OMIP returns to India!

Published in Carbon 14 N° 23

People and «guides»!

First a great big generality: Indians are friendly.
Whether smiling-laughing-ogling kids asking for school-pens, teenage boys and students so curious of western ways and how you like India, or businessmen met at train stations always eager to help you understands the intricacies of Indian politics, business ways, or Life, friendliness is the order of the day!
Beaming at you and equally charming are the shopkeepers, plying all imaginable wares under the hot sun. Theirs is always the best and cheapest, should you wonder. Please sit down, have some chai, see reams of silks, cottons, pashmani shawls, colors, textures, softness and sheen… And of course, you buy one, or two, or several. How could you not under such an avalanche of affability.
Mingling radiant smiles, genuine curiosity for you the foreign tourist, endless enthusiasm at discovering the details of your life and impressions of India, they disarm you with charm and the warmest sense of welcome.
And I am also happy to report that, unlike what happened in ’97 during my first foray into the sub-continent, I found many women, sari-clad and ever so divine, all too happy to meet my eyes and talk. A smile and a wink from me in the direction of a group of girls at a market or bus stop was sure to get an explosion of giggles, radiant smiles, and in several instances a wave and an invite to come over and talk.
Saïra on Colva Beach!In Colva Beach, Goa, I met the utterly delightful Saïra selling fruits on the beach, trying to talk sun-drenched tourists into buying watermelons, pineapples, papayas, bananas, mangoes… There were several such young women walking up and down the beach, a metal tray laden with ripe and fruity succulence perched on their head, but it was Saïra who won my heart and custom.
By the time I got to Goa, I had had to fend off innumerable touts and hucksters in the preceding four weeks, so I was well prepared to resist.
Or so I thought.
All it took was Saïra’s ravishing smile and coy demeanor, and I was lost. For the next four days, I bought a pineapple in the morning, a watermelon in the afternoon and a bunch of bananas in between, all for the joy and delight to have her sit on the sand next to me and talk about her life and hopes. Formerly a poor landless farm worker from the nearby draught-stricken state of Karnataka, she made the big move with husband and three children in the hope of finding a better life in Goa. A Dutch tourist bought her a metal tray and a kitchen knife and she was in business, her OWN business mind you, and she was mighty proud of her two utensils, signs of her commercial independence. With her husband in the construction trade and the kids in school, calling home a hut on the beach, she was happy and tasting the good life! Needless to say, I did try to get to know her better, if you catch my drift. To no avail: with yet another smile and a wink, she graciously declined my amorous offer.

A day before leaving India, on the KonkanKanya Express from Goa to Bombay, I met two businessmen returning from a field trip to their respective home-offices. Within minutes of my getting to my seat, the two fellows whipped out the smiles and the usual questions as to my name, where I was from, and did I like India/where had I been on my trip. The ice being broken, they each pulled out a bottle from their travel bag, one a pint of gin, the other a pint of Feni, a local Goan cashew-nut liquor. And for the next hour, we proceeded to drain the two bottles, mixing both with 7-Up and ThumsUp cola.
One worked for a textile firm, the other for Intel Asia, and we all hit it off grandly. Before finally retiring to our sleeping berths, I had gotten a full class on Sikhism, why Sikhs wear turbans and “patka”, what should be done about Pakistan (go to war, wipe out the Pakistani army and annex the country, clean out all the Muslim extremists, et voila, problem solved…!). They left before I awoke, so I couldn’t say goodbye, but we had exchanged email addresses, so I have been in touch since returning to Paris.
These two examples, among many others, show the friendly gregariousness of Indians toward the foreign tourist.
But it’s not always that way, far from it. Not that the other side of the coin is dangerous or threatening. But it’ll oscillate between being a small burden and a thorough pain in the ass.
Cases in point:
First week in India, I’m in Udaipur, Rajasthan. First night out, I’m perambulating up and down Bhatiyani Chohatta looking for a veg restaurant when this man (“Hello, my name is Ramesh. What’s yours? What country?”. You know the drill, by now! ) approaches me and asks me if I would like to visit the art-school where he studies, learning the difficult art of miniature paintings. Udaipur miniature!Why not, I think, so off we go around the corner where I meet the aged master of the school, retired but still active, and his son who proceeds to show me how colors are made from natural ingredients and the tiny brushes used to paint these marvelously intricate art works.
Soon, I have a couple dozen miniatures laid out in front of me and my complimentary cup of chai. Each more beautiful that the next, I sit mesmerized by so much talent and beauty. But it soon dawns on me that looking and marveling is fine and dandy, yet it would be a great thing were I to buy one or six. Or ten. At first, I feel uncomfortable, realizing I fell into a sales pitch. A clever and ever so subtle one, but a sales pitch nonetheless. Had the items proffered been uninteresting, I would have thanked them and left right there, but the miniatures were so stunning and gorgeous that I ended up buying a half a dozen. A case where buying something you didn’t know you wanted in the first place turns out to be a blessing. Then Ramesh asks me what I’d like to do. Being famished, he takes me to one of the many roof-top restaurants where Kingfisher beer and veg thali can be had while looking at the lake and the city’s illumination. Now, you know me and the subject of ganja and charas soon pops up. “I’ll be right back” says Ramesh, and he returns presently with a chunk of black hash and a chillum which we proceed to use in its time-honored fashion. Eventually, the evening ends and we all return to our dwellings, Ramesh and I having made a date for the next day, when “I will show you around on my motorbike”.
The next day, we meet at the school and off we go. I will probably never forget Ramesh’s courtesy and knowledge of his city. From Palaces to Temples, outlying villages to exotic restaurant and half-hidden monuments, cyber-cafes to travel agencies, he showed me so much explaining everything as we went. Of course, the day included a stop at a friend’s woolen shops where I bought a cashmere Pashmani shawl for my mother, and another friend’s silk emporium where I had a silk shirt made to measure in two hours. While we never spoke of payment for his services, and none was made, he thanked me profusely for what I had done for him, namely making him look good to his friends by buying more from them than any tourist he had “guided” recently. My pleasure indeed, as the buying involved things of great beauty that I loved after discovering their existence thanks to Ramesh my “guide” for the day.
Similar story in Varanasi (Benares) where that day’s “guide” was named Raju.
I was quite a bit of a tougher sale that day. Third week into India, and a target for every hustler and “guide” under the sun, why should I say “Yes” to this one after brushing off any of the dozens that approached me there or anywhere else?
On the Ghats (the steps on the banks of the Ganges), he showed me and explained the rituals of incineration, took me to an ancient Shiva temple where the Brahmin on duty blessed me with the mark of the God on my forehead and a garland of jasmine and mogra. We went to a little restaurant in a busy street for yet another veg thali (I bought him lunch!), and of course, we made a stop in his “cousin’s” batik shop, where I immediately knew what to expect (cup of chai, dozens of beautiful batiks unrolled and laid out on the cushions in front of me, “the best and cheapest batik in Varanasi, my friend”!). Nine Hundred rupees later ($18), I left content and in possession of a half dozen striking panels showing a camel caravan in the moonlight, Krishna playing the flute, a saddhu smoking a chillum, and a huge black Vishnu.
Raju’s angle as he met me was: “I am not a ‘guide’, I don’t want any payment, I only want to practice English and show my city to an appreciative tourist”. That’s how it was indeed, the stop at the batik shop notwithstanding!
I was lucky with Raju, at least I think I was. How should I know? Benares is a city with stunning and wondrous vistas and people: the Ghats, and the small streets and alleys behind them, the saddhus and assorted holy men in orange garb, the funeral pyres, the western tourist in full psycho-mystical regalia bathing in the Ganges, I’ll never forget. But I’ll never forget either the unbearable and ceaseless attempts by young men to hire themselves as my “guide” for the day. Unable to comprehend the word “no”, they kept insisting endlessly until finally walking away when confronted with my silence, only to be replaced by another a mere thirty seconds later. It went on and on, with no end in sight until Raju came up in turn, and I said yes to him out of exhaustion and defeat. But it turned out well as you saw above, and it had the other advantage of stopping immediately any attempts by others to sell me their knowledge and guiding lights (when Raju moved on a few hours later and left me alone, the onslaught resumed apace!!).
Raju told me at one point about certain people not needing purification by fire: saddhus, infants, and people that died from snake bites. All are pure to start with. Dead saddhu in the Ganges!Instead of a funeral pyre, they get wrapped in cloth of mystic portent, have a weight tied to their feet and are sunk in the middle of the Ganges. But as luck would have it, sometimes the rope holding the weight breaks sooner that later, and the remnants rise up to the surface. The Holy Ganges being somewhat lazy and placid in Benares, the body floats to shore. “This is what happened to this saddhu who died last week” said Raju. “Would you like to see the body? It’s right over here”.
What???! And indeed, right by several people washing clothes and performing sacred ablutions is this body, dressed in white pantaloons and orange shawl, floating a few feet from shore. The white pants are, well, rather covered with green and yellow stains due to the extreme, er…, ripeness of the sacred remains. Been here for a while said Raju. Of course, it wouldn’t come to anybody’s mind to remove the corpse. After all, if Lord Shiva in his profound and universal wisdom told the river to bring the body to its current resting place, what sanitation bureaucrat would take upon himself to undo what the god has wrought?


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