I explain everything! “Madam!” “Guide, madam?” a scrawny 20-yearold steps into my path, unzipping his white-toothed smile. “How
I explain everything!
“Madam!” “Guide, madam?” a scrawny 20-yearold steps into my path, unzipping his white-toothed smile. “Howmuch?” I retort, quickly sizing up the potential danger of exploring the desolate Gingee Fort alone with the shifty-eyed young man. “Only ₹300, madam. I explain everything,” he pitches. I take the risk and survive his leering looks and half-baked stories about the fort, “Very strong fort, built with special stone.” I look at the special stone, it’s granite. “Here, madam, temple,” and “that is the town of Gingee,” he says, pointing to a cluster of houses in the distance. “Many films have been shot here,” he goes on, “big films, big actors.” None the wiser, I do what many others must have done before me, smile and cough up the amount promised. Just like our writer Saira Menezes, who tramped around Janjira Fort with a guide who spun a tale of human sacrifice which, he claimed, made the fort invincible. Improbable, she thought, and checked with the Nawab of Janjira only to find the story was — predictibly so — false. Welcome to India Guide Inc. An all- India male tribe whose class and creed is, more often than not, singularly devoted to extracting an extra buck, or better still a free ticket to the West. In the post-90s India, old wise men with tales to tell have disappeared giving way to the new age interpreters of history and heritage. These are the men (national median age of 24.4) you’ll find hanging around ancient monuments, forts, temples, restaurants, bus terminuses, train stations and taxi stands. They know where to find you. When to pounce. Most of them you can do without. Some you have to suffer and survive and some, though rarely so, can add an extra twist in the story that you’ll carry with you always.
The Good Guy
Rare but not unknown, the good guys congregate around well-known edifices, particularly the Unesco-protected sites, where the ASI monitors their performance and earnings. Courteous and polite, he will take you around and align his narrative to your interest. If the respect is mutual, he may even go an extra mile, arrange tickets, hire a taxi or simply, humour you. He’s the knowledgeable type, even though he might be a school drop-out. No, he does not like to be questioned on his facts. He knows. Even though in some corner of the world, historians may still be debating the facts he’s so sure of.
The Dismissive Type
The temple priests or dargah mullahs who double up as guides fall into this category. He’s the one who’ll assess your pedigree by the size of your car, manner of dress, language or colour of skin. Even before you cross the threshold, he’ll stop you in your tracks with a frown. “Take off your shoes,” he’ll order, even though you knew that anyway. In temple complexes, where you’ll often find elephants tethered to the temple walls, he’ll prod you to “Bow your head for Ganesha’s blessings,” as you stand trembling in front of the largest land mammal. “Now, you give money,” he’ll announce, as you nervously dive for loose change and offer it to the nonchalant mahout seated on a stool nearby. Next, “Photo, take photo”, he’ll suggest vehemently as he straightens his dhoti and smiles broadly into your camera. He’ll even pose with your companions or take a picture of you with them, only to add later, “Now, take address, you send photo to me. OK?” Nod vigorously, even if you do not intend to. Finally, he’ll take you around the accessible portions of the temple — elucidating tales from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata — whereupon you’ll find yourself ushered outside the premises with the question that has been playing on his mind since he spotted you. “Cold drink? Yes?” Before you’ve had time to say no, he’s dragged you to a restaurant. There is nothing to do but pay for his meal and ‘trouble’.
The Wheeler Dealer
He’s the man who’ll honk his way through the most impossible traffic jams and deliver you to your destination only after he’s sure you know your way. If you don’t, he’ll take you where his (or his employer’s) ‘commission’ is ensured, even if your actual destination is round the corner or worse, some 20 km off. This pan-Indian has no qualms about driving you around (to increase mileage) or dropping you off at a grimy lodge (another ‘cut’) or a restaurant (where he’s likely to join you, albeit at another table but always at your cost). The wheeler dealer talks too much or too little and he always likes to have his meals (even if you don’t) on time. Often, you are likely to be driven to places he knows best and where other cab buddies can be found and useful information (about your travel plans) exchanged. He’s the lover of the beaten track, one who gets visibly hot under the collar the moment you decide to take charge of your itinerary. There is no knowing what can happen next. If he’s duty bound (hired from a travel operator), he’s likely to stick through thick and thin. If not, be prepared to be left in the lurch.
The Useful Companion
He may or may not be a polyglot, but he’s always well-informed. Useful but difficult to shake off without burning a hole in your pocket. He’s the kind who’ll accost you while you’re digging hungrily into food or windows hopping. He’d have measured you up much before you’d have set eyes on him and would know exactly what you are looking for. He’ll tip you off on artisans to meet, museums to see, restaurants to eat. You name it, he knows it. But he’ll expect his pound of flesh— an “undying friendship” (with a promise to visit your home!) or, when the day is done, gratitude and drinks on the house. He’s the one travel advisories warn of when they say, “be prudent in choice of guides”. Useful but sly and always two steps ahead of you. You may at such times want to call it quits and swear to do it on your own. But be warned that he’ll have the last word even if it is borrowed from the latest bestseller, “India is a harsh mistress, madam, but she has many lovers!” Huh?!