Taking the piss

An excerpt from: non-fiction travel narrative (90,000 words), Penguin Publishing, 2004.

‘Congratulations,’ said Dr Chawla as he handed me my blood test result. ‘You are having the malaria.’

I blinked. ‘Malaria?’

‘Yes, yes.’ He smiled and slouched back in his chair. ‘Wonderful.’

It was the prognosis I’d been dreading all night as I wrestled with the fever in my dank hotel room, face rubbed with fire, the mosquito net left in torn knots like it had caught a disagreeable fruit bat. Surely, I kidded myself, things couldn’t be that bad. But I had to be sure.

‘Tell me, Doctor,’ I said, wiping sweat from my eye, ‘is this the kind of malaria that goes to your brain…and then kills you?’

‘No, no, no, no,’ he said and, just before I could breathe a sigh of relief, ‘not yet.’

‘What?!’ I tried to relax as my head slowly slid off my shoulders. Here I was, only two weeks into my grand cycling trip, somewhere in the middle of rural India, miles from anywhere while some deadly malaria strain coursed through my veins. Surely, this couldn’t be happening.

‘Doctor, do many people die from this around here?’

‘Yes, many!’ He smiled brightly. 


In the desert, the quietness reminded me that I was alone again, my only company the knocking gait of my bicycle chain, the slow sound of my breath drawing in, the odd clinking sound of tools shifting in my panniers. It wasn’t long before I was pushing the bike through endless sand drifts that covered the roads like a tide that would never retrieve itself, while, above, the sun sucked my resolve. 

Why was I doing this?

After a full day of cycling/pushing, I eventually I flopped into the tiny desert town of Shergarh, northern Rajasthan. Sand swirled in the street. Children played in it. At a chai stall I collapsed on a bunk chair, overcome not only with exhaustion but with a fever. 

The malarial virus was back. And so were the crowds that had descended upon me every time I stopped. This time it was the entire town: old men, teenagers and small children covered in dirt, all smiling, all very curious about the bike and me.

‘Oh, gear cycle! Gear cycle! Bi-cycle!’

A young man sashayed through the crowd and introduced himself.

‘I am Rikesh,’ he said, his English impeccable. ‘You are the first foreigner here in a long while. Come, I will take you to the best hotel in Shergarh.’

And it was the best hotel in Shergarh…because it was the only hotel in Shergarh. Well, calling it a hotel was a bit generous. It was a storeroom-cum-dorm above a restaurant. I was to share the room with an old Rajput who wore an enormous yellow turban, a dhoti (wrap-around pants) and sported a pointy moustache that belonged more on someone called ‘Brigadier Reginald Dwyer’.

In the morning, Rikesh suggested I speak with Mr. Prakash.

‘He is the principal of the school and knows many things,’ he assured me. ‘Especially about the health.’

Mr Prakash was a squat, rolling man in his early fifties. He immediately unburdened himself of his worries to me: the four-year drought, bores having to be dug deeper and deeper every year and the bleak future of the town without water. But then, when I told him of my journey and my malarial fevers he uttered the most curious of suggestions. 

‘Drinking your urine is very beneficial for your health.’

I blinked. ‘You’re drinking your own urine?’ I dipped my stale biscuit in my tea, hoping he had given me tea.

‘Yes,’ he smiled, and I tried to get a glimpse of signs of uric contamination on his teeth. 

‘You’re taking the piss!’ I teased, but he didn’t get me. 

‘Yes. I am taking the piss since 1996 and I feel much better for it. I am stronger, much vigour, and I have not been sick once since the treatment.’

‘What does yours taste like?’

‘Depends on what I eat. Sometimes if I have too much tea it is a little bitter an – ’

Okay, okay, okay!’ I waved him to stop. He ruffled through his draw and flapped out a rough copy of a book called The Golden Fountain by Coen Van Der Kroon. 

‘It is all in here. Go on. Read it.’

Urine, Van Der Kroon, claimed, could cure anything: herpes, athlete’s foot, skin problems, sunburn, indigestion, diarrhoea, even cancer and AIDS. But what really got my attention was that urine could cure baldness. 

‘That would require spectacular aim, Mr Prakash.’

‘No, no. You rub it in. And you must use old urine.’

‘Old urine?’ I had images of trying to milk geriatric men. Or worse, bowing before them in public urinals “Look, all I’m asking is for you to…”

‘Anyway, you should use it to treat your malaria. There is this woman who was close to death. She has the leukaemia. She tries everything but nothing works. But then she is given the urine treatment – no food, just urine – and she is cured.’

‘What is she doing now?’

‘Oh…she is dead,’ he sighed heavily. ‘Hit by a bus.’