Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How To Milk a Danish Cash Cow (A Holy Scam In Varanasi, India)

I'm in love with India. I've been here about eight times. I love the deep spirituality of this great country. And when I get tired of God, there are always the strong colors, the gorgeous scent of urine, and the palak paneer they serve in the small guest houses.

India is full of surprises, too. Yesterday I ran into three holy cows and Goldie Hawn. And I was head butted by all four. Yes, I'm truly blessed.

This time I'm here to do research on my next novel. It takes place in Varanasi, the holiest of all cities in India. Varanasi (Benares) is the famous place where you wash away your sins in Mother Ganges. And cremate your loved ones at the same time. You could argue that Ganges is the biggest funeral parlor in the world. Or the most impressive sewer in history.

Varanasi is India at its best and worst. It's colorful, charismatic, loud, polluted, dirty, generous, kind, obnoxious, spiritual, beautiful, and a haven for scam artists, con men, and monks with an advanced degree in pick pocketing. Everybody wants something from you. Sometimes it's your soul, but mostly it's just your damn rupees.

I ran into a delightful scam the other day. Since I know how to navigate in India, it didn't take me totally by surprise. But sometimes I'm not as cynical as I like to think, so let's say I was mildly disappointed. While roaring with laughter at the same time.

I was walking down the atmospheric alleys of the old city avoiding the cow dung, the one-armed beggars, and the scrawny cows feasting on filthy plastic bags.

A man came up to me and started to talk. His English was fine, so we chatted for a while. At one point he asked whether I wanted to see the burning ghats - the place where the dead are cremated before their ashes are spread over Mother Ganges.

I said, sure, and we went to a house that supposedly was a hospice for the poor. Here people come from all over India to die and are taken care of for free. I was greeted by a little old lady in a dirty sari.

"This is The Mother Teresa of Varanasi" I was told, and then I was introduced to a guru in a dhoti and two volunteers. A "pious" looking gentleman lead me up to the roof of the patient-free hospice, so I could get a good view of the cremations at the nearby ghat.

"You have to understand, we're not asking for money. We're all volunteers at this hospice," my guide said.

I nodded, knowing that when a con man says he doesn't want money, things are going to get very expensive. But I went along for the ride for the simple reason I wasn't 100% sure whether this was a scam or not. Yet.

From the roof top there was a nice view of the Ganges and the three platforms where the dead are burned: One for the upper cast (business class?), one for the middle cast (coach), and one for the lower cast. The fire that was used for the cremation was lit thousands of years ago and had never gone out, my guide told me while meditating on my pin codes.

I started to cough because of the heavy smoke. I've always been sensitive to inhaling the deceased, especially Brahmins.

My guide stared at me through the fumes with that pious look he had practiced in front of the mirror, "Look around, Sir. Look at all the people carrying the dead bodies. Do you see any women?"


"Women are not allowed to attend because they cry. Crying holds back the soul. It's very selfish to show emotion, Sir."

"Well, sometimes men are emotional, too," I said.

"Yes, but men are not women," the Pious One answered with surprising contempt. Then he told a story about a widow who threw herself on the fire to be with her dead husband. This unfortunate incident happened ten years ago and meant that women had been banished from the cremations ever since.

After ten minutes of watching I'd had enough. Even though there was something sad but beautiful about the cremations, there was a limit to how much of a voyeur I wanted to be. When I got downstairs, the guru was ready to bless me as a token "for the large donation I was going to give to the poor".

"The small donation," I added quickly.

The guru in the dhoti asked me to kneel and put a warm hand on my head and started praying. I liked looking into his eyes, and I clearly felt good karma was coming my way, even though I was aware that one of the 32 million Hindu gods probably would cut my head off if I was stingy.

When that was done, my guide stepped forward and asked me to give a donation of 2000 rupees (about fifty US-dollars) which would cover the expenses of a cremation for two people.

"I'll donate 200 rupees," I said immediately.

My guide looked at me with horror. "No, that's not possible," he said, once more putting a hand on his heart as pious people do when they're asking for justice in this cruel world. "A 1000 rupee donation is the smallest we can accept."

Now suddenly I was crowded by six people. A young volunteer from Europe said he was sick and tired of "tourists who'd only give the equivalent of 5 euros when they are filthy rich."

The atmosphere was getting ugly, but now I got stubborn. If these people were who they pretended to be, they wouldn't pressure me. So I stood my ground 100% convinced that this indeed wasan ugly but hilarious scam.

When it finally dawned on everybody, I wasn't going to give more than 200 lousy rupees (a weekly wage for most in India), one of them shouted, "Give at least something to Mother Teresa."

Suddenly, the frail old lady stood by my side and looked up at me with her big compassionate eyes. I sighed and handed her a 50 rupee bill, just to end things on a civilized note.

The next second I'll never forget as long as I live.

"Mother Teresa of Varanasi", this pious woman who had dedicated her life to the poor; this modern-day saint who had renounced luxury to do God's work on earth, stared at the 50 rupee bill I'd given her with a baffled look on her face - a look that I best can describe as "you gotta be fucking kidding me." Then the look slowly turned into contempt and then to anger. For a short second I thought this angel was going to attack me and rip me to pieces.

When I walked out of the hospice I heard the sound of people spitting after me, and when I continued down one of the narrow alleys, I felt how the good karma I'd been promised slowly evaporated and gave way to ancient curses from the "spiritual" people at this divine "hospice".

The first minutes afterward I was a little more shaken than I wanted to admit. Had I been too harsh? Could I be so sure that it was a scam? But of course it was. And I wouldn't have been without all this. 250 rupees to experience something as wonderfully absurd as a hospice tour was a damn bargain.

And hey, I got to take some good pictures, too.

A few days later I left Varanasi.

It was difficult to say goodbye to this gorgeous mess of a place. Varanasi is the kind of city you never forget. It shows humanity at its best and worst: Beggars dying in the streets, horny monks rubbing against women, child prostitution, devout Hindus full of beautiful faith, nuns helping the poor, gorgeous processions with elephants, sun sets coloring the roof tops and the fishing boats, beautiful kids asking for one rupee...

When I entered Varanasi's small airport I saw a sign saying YOU'RE BEING WATCHED.

At first I felt intimidated. Was God at the check-in counter, too? But then I simply decided it was good news for us narcissists.

Rewritten blog entry from the fall of 2009