I wrote this while watching the World Cup semi final between India and Pakistan, hoping – in my anger – that Pakistan would win. They didn’t.
It has been a day of spitting mad anger over the difference between seventy and one hundred rupees. Although I promised myself – when we arrived in India, fresh after three years away – that I would not, I am again fighting over paltry sums of money. Claire and I might be careful, might watch ten rupees here and there, but our anger isn’t about the amounts we are asked to spend. We are angry because wherever we go, people expect us to give them money for nothing. In North India, we have been gaped at and gawked at and asked for photographs, but rarely treated like guests.
Today we went to Allahabad’s Sangam: the meeting point of the Yamuna, Ganges and mythical Saraswati. We were accosted by beggars as soon as we arrived, beggars that ignored every single passing local. There is a Mughal fort beside the Sangam. We went in. When I knelt to take a photograph of the afternoon light in a stone passageway, I was screamed at in Hindi by a beggar woman and a Brahmin, officiating at a nearby shrine. The only word I recognized, as it was yelled over and over again, was photo.
Photography is so vehemently disallowed because the fort is used by the Indian army. The small section visitors are allowed into contains an underground temple, the first records of which date back to the twelfth century. The stairs going down to it are past a banyan tree that people threw themselves off of, believing that if they died from the fall they would achieve moksha – until Akbar, the Moghul Emperor, banned the practice.
Long before we reached the temple’s entrance we were shouted at again, told to do what we already knew we must: take off our shoes. We were then told to pay a temple maintenance charge by seven fat Brahmins, sitting counting change. I refused, angrily forcing my feet back into my sandals. There was no sign. The fee was an invention. One of the Brahmins relented, telling us to “go, go, go.”
The temple was a cluttered maze of idols placed between carved pillars. There were three statues of Shiva, sitting in lotus position on a tiger pelt, along with strange anteater gods and jackal-headed figurines. There were priests at intervals in the maze. They clutched at us aggressively, waved fly-whisks over our heads and asked for cash. We moved quickly and exited. A grey haired man was now sitting beside our shoes, demanding baksheesh. Pariah dogs lay about the compound, on stone slabs that covered the temple’s air vents. I remarked to Claire, as we made our way out of the fort, that they were surprisingly well treated: none were emaciated, mangy or hand-shy.
We walked down to the Yamuna’s banks, to hire the rowboat that would take us to float on the rippling water of the Sangam. Auto-rickshaw drivers touted their services as we passed: “Ricksha? You want ricksha? One hundred and fifty rupees.” We approached the empty boats stacked up on the river bank cautiously, like soldiers expecting an ambush. I noticed a sign that looked like a list of prices, but could only read the numbers; the rest was in Hindi and would be no help.
It started: sadhus, boatmen and sellers of cheap religious trinkets noticed us and rushed forward, competing for our attention by placing themselves squarely in our path, by shouting or grasping at our clothes.
“You want boat?”
“Saheb! Saheb, you look here!”
“You go Sangam? You take boat?”
“Saheb! You look! Good price!”
My strategy was to stride up and down, ignoring everyone, until the first wave had passed. I then made a single, furtive enquiry. The first price for two people was eight hundred rupees. I laughed. A second boatman offered us his tired looking dingy for six hundred rupees. When I paused to consider the offer, and eventually said “six hundred is too much,” a tout intervened. “Four hundred! I give you four hundred rupees!” Nobody would go any lower. We stood on the bank, waiting for a better price.
A boat returned carrying a middle-aged, middle class Indian couple. When the man disembarked, I asked what he had paid. The boatmen and touts understood, and shouted over me in Hindi. His answer was disappointing: “Four hundred rupees, divided by two.”
I didn’t take the hint. The man waited until his wife was off the boat and, as he was leaving, said, “Did I make myself clear? Four hundred rupees, divided by two.” Divided was a word the boatmen and touts would not understand; a code, used because he was worried what the consequences of helping us might be.
We haggled. Eventually, a boatmen with two waiting passengers agreed to take Claire and I onto the Sangam for one hundred rupees per person. Our middle-class confidant and his wife had paid the same amount for a boat of their own, but in India foreigners are all considered rich and price is subjective. It was a small victory, and I was glad to watch the crowd of scavengers on the river bank slowly recede.
Our boatman was not past hoping that we would pull out wallets fat with foreign money: he began the familiar wheedling of somebody providing a service. Every dip of his oars was a special favour, for which we were expected to tip. When I took photographs of a passing boat, it was because he had brought us up to it. The same was true of a platform I stepped onto at the Sangam: he had not noticed it until I nudged past him, towards it, but as soon as I did, he had stopped just there, just for me.
The passengers on our boat were men in their late thirties or early forties. One was large, with pale skin and a bald, sweaty brow. The other was smaller, darker, with a moustache and humorous, intelligent eyes. They conformed to the Indian stereotype: the tall man with light skin was from Jaipur, in the north, the dark skinned man from Bangalore, in the south. Both were studying for an MBA at Allahabad University and spoke English well.
The man from the north asked if we liked India. We were used to the question. It was asked by everybody, usually in the bright, smiling certainty that we would say yes. “It’s a difficult place,” said Claire, after a moment’s pause.
The northerner nodded. He had watched us fight to be treated fairly on the river bank. His explanation was predictable. “Many people in India,” he said, “have no education.” It was true: literacy rates in India are appalling. Too many people are left scrabbling about on the bottom, where compensation is meagre and competition brutal. And we are treated better by educated Indians, some of whom have opened their homes to us. The conversation developed, and Claire was soon describing how much easier we found travelling in the more literate south. This pleased the Bangalore man, but I wasn’t satisfied placing all the blame for North India’s incivility on education. In Syria, Claire and I were treated like honoured guests by simple people – even by the owners of tea shops, juice bars and taxis, the same people who were treating us badly here, in Allahabad. If education was the sole explanation for people’s behaviour, where did that leave culture?
The Yamuna and Ganges met at an almost perpendicular angle, but the Sangam was set back, off a small spar of land on the Yamuna, just before it was swallowed up by the Ganges. The water was shallow, and I realised that we could have walked here and been only a few metres from the boatloads of Hindus and the Brahmins wading between them.
The boatman rowed us back. He asked halfheartedly for baksheesh when we disembarked. I thanked him, but gave him nothing extra; I was already bracing myself for our next task: haggling an acceptable fare for the journey back to our hotel out of an auto-rickshaw driver. The MBA students told us we should pay forty rupees; we had had paid seventy to get here, but there were only three autos waiting, and they worked together. None would go lower than Rs. 150. When I walked away, towards an unmanned auto, a small, cross-eyed driver pursued me. “I give you one hundred rupees,” he said, once we were out of his colleagues’ earshot. I reluctantly accepted his price, but said to Claire, as we clambered into the vehicle, that I didn’t like the look of the man. He was not just squint. His eyes were bloodshot and bleary; he seemed drunk.
We wove back past the fort, collecting another passenger – who sat in front, beside the driver – near its entrance. A few hundred metres down the road, the driver stopped his rickshaw. “What your hotel name?” he asked.
He already knew the answer, but we told him again.
“JK Palace?” he repeated. “Two hundred and fifty rupees!”
The driver did not just know our hotel’s name. Claire had told him the name of the area it was in – an area that was not far from the city centre – before we agreed on a price. We stomped out of his vehicle and started walking back to the river bank, to try our luck with another driver. The man shouted lower prices at us as we walked, then turned around and followed us back.
There was only one auto left on the river bank. The driver would not accept less than Rs. 150. Although the man’s English didn’t extend past numbers, Claire was shouting at him – shouting things like, “Just because we are foreigners you think we’re rich and stupid” – when a portly man with three women in tow approached us.
“These people are our guests,” he said to the driver. “We must show them our hospitality.”
At last, I thought, somebody was going to help us. The man quickly knocked the price down to one hundred rupees, then he and the three women got in with us. They were, he explained, going in the same direction as us, and if we didn’t mind waiting at for a few minutes at a temple en route, we could share the auto. We were soon buzzing along, telling the women that we were from South Africa and had been in India for three months.
The rickshaw stopped at beside the fort, at a gate we had missed. The group got out. “You wait here,” said the man. “We will be five, ten minutes. Then the rickshaw will drop us and take you to your hotel. You will pay one hundred rupees.” He walked off. The three women fell in behind him.
I stood for a minute, processing what he had said. We would wait for him. We would pay. The man who had appeared talking of hospitality was, I realized, acting as our agent. He had extracted a better price from the driver on our behalf and in exchange expected a free ride. Claire and I found ourselves stomping out of a rickshaw hot-headed once again.
The India we were stuck in looked unfriendly. Beggars – sitting in a line at the temple’s entrance – watched us greedily. A girl was despatched by her mother to trail us. She pulled on our trousers, flashed a gap toothed smile and extended a hand. There were no other autos; in the meantime, ours had mounted the curb. The driver was pursuing us across the pavement, demanding payment for the short distance already covered, shouting, “You pay twenty rupees! You twenty! She twenty!”
We weren’t sure which direction to go in – but we were striding anyway, shouting insults back – when an overloaded rickshaw zipped around the corner and stopped. “Seventy rupees!” shouted the driver, who I recognised. He had also been on the river bank, demanding one hundred and fifty rupees from us. Without talking, we both got in, in front, beside the driver and another passenger – four of us squeezed into a space intended for two.
Claire was furthest to the left. Her left arm and part of her left leg were dangling out of the auto. We pulled away, but the driver of our second auto, the auto we shared with the portly man and the three women, cut us off. He was waving his fist at Claire, still demanding twenty rupees. We tried to manoeuvre around him, but he pulled further out into the road. I could see only one solution: I got out and stood in front of the second auto, glaring at its driver, then directed the third auto, with Claire in it, to go around me. As it passed, I jumped in.
We drove slowly into town. Sunset and the start of the balmy Indian night took the edge off my anger. When we were told to get off at an unfamiliar intersection, even though the driver had said he would take us to our hotel, I didn’t protest. We got into a cycle rickshaw without negotiating a price, because there wasn’t far to go. We knew that cycle-rickshaws over short distances cost twenty rupees and trying to confirm the price sometimes made things more difficult: the driver might read uncertainty in our request and take advantage of it. But when I handed the driver twenty and he said thirty, smiling at me pathetically, I shouted “Fuck off!” and walked away.
I immediately regretted it, and I regret it now, while I half-watch the cricket and sip a cold beer in an upmarket pub. Cycle-rickshaw drivers do not own their vehicles and sleep in the street. They are skinny, uneducated men doing the work of animals and engines. This man thought ten rupees was nothing to me and a lot to him, and he was right. There have also been so many opportunities for misunderstandings, so many things I might have misinterpreted, all through today. But I am tired of being treated as if I owe Indians something extra, something more than their rich countrymen, after spending more than a year in total here, travelling rough. This bias is deeply rooted, right to the nation’s top: foreigners pay twenty, thirty and forty times more than any local to enter India’s sites, by government decree. And I am not just tired – I am angry too. Angry because every time I am treated without courtesy – reduced to a foreign wallet, stacked with undeserved cash – I am also dehumanised. If somebody treats me as an object, as something that doesn’t need or deserve empathy, am I not entitled to act in kind, and see nothing but an engine or an animal or some other thing?
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