In Egypt, we were constantly approached by beggars asking for “baksheesh”.  The people would create a situation which would enable them to receive a tip.  For example, one removed Steve’s sunglasses from his daypack, dropped them to the ground, and then offered them back to Steve for money.  Men commented, because he was traveling with 2 sisters “You are a rich man, you have two wives!”  Islam demands that riches be given to the poor in some measure, and he was constantly told this.

We didn’t know how Hindus would behave.  In a greatly simplified synopsis given to us by one of our guides, a caste system has grown up over the centuries.  It was originated as a way to direct kids into the proper job category, and it has now ossified.  It used to be that any bright kid would be directed to the priesthood, etc.,   Now there are many sub-castes.  But there are 4 main ones:

1.  Brahmin – originally priests, teachers, intellectuals
2.  Warrior – military, strong physically, leaders
3.  Merchants
4.  Low caste – cremate dead, clean, serve

In America, all the Indians we have ever known have been of the economist/engineer/computer scientist/doctor caste.  We have been impressed with their high intelligence, warmth, integrity and technical competence.  So, we were interested in seeing if the people here (in India) resemble the Indians we know and love.

They do not.  That is because, for the most part, we are colliding against the merchant/lower beggar class.  It seems to us that 80% of India belongs to this caste!  And we’ve taken to calling this army of touts, beggars, snake charmers, tourist guides, bellhops, maids, musicians, vendors, toilet attendants, tuk-tuk drivers, auto rickshaw cyclists, massage therapists, henna artists, elephant drivers, jeep jockeys, game guides….”The Venal Caste”!

Although we have paid (through the nose) for this tour in advance, in this culture, that is not enough.  Each time that anyone does anything for you, they have their hands out.  These activities appear on our itinerary as included.  But that is just the beginning.

We’ve read about corruption in India.  All peoples suffer greed to one extent or the other; it’s human.  But the ways in which it’s expressed to us tourists is unpleasant.  Some are doing a sullen, half-assed job, and still have their hand out.  A majority are just aggressive, loud and obstinate, refusing to take no for an answer, even when stated clearly and many times over.

Our driver’s wheedling and cajoling gave up the secret of what’s behind this.  The day after we arrived, the guide and driver asked what we did on our free day.  When we told them we’d gone for a walk and bought rugs, they exchanged angry glances.  When I confronted them, they said, you were cheated.  You should have let us take you to a reputable place.  But it had more to do with their having lost a commission on what we bought.

Thereafter, we could see our guides and driver deviate from the schedule and take us to company shopping emporiums, while saying “You buy!”  Every historical commentary was somehow commandeered, instead, into a full-fledged sales campaign describing the merits of Indian products.  The driver was also trying to get us to buy things or services we didn’t want “Whisky, rum, you like drink?”  “No, too strong”.  “Not strong, good for health, I bring you”.  “No, thank you”.  “Yes!”  “What part of NO don’t you understand???”

We had the “A-ha!” moment when the driver told us that he had a poor friend in Jaipur that could apply henna designs.  Gail enthusiastically indicated she would like to have her left hand done.

I said, “no thank you”.  He said, “she’s poor, you do both hands.  Both of you”.  I said, “I already told you no”.  He said, “Why you not like henna?”  I said, “My skin is cracked and peeling, allergic”.  The lady didn’t answer her phone ‘til we were near the next city.  The driver proposed she make a 3 hour train ride to do Gail’s hand.  Now the pressure to give to the poor was really on.

In the end, she came to Ranthambore, did a beautiful job on Gail’s hand, and was given a large tip.

What’s behind this is how India functions.  Each individual behaves as if the only reason to have contact with another is if he can get money or favors out of the interaction.  Thus, there is no human interaction that is not tainted with venality.  You can understand and see desperation in the poorest and the beggars.  But we are not free here to shop on our own.  Our day is being carefully controlled so our guides and drivers get a commission on what we buy and we are being pressured to buy.

Which, paradoxically, is making us unwilling to buy!  We see them exchanging glances of disappointment and hovering and commenting.

Then the joy of looking at the skillful work and receiving a beautiful item is gone.  Everyone is out for himself, or out to force the guest into feeling guilty that they haven’t given away everything they have to the poor.  Our driver has been asking whom we are going to give our savings to after we die (implying that we should give it to India’s poor).  He has been telling us about the dhurrie rug merchants who really needs our money.

That’s how India works:  one person uses and exploits the other (while studiously making sure the tourists give to the poor and to them).  In this way, they fulfill the Hindu sense of obligation to the poor, and receive good karma.

While I can fully see what’s going on, I don’t have to like dealing with the Venal Caste.

Claudia and Gail

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