ah’m gonnae heid up the hill fur arvo yoga, ya comin’?’
‘Nah, I’m going to hang down here. But I’m dead proud to hear you using the word arvo. I mean, why go to all the trouble to saying three syllables when you can achieve the same desired effect in two?’
She walked off, and as I strolled along the same cricket-kid from earlier ran up to me. ‘Steve Waugh!’ he shouted, giving me his best air-bat again before running around a corner. Curious, I followed, to find a group of some twelve kids playing street cricket.
With an old crate for a wicket, and a plank for a bat, their equipment was as elementary as you could imagine. Standing at the crease—having marked it in the dirt with his bare foot—was my little mate.
‘Sachin Tendulkar!’ I said, to which when the ball met with his bat it shot down the street and smacked into a cow.
It was still my birthday, so I figured I’d indulge in a self-bought present. I walked into a nearby clothes shop. The merchant smiled widely, and followed me around at a proximity close enough to be grating.
I browsed for a matter of time, until I spotted an item of interest. ‘How much for this orange shirt, please?’
‘One hundred rupees, sir.’
‘I’ll give you fifty.’
‘No, sir, one hundred.’
‘I’ll give you sixty.’
‘No, sir, one hundred rupees, last price.’
But the notion of fixed-prices being blatantly un-Indian, I was offended by his obstinacy.
Trounced, I resolved to leave, but it was then that one small question passing his lips would change our dynamic forever. ‘Your profession, sir?’
A little-imaginary-devil-with-little-fluttering-wings appeared at my left shoulder. ‘I’m a professional cricketer, recently drafted.’
It was hard to know if it was from excitement or nerves, but a muscle began to twitch in his temple. His brow grew damp, and having shot some command at his wife, she brought out a tray of chai in under a minute.
‘So tell me, sir,’ he said, dusting off a stool, ‘do you know Ricky Ponting?’
‘Yes. He is my cousin.’
‘And I was best man at his wedding.’
He broke into girlish laughter, clapping his flippers like a delighted seal. ‘And tell me, sir, are you in India for the Test Series?’
‘Yes,’ I said, having precisely zero idea that the Australian team was currently in India.
He gathered his children for a group photo, and knowing that somewhere in hell Satan was dusting off another stool in preparation of my coming, I smiled for the camera.
Conversation turned back to business.
‘Please, sir, have this orange shirt, no money for you!’
‘Now now, I don’t want to be unfair, or least of all dishonest. I’ll give you fifty.’
‘Ok! Ok!’ he said, inserting the word between his shortening inhalations.
I was in his shop for half an hour, and I acquired a bundle of clothes at a heart-warming price. I could have let myself feel guilty, but figuring it was my birthday I was quick to grant myself pardon.
We parted with a reverent handshake, and as I exited his shop I noticed, a couple of doors along, the same group of kids still playing cricket. The little Tendulkar-batsman was again at the crease, and I acknowledged him with a faint nod.
My intention was to keep walking, but the merchant, moseying out of his shop, announced to the kids I was an Australian cricketer. My heart stopped as their faces lit. ‘Shane Warne! Jason Gillespie!’ they yelled as they exploded into mergers of child and pogo stick. I smiled dumbly, and although I’d hoped the moment would pass without consequence, one of the youngsters threw me the ball.
I stood with the ball in hand, but for the one, single, and inarguable fact that I bowl with the finesse of an orangutan, I was quick to chuck it back. ‘No, mate. I’ll bat.’
I stood at the crease with the bat in hand. Dozens of folk had gathered, and none were watching closer than the merchant, leaning against a wall with his arms folded.
I swallowed hard as the bowler took his run up. ‘Steve Waugh! Ricky Ponting!’ his teammates yelled as he unleashed like a muscle arm shotgun. My hit had to be a belter, for to be discovered as a fake could result in the burning of my effigy. The ball hurtled towards. My whole reputation was on the line, my whole career—perhaps my fear of clowns had returned, when—whack!—I belted it high.
Relieved, I stood back, and watching the ball soar through the air, it—plop!—landed in the Ganges.
‘Yyyaaayyy!’ the pogo-kids burst into a choir of approval, and guilty only of being in character, I lay the bat down and pointed their way.
‘Good luck at the game, sir!’ said the merchant, the twitch in his temple having resumed.
‘Thanks,’ I said, re-entering his shop for some subsequent bargains.