Night had fallen over Varanasi. We were on an island – if you can call it that – in the middle of the Ganges, facing the Old City. We were attending a party, of sorts, thrown by Pilu, who had been our ‘fixer’ since arriving in Varanasi’s impossible-to-navigate (especially during the monsoon) old lanes and ghats. Crouching on the sand, sipping whisky, we were talking to ‘The Boss’, the man who owns the silk-shop from where I purchased a silk robe cum dressing-gown which Snoop Dogg would be proud to wear (I fervently hope it will turn heads and divide opinion in equal measure).
The conversation soon turned to life in Varanasi, to The Boss’ adopted son, and how he makes sure to take care of all his employees. Then one of the girls I was with interjected: “People are so much happier here [than in the west],” she stated with confidence. “They are poor, yes, but their lives are so much more meaningful. In the west, people are only concerned with acquiring more wealth; they forget what’s really important.” Opposite us, the electricity had just failed again (power-cuts are a regular feature of north Indian life, especially in the summer); candles flickered on like cigarette lighters at a rock concert. The girl took a swig of whisky, and leaned back, smugly.
I’ve said it before and will say it again: India is a difficult place, one that constantly challenges your most deeply-cherished beliefs. For the first-time traveler, there are a number of potential responses to the dilemmas this causes. One is to escape to Thailand. Another is to romanticize the place, to see poverty as a spiritually enriching thing, something as eternal as Mother India herself. It would be wrong to dismiss this view of Indian poverty as merely an orientalist trope of the western traveler. As many people have argued, for example, it was one of the more unfortunate aspects of Gandhi’s world-view. But there can be few more awful ways of reacting to poverty than to romanticize it. Poverty is appalling, a disease that should be eradicated. There is no grandeur – spiritual or otherwise – in suffering.
As noted, we were at a party. Varanasi is known as one of the scam-capitals of India, with hundreds of young hustlers looking to shirk you out of a hundred rupees or two. At the same time, the sheer difficulties of navigation means that having a local guide can be extremely useful. In the case of my crew-for-the-week and I, we found ourselves a genuine mensch, Pilu. Officially employed at The Boss’ silk-shop, he said he drew a monthly salary of 7000 rupees ($150), plus 3% commission on sales from customers he brings to the shop. A thoroughbred maven, he also draws commission from others bits and bobs, like hooking me up with a tabla teacher (Dha Dha Thete Thete Dhin Ta, for those in the know).
After a few days in his company, Pilu invited us to the party. A regular gathering of him and his mates (which, of course, includes no women), the party takes place on a houseboat moored beside one of the Varanasi’s famous ghats – a series of steps leading down to the river. There’s a chef and booze, as well as a mid-evening motorboat jaunt down the river.
Pilu insisted he wanted no money from us, which was strange. A boat-party is the kind of thing that would entice tourists, and as Pilu was our fixer, we expected to pay him. Besides, even if he didn’t want money, we felt uncomfortable at not chipping in for something that cost so much.
“I don’t want money,” he insisted. “I do this regularly. Money isn’t important to me.” So we had our appetizers and beers, before heading out on the motorboat to the island. There the conversation which opened this piece ensued. Dismayed, I withdrew into the darkness (the same girl suggested we shouldn’t stand on the island, as it was a king of holy place permitted only to sadhus; the locals laughed) to reflect.
A Passage to India is concerned with the impossibility of egalitarian social relations between Indians and Englishmen. Substitute westerners for Englishmen, and – excluding the Anglophone elite – the observation remains true. Celebrating as equals was impossible: we were too guilty at not contributing anything, while at the same time it was transparently clear that Pilu & Co were earnestly trying to convince us that their lives were as good as they might be in the west, a point disproved by the squalor of Varanasi’s streets.
Maybe I’m being too harsh, and I’m aware that many of my posts since entering the plains have focused on the nasty dilemmas that stem from the inequalities between the average tourist and the average Indian. But here is a concluding, confirming anecdote: Two days later, walking back to my guest-house, I ran into one of the guys from the party. A thickly-mustached, well-built man, with strong English, he ran an internet café. I asked him how he was. Through the betel-chewing, he replied “not good, very poor, very difficult,” a far cry from his articulacy at the party, as if the self-confidence had been just an act. He asked me for money, which left me stunned and saddened. Those who romanticize episodes like this, or who patronize the locals by saying their lives are better than ours, do India no favours.