The first time I saw Lalah he wore a tattered lunghi and an off-white vest stained with something brown.
He opened the door of the Elvis Guesthouse with a frown, after repeated knocking forced him from bed in the middle of the night to deal with a bedraggled backpacker fresh off a 13-hour local bus from the border town of Sunauli.
Neither of us looking in any way presentable, he grunted with the suggestion that I should follow him into the shadowy hall, after the auto rickshaw driver who looked like Snoop Dogg explained we had just arrived in Varanasi.
Following Lalah’s hulking shape up the stairs I avoided eye contact with his lunghi-wrapped rear and wondered where the brown stains came from.
He showed me to a baby blue room with white sheets and a red table cloth decorating the bottom of the bed, pointing to a brand new air conditioner on the wall as I nodded in approval.
After paying the rickshaw driver, Lalah silently escorted to the blue room, grunted something unintelligible and left.
It wasn’t long before the smell hit us. A sewerage-like stink, it seemed to grow stronger with each passing minute. It was the middle of the night deep in the warren of Shivala, and we were exhausted from spending two days on hot buses. Waking Lalah again seemed like a really bad idea, so we allowed exhaustion to knock us out.
The next morning we headed straight to the rooftop restaurant to inhale caffeine poured from a long-spouted silver teapot in the clamouring heat. A hint of a breeze and the speckled shadows cast by a wooden trellis made the rooftop seem like an oasis.
If only our room wasn’t so smelly.
We found Lalah at the reception, with a surprising half-smile on his face. When we explained we would be checking out early, he sent a boy to investigate the mysterious smell.
After much consulting, Lalah communicated through halting English that the previous Japanese guest had done something hideous in the bathroom. To this day, I don’t fully understand what the guest had done, but all hints from Lalah appeared suggest the guest had done his business in some hidden corner and not down the toilet. He apologised profusely and urged us to stay, promising to remedy the situation.
Daytime Lalah was different. Soft-spoken and with a mysterious air of regality, he spread a newspaper across the low coffee table and chatted with us about the upcoming elections as we waited to see if the smell could be remedied.
After a while, he reported that the room had been fixed, and the smell was no more.
Although still reluctant, we allowed Lalah to convince us that leaving was not the best idea. The blistering Varanasi heat and the promise of the cool confines of the rooftop helped with the decision.
Before we knew it, a week had passed and we were still guests at the Elvis Guesthouse.
Lalah was the benevolent father figure of the guesthouse. He would appear on the rooftop, a white scarf thrown jauntily across his shoulders, his wise eyes accentuated by his glasses. With his clasped hands resting on his rotund belly, he made the rounds, greeting each table in his soft-spoken tone. There was an air of kindness about him as he enquired about our day, our plans and how we were.
One day, we followed Lalah down backstreets and shadowed alleyways to the fabric district, where he invited us to peek inside a window where a wizened old man worked a loom, the afternoon sun hitting his skin in a way that made him look like a wax figure.
Lalah reminded me of Khan from Shantaram, not that he was a gangster, but in the way people reacted to his presence. As he brought us deeper into the maze-like alleyways, people nodded and gave him smiles of recognition as he passed.
We went to his friend’s house, which was also a shop. As any traveler in India knows, being roped into hearing long sales pitches in fabric stores is pretty unavoidable. But in this case, we didn’t mind.
We climbed stairs and entered a room entirely padded in layers and layers of coloured cloth. A bronze skinned man with a tiny stamp of a moustache and a gargantuan belly greeted Lala with deep affection. His small rimless glasses threatened to slide down his nose as he gestured for us to sit, sit.
We sank onto the pillowy floor and took in the millions of layers of cushions, blankets and scarves that rose up to the ceiling like rainbow-coloured ladders.
We were served chai in glass cups on a silver tray. As we sipped the thickest, sweetest chai we would taste in India, the man told us the milk had come fresh from the cow we had passed outside.
Lalah’s friend told us his blankets were sold in Brown Thomas, an expensive department store in Dublin. As he showed us his black leather notebook filled with orders, I wondered if he kept a list of fancy department stores in each major city, or whether his goods really did travel all the way to Ireland.
After chatting for a while, we were treated to an impressive display of thousands of scarves, pillowcases, blankets, curtains and more bed spreads imaginable, each flung from its folded position up into the air like a silent firework, before falling spectacularly to the soft floor below. We left with just three modest scarves, wishing our backpacker budget could stretch to cover more.
Standing in the narrow alleys once again, we blinked in the bright Varanasi light as the colours of all the materials danced behind our eyes, and allowed ourselves to be led by Lalah once again.