On street children in Varanasi

itinerant nomads: they wander place to place looking for tourists to target, to befriend. perhaps we fell victim or perhaps we adopted the role they wrote for us which is to say we were not so much victimized as transformed into routinized empathizers.  they call all tourists they interact with ‘friends’ so in all of their stories they seem very popular. we smiled kindly at them, and so became their friends.

in exchange, they gave us advice. they warned us not to give money to the fake sadhus who are transmogrified into cripples and begging for money. but they didn’t ask for money per se. 

they sit sweetly, close and comfortable, next to you, speaking in amiable tones, in English.
 we met three in particular when we were walking near the Ganga river looking for the burning ghats. Julian was offered a shave for 10 rupees and having become quite furry, he accepted. we were led to a wooden platform where the barber quickly shooed off an old man who was sleeping, claiming the grumbling man was his father. he laid down some sheets of plastic and directed Julian to sit and pointed for me to sit across from him. as he started rubbing some sort of shaving cream all over Julian’s face, a crowd of Indian men gathered to watch him with cell phones in hand. it was then the street children came. one who was the tallest of the three asked me to sit next to her. she had a sweet smile with betel-stained teeth and a heavy golden nose ring. she introduced herself as Sumani and stuck out her thin hand for a firm and confident handshake.  with my hand in hers she pulled me gently to sit next to them on the steps across from Julian. as he continued to be whipped up into white lather, i was told the so-called stories of my new friends’ lives. Sumani went to school and just sold things at the ghats in her free time. she wanted to be a teacher.  her japanese friend helped pay for her school fees.  she said if we had time, maybe we could stop by her uncle’s shop. literally, that’s what she said. 

at the time, I had no conception of manipulative street urchins breaking deals with shop owners.  I was enjoying talking to bright young minds who seemed to have a deeper, cynical perspective on life.  soon sumani had a Western friend who she had to leave to meet up with her.  

I was left with another young girl, who was maybe 7, who warned us not to trust the men or other children at the ghats.  she immediately offered that Sumani doesn’t really go to school and that she bosses the other street children around and steals their profits.  this young girl seemed earnest and like she had nothing to gain by making this accusation so for some reason, I decided that I believed her.  

when she said she had no plans and could show us the burning ghats, we accepted.  and in my head, i started making plans to help her out. my ego was just warming up to what I could do to make this girl’s life better. first I thought, I’d buy her some shoes as her little hardened feet were walking all over town and over some nasty shit, literally nasty bull shit. She expertly jumped over the greasy slimy streaks on Varanasi’s famous cobblestone alleys, streaks from garbage-eating bulls, not the grass-eating bulls. Then I kept thinking how this honest young girl could be kept in school. Soon I was planning out her life in my head, while faintly nodding my head to her quiet descriptions of the passing ghats. 

She stopped walking just before we reached the main ghat, and warned us not to give money or listen to anyone, just to follow her.  We nodded of course, and soon were climbing up the steps of a “sanctuary” for dying to look out at the busy burning ghats below.  The air was thick with acrid smoke and floating ashes. A man who claimed to run this sanctuary building came to us and started his tale of how he fed and kept comfortable all the poor dying souls without families. He pointed out one ailing woman lying on a pile of soiled blankets on the floor.  “See? she has no family left!” he entreated. It seemed true enough to us.  What could we know? 

We entered the top floor and studied the ceremonies below, at the riverside.  People dressed in white, or a holy yellow, waving handfuls of burning incense sticks, pouring ghee over bodies, bathing in the river, chanting with other family members, the simultaneous rituals circling around different stages of burning bodies.  I soon felt cheap, watching death with no sense of remorse.  The smoke was also burning my eyes so that they were tearing continuously.  I motioned for us to go and we all started down the stairs.  

The man hastened his still ongoing narrative about the dying person sanctuary and was now begging us to donate, any amount!, to help buy the wood to burn these bodies once they pass.  His story seemed reasonable enough, but we were still on a tight budget. (I was criticizing us for being so gullible and so frugal at the same time. Who to believe?!) At the bottom of the stairs, Julian was already thumbing through bills but I was trying to discreetly shake my head at him.  He failed to notice and handed over 50 rupees, not exactly a generous donation.  The man was loudly offended and showed the donation to the aforementioned ailing woman onthe floor.  

At this point, I’m embarrassed at the scene the man is making and I make eye contact with our guide.  She shakes her head which to me meant “you silly tourists, you don’t listen to the only person who isn’t trying to sell you anything!”  She leads the way for us to go and we gratefully follow, leaving the man trailing in outrage in our wake.  She’s quickly walking through the narrow passageways and my sense of direction is lost once we lose sight of the Ganga.  

Soon, she slows and we’re standing in front of a pink store.  She invites us in, claiming that it really was her uncle’s shop and he had met Goldie Hawn! We’re intrigued so she takes us back to the private show room where gold emblazened photo albums prove that this rotund Indian man did in fact meet Goldie Hawn and her son too!  The man in the flesh soon inquires if we’re looking for anything in particular and I feel compelled to look at some Ali Baba pants.  He takes us into another show room and starts the famous reckless Indian shopkeeper trick of pulling out every pair of pants in every color and spreading it out in front of me. I start shaking my head but then, of course! one strikes my fancy. I hold it to my body in the mirror. Not bad. 

Then there’s Sumani again! She appears in the doorway holding a tray of black tea and chai for us all.  My inner dialogue is so confused now.  Are they cousins? Rivals? What’s going on?  Why would this man allow his nieces to sell postcards and bindis on the street? Everyone’s smiling and I’m persuaded to go try the pants on.  Even Julian seems happy and encouraging.  The sale is made for a poorly-bargained price that I’m still too embarrassed to admit and we say good-bye to our new best friends.  

I could go on with the various ways in which these same street children found us again and persuaded us to buy other trinkets from them or from other ‘family member’ stalls, but it’s honestly embarassing and redundant.  Towards the end, I had no idea who to trust. I just knew that I felt so sorry for supporting their labor and whatever unfair infrastructure is keeping them on the streets.  But even to the last hour that we were in Varanasi, Sumani found a way to hop in our rickshaw with us to the train station. (I’m guessing she also found a way to get a cut of the charge to our driver.)  She kindly inquired again if we had bought a hand stamp kit from her ‘friend.’  I lied to her face and said I hadn’t, since the other girl had told me not to tell because otherwise she’d have to give some of her profits to Sumani.  But this Sumani was still maybe only 15 years old, and just trying to support herself, or her family.  Sigh. What did we get involved with?! To that last second, my heart was torn on who deserved my honesty and affection.  What a horrible feeling to direct at children!  This has been my sad experience with the street children of Varanasi. 


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