It all started with two street girls. I was walking in the alleys of Varanasi.
Two little girls asked me to take a photo of them. I happily entertained their request and showed them the photo I had taken. They seemed to go for something more and followed me as I walked away. I just pretended not to notice it.
“Hey!” A guy shouted at them, and seemed to scold them in Hindi. The two girls went away.
“Be careful. These street kids try to distract your attention and then steal things from you.” He kindly reminded.
Knowing that I was from Hong Kong, he said excitingly:” Wow, I have relatives living in Hong Kong. You are the first tourist from Hong Kong I have met.”
“Oh , that’s lovely to hear. Nice to meet you.” I replied, “Thanks for helping to get away from the two children.”
Then we fell silent, continuing our own journey as both of us walked towards the same direction.
“Is this your first time in Varanasi?” He asked.
“Yep, first time in India as well.” Then I told him about my rough India travels.
After few inquiries, he offered:” You know what, I am a master student majoring tourism. I have two-week long semester break. How about this, I’ll show you around Varanasi, so I can practice my tourist guide skills while you can see more about the city.”
Before I answered, he added:” It is for free, I mean it. I know you probably have met a lot Indians who offer you free services, but they charge you in the end. I can assure you that it is really for free.”
He’d got me right. I did hesitate when hearing the free tourist guide service and he managed to convinced me with his sincerity.
“Haha, it is very generous of you. Thank you. Yup, show me what Varanasi has to offer.” I agreed.
“My name is Amit. ” He smiled.
First thing first, he brought me to see the body cremation. It was hollowing to see half burnt feet and hands outside the firewood.
There were few tourist-guide like men near the cremation site. ” They are unlicensed tourist guides. They cheated on tourists. They conspired with the relatives of the dead, making a scene over the cremation. Then they would solicit money from tourists. They did once to my tourists and I told them to stop. They brought few strong men to beat me up. I reported it to the police. In the end, they begged me to drop the charge because they could not bear the consequence of being jailed.”
He told me only richer Hindus can afford to have cremation. It takes at least 300 kg firewood to burn a body while it costs Rs 150 for 40 kg wood. That said, with a minimum requirement of about 300 kg., the price of wood cremation starts at Rs. 1,125. Needless to mention that ritual works and priests will be needed for the ceremony. No wonder, cremation is a luxury to poor Indians.
Few categories of dead bodies could not be cremated, including children under three years old, a woman who died during baby delivery, saints and priests.
He walked me through the alleys of Varanasi, bringing me to different temples, explaining the mythologies in Hinduism, like Shiva, Ganesh, Monkey god… The differences between Jainism, (which is a branch of Hinduism), the tourism hierarchies.
He also brought me to a famous university in Varanasi. I invited him for Chai and cigarettes in return.
“I have never met anyone like you. Usually tourists won’t eat street food and try chai on the street. I have never felt like being a friend to tourists before. You are the first one. You are very special.” He told me as we were having Chai in a tea store where quite few Indian men were staring at me with curiosity.
“I guess you usually serve high-end tourists. They require luxurious services and accommodations coz that amount of money is a drop in the ocean to them.” I smiled, “ and the relationship between you and them is hierarchical: you are to serve while they are the clients.”
“Yes, you are perfectly right.” He agreed. “That’s why you are very special.”
“Special as I am a poor solo female backpacker while hanging out with a random guy met in the street.” I smirked.
When we ran out of discussion topics, Amit told me about his personal stories as we were strolling around Varanasi.
He told me that he was from the Warrior caste. His hometown was a few-hour train journey from Varanasi. He had a diploma in English literature.
“I have done different jobs. When I first graduated, I worked in a call centre. You know, that type of typical scene you see from movies on India, we pick up the call from the US, “Hello, Miss. This is Jack from New York city, what can I help you?” The customer knows that it is an Indian answering the phone, “ Save it. I know you are an Indian. I just want things fixed.”
“Then I worked in a company as a secretary. Again, it was boring. I switched to teach English in a school near my hometown. Students are fond of me. But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a small town. Therefore, I came to Varanasi to study French at the first place. As I speak to foreigners, I get to know that I like telling people things about India. From there, I enrolled to study Tourism.” He paused, “ I can make a lot of money by being a tour guide. sometimes more than 100,000 rs per month. I am not good with money. I spent it on traveling and other entertainment activities.”
He said his parents wanted hime to get married but he was not ready to settle down. “Coz I haven’t met the one and only in my life. I did have girlfriends, but they weren’t proven to be the one.” He recalled drily.
Knowing that I was running out of money for my Indian trip, he insisted in inviting me for dinner in a nice restaurant. My protest went unheard.
After the dinner, he walked me back to my hostel. “ Hey, tomorrow will be your last day in Varanasi, I’ll make it special for you.You know what, many people say I have girl’s fingers, slender and soft. I can do massage for you. Do you want to try it?” He proposed.
Ha ! With the movies, books and men I encountered over the journey, I felt that massage is a foreplay gesture in Indian culture. I also came to understand why he was so generous about the FREE tourist guide service. Ultimately, I was the type of liberal, sex-hungry solo travellers in his perception. Such revelation made me disgusted at his proposal.
“No, thank you. I have tried the type of massage when I was in Munar. I don’t like people touching my body.” I said firmly.
He pushed again, I refused firmly, “I know my way now, thank you for your company today. You can leave me from here.”
He was disappointed, yet he softened his tone, “Ok, I’ll think of something memorable to do. I want to give you a gift, but I need you to close your eyes. It’s a surprise.”
To get rid of him ASAP, I just followed his instruction. I felt his lips on my face. Fuck ! I was ashamed of my innocence.
He smiled triumphantly. “That’s a surprise, right?”
I felt utterly uncomfortable at his presence. Same shit ! Apparently, it seemed like a Bollywood movie scene. What happened to me in Mumbai has changed my perception towards Indians from certain social spectrum.
“Yea, a surprise indeed.” I said, “I need to go. bye!”
“Call me when you are settled down.” he asked.
He made the call instead. “ I’m just checking if everything is alright.” He paused and said again, “I think I am in love with you, a little. I am sure you feel the same thing.”
“I am tired. I need to take a shower and go to bed. Thank you for today. Bye.” I hung up the phone.
He even texted me with the following message:
A lily can fade, Ocean can dry. You can forget me but how can I.
It seems flattering have the affection from a random guy. It can also be romantic. But one thing is missing: mutual liking. I was graceful for his offer. Yet there wasn’t any deep conversation. What we were talking was simply the history behind certain touristic spots. He was doing the talking all the time. In fact, I was more like his practice girl, ignorantly asking things of his expertise and he got to show off his talents, which made him feel good. Needless to mention, he could afford to treat me a dinner, surprise me with his romantic goodnight kiss.
I could not help wondering, was I manipulating a man’s emotions by sharing too much of my situation and exposing my ignorance?
The Hash Incident
Amit did call me the next day and took me out to few other tourist spots. But I exhibited less interest.
“As I have said, I have two-week semester break. I haven’t visited Kolkata. I can go with you. Of course, if you allow. I can pay for your hostel. I just want to be with you a little bit longer. I enjoy your company.” He proposed.
“Hmm, thank you. I am ok. I have found few potential couch hosts already. Yep, if you like to visit Kolkata, go! Maybe we can hang out together.” I answered. To be frank, I didn’t like that idea at all. I started to be tired of his company.
“Do you want me to go? Seriously, I want to go there only because of you.” He felt my disinterest.
I felt on silence, searching for words to handle the situation properly.
“You don’t like the idea, right?” He was upset.
“Well, I don’t know. I will be hanging out with my hosts and their friends. Not sure if we can explore the city like we do in Varanasi, if that’s what you wish to do.” I threw the onus of decision making back to him.
He felt on silence.
We went for a movie at night. He took out a joint of hush that he was planning to smoke up with me in his apartment. (Apparently, I refused to visit his apartment upon his massage proposal. The so-called make-it-memorable action was to have certain line-crossing intimacy.)
“Let’s smoke before the movie begins.” he suggested.
“No, it is ok. I am not in a mood to smoke up. I’ll wait for you here.” I said as we were in a cafe shop.
We went to the cinema as he finished smoking.
Our water bottles and cigarettes were confiscated by the security. Amit looked restless and worried as we entered the lobby of the cinema.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The cigarette was actually my half-finished hash.” He said nervously.
“It is ok. We can get it back.”
“No, we won’t get it back. I have to talk to them.” He ran out and asked the security to get the cigarette back.
The security said emotionlessly, “ No, we can’t give it back to you. We will throw them away.”
Amit returned with a defeated face.
“ Hey, it is ok. People smoke hash on the streets, it won’t be a problem. I am sure the two security guards will take it themselves.” I comforted.
“No, what if they turn me in to the police?” He said.
“Come on, if you are that worried, then just give them 200 rs, bride them to get it back.” I became annoyed.
Amit was reminded, he ran out again to talk to the security guard, pleaded with sympathy, “This is my friend from Hong Kong, I don’t want the joint to ruin her journey. I just don’t want it to go to the police.” He pointed his figure at me.
“Man, calm. It is ok. We will take care of it.” the teenage-looking security guard put his arms at Amit’s shoulder, “Nothing will happen. You and your friend will have a pleasant movie night.”
Amit finally regained his peace of mind.
I despised his cowardice. Not that only he lacked the kind of street wisdom to deal with the situation, but also he used me as his reason of defence.
When he walked me back to the hostel again, he asked for a goodbye kiss. I refused.
“It is over. Thank you for your kind offer these two days. Let’s not spoil the friendship.” I said.
Amit was left dumbfounded in the dark.
He tried to call me few times the next day as I headed for Kolkata. I ignored his call, but texted him to express my gratitude and wished him good luck with his tourist guide certificate.
He texted back, “ I am so sorry if I have unknowingly hurt you. I know only one thing that you have stolen my heart and I love you.
Well, the only thing I know for sure is that, when he meets another solo female traveller, he will fall out love with me.