Photo: Roop_Dey/Shutterstock

On PowerBars, Lepers, and Parade-Stopping in Varanasi

by Suzanne Roberts Nov 20, 2013

We hadn’t meant to stop the parade.

My friend Sholeh and I paid a few rupees to a boy, Sahel, to walk with us along the ghats, or stairs leading down to the river; his job was to shoo away beggars. We walked through the smells of cow dung, incense, urine, curry, and smoke. The sounds of the drums, the sitar, the chants from a mosque. A cow climbed the ghat steps. A tourist pointed his giant telephoto lens toward a man in prayer. We walked along through the dusky evening light, and anyone who approached us was turned away by Sahel, who motioned for them to “talk to the hand.” His job was taken very seriously.

We stopped in a restaurant, read the menu, which warned, “Please allow 21 minutes for your order,” and Sahel stood outside, making sure no one would bother us. He gave the hand to beggars, lepers, little girls selling shells. He stopped at no one and was worth the dollar we’d paid. And we were worth his time — one dollar is the average daily wage for an Indian. Sahel was only 11 years old, making more, perhaps, than his father.

After stopping for lunch and then in a shop to buy saris, Sholeh and I wandered along the streets. A leper sat next to a fire, begging. His nose had melted into his face, his fingers had fused together. I had a PowerBar in my bag, so I handed it to him. He held it with his wrists, looking at the shiny gold wrapper with confusion. I realized there was no way he could get the wrapper opened. I took the bar back, telling him in English, which is perhaps more ridiculous than the gift of the PowerBar itself, that I would unwrap it for him. I peeled off the gold wrapper and placed the bar back between his wrists. He looked at it with curiosity. I’m not sure if he even knew it was food; it certainly didn’t resemble any of the food I had seen in India.

“Let’s go,” Sholeh said, tired of watching the absurdity of the scene. Since I didn’t know what else to do, I waved, a goofy half wave. The leper nodded, and I wanted to believe I had done something good. That I wasn’t out of place, foreign, and clueless.

The gauzy net of dusk had fallen, and the parade, a prelude to aatari, or the evening prayers, had begun. Men of all ages and sizes played flutes and sitars, banged drums, shook tambourines, or just walked along in procession down the street. Sholeh and I waved to the crowd as they passed. The younger men waved back first. Then they all looked over to us and waved, laughing. They stopped playing their instruments and waved with both hands. Some even jumped up and down in excitement. The fellows in back crowded into the men who were stopped, waving at us, and the whole parade buckled like an accordion and then came to a halt. Everyone on the streets looked over at us, trying to see what on earth could have stopped the parade. Sholeh and I laughed at first — the thought of stopping a parade!

But Sahel reprimanded us. He didn’t speak English, but the way he dragged us away from the edge of the parade, the look on his face, the finger wagging, told us he was angry with us. Maybe we hadn’t been worth the trouble after all. We tipped him the equivalent of another dollar, doubling his pay, and he nodded with great seriousness before disappearing into the forest of orange and gold-clad people, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

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