You have to be a local or an expert haggler to survive in Varanasi. If not, a rickshaw-wallah will sell you right there, on the street as you stand, to another rickshaw-wallah! Almost all tourists have to go through sometime torturous and unending offers of all kinds from touts, wannabe guides and rickshaw/autowallahs. Those offers include shaking hands with them, to let them massage you right on the busy ghats, to tip them for nothing significant and to go with them around the city. The moment they realize you are not from the city, they are after you.
Walk a while at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and people start greeting you. “Namaste!” they tell you as they extend their hands intending to shake yours. “No, no,” they say if you namaste them (by bringing together your palms) and refuse to shake hands, “give me your hand. Let’s shake.” One guy, before I knew he was approaching me, started started massaging on my hand right away saying that I should give a try. “Very nice massage, only 10 rupees, only five minutes,” he said as he squeezed my hand. “No, no, thank you,” I said. He started squeezing another hand.I wasn’t taking such gestures as harassment as, if I had wanted, I could have easily chased them away by screaming at them in Hindi. Bhago! They would certainly run away. But I wanted to get the taste of a different Varanasi. I wanted to take photos.
After getting the same offer in the same style for at least five times, I gave in. The guy, not the one who squeezed my hands, virtually nabbed me down on the ground where he had spread a piece of cloth and did a ‘wonderful’ massage. He was extending his skill to all over my body making me feel embarrassed. I needed to go away. I tried to get up but he was too desperate. I didn’t want to completely disappoint him. So I relented. He made me lie down and started massaging my back. By then, another guy had joined in to massage my legs.
“Ho gaya,” I screamed in Hindi, finally. Enough. Stunned, the guy whispered as he loosened his hands off my calf: “Sir aap Hindi bolte ho?” Do you speak Hindi? “Yes,” I said in Hindi. As they learned that I was living in India, they backed off. Clearly, they were disappointed. But that didn’t stop them from demanding Rs. 100 for the job. “And tip him sir,” the man said, pointing to his assistant. “But I thought you charged Rs. 10,” I protested. He reasoned that he had massaged not only neck and shoulders but also head, back and legs. At the end, I disappointed him with his original rate.
These guys are a desperate lot. Perhaps reasonably so. The city isn’t prosperous and approaching the tourists are generally those who are struggling to feed their families. That is why I didn’t believe a Nepali-speaking Indian student of Sanskrit from Sikkim at Sampurnananda University when he said people in Varanasi are a mast lot. “They are always carefree and mast,” he said. Another scholar from Nepal with the same university added: “No one, poor or rich, ever sleeps hungry in this city.” I was told the same thing a few weeks ago about Vrindavan, another religious city a few hundred kilometers away from Varanasi. But poverty is still there, rampant and starkly visible in India. One doesn’t have to go to rural areas. Beggars, cheaters and looters are in abundance in Indian cities. They are not doing that for fun but for livelihood because they aren’t yet touched by the much talked about economic rise of India.
I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I watched my ‘massage video’ in Delhi apartment. 😛