I worked with DePauw University from Indiana, USA. Mr. Rajai Bimbo who is Assistant Director of Civic, Global and Professional Opportunities department at DePauw contacted me to assist him and his students during their one week trip to Varanasi. He basically contacted me because of my work with LGBT community in India. He was also interested in NGOs of Varanasi. BHU was already there host university but they were not happy with the way BHU professors and someone named Mr. Ramuji were not replying them on time. There was a time came when they asked what could I offer to their students for one week.
It clearly meant that once they thought about giving me the whole program but of course BHU and Ramuji are big names so I could not get the whole business. Mr. Bimbo told me once that he had contacted BHU professors and Ramuji asking them to collaborate with me so that we could work together but they did not want me to get involved in the program hence they said that I was good but not good enough to work with them. Finally Mr. Bimbo told me that I could not work together with them but he still wanted me to spend some time with their students to talk about LGBT rights in India and activism going on in Varanasi.
I was given a few hours to organize something for them and I thought a visit to Lok Samiti, interview with Mr. Nandlal Master, a visit to an real Indian village and Coca-Cola affected site would be great visit for the students so I took them to Mehdiganj. I organized a meeting with Mr. Nandlal Master where students asked questions about work of Lok Samiti and its struggle against Coca-Cola. After the interview I gave a tour of the village and then took the students to a site where a canal was being dug under MNREGA scheme. Students talked with the farmers and people working at the site which was really interesting to them. I have always given priority to work with students and it is my dream project to organize such university programs in my city but unfortunately BHU professors and Mr. Ramuji did want me get involved with DePauw.
The things that I was offering to DePauw was a lot better than what was offered by BHU and Mr. Ramuji but only because of politics and monopoly in the industry I could not get this business and students could not get most out of their money and time. Mr. Bimbo’s asking to BHU and Mr. Ramuji to collaborate with me was clear indication of they liking my work and offer. Anyways, I was happy to work with them and have done my best. Students and Mr. Bimbo both seemed happy with me which was the biggest achievement for me.
Hotel Haifa is located near Assi ghat in Varanasi. They are recommended on several on online travel forum and have really good reputation in the market hence they are usually full. I also used to recommend their hotel but did not know about their strange business policy that they do not allow tourist guides inside their hotel. Actually I an American university ‘s student group was staying at Hotel Haifa and they wanted to meet me. They invited to their hotel and we were talking in the restaurant inside the hotel. Suddenly the owner of the hotel Mr. Ravi Mishra showed up to introduce himself to the group.
After talking with them he asked me how come I was there. I told him that the group had invited me because they wanted to talk with me and he seemed upset hearing this. He told me- Listen, I want to make this clear to you that I do not allow guides and outsiders to enter in my hotel. I was shocked to hear this. He said that he doesn’t allow tourist guides to enter in the hotel and talk with the clients. He asked me not to enter in his hotel again. After talking with me he told the same thing to the group. They were all looking at me with surprised face. They told me sorry for whatever happened.
I was really shocked and felt guilty for whatever happened with me. It was the first time when somebody insulted me. We stopped our meeting and left the hotel. I talked about it with a few people who had already stayed at the Hotel Haifa and one of them told me – The restaurant staff was eager to please, but I felt slightly intimidated by the demeanor of management. They do promote their own tour guides, money changing and travel agent services so that explains what they are doing to you. As an American traveling alone, I liked having one person I could count on and had developed a rapport with leading up to the trip. They want to be the guests’ primary resource or they have touts they want to network with.
I don’t know what to say about this but it is really strange if they do not allow locals or tourist guides to meet with their clients. I think they don’t want their clients to meet with locals so that their clients always hear them and finally they can be cheated easily. I had heard about British prohibiting Dogs and Indians at several places but it all happened in early 1900 and now I see the same thing happening in the 21st century even we are already independent and have our own government. Do you really think that you want to support such hotel by staying there? I am not going to work with anyone whoever stays there.
I worked with an anthropology student named Sophia from University of Berlin. I had already worked with her before a few years ago and it was my second time of work with her. This time she was not working for her university but for a big private publication company in Germany. She just wanted to interview different kind of people and listen to their stories. We met several different kinds of people but most striking news came out of the beggar community living in Varanasi. I had a shop few years ago near to Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi and I knew that there was a group of beggars living near to Dashashwamedh Ghat so I took Sophia there.
I had already heard some crazy stories about beggars living there but had no idea how serious the condition was. They told us so many things but the worse story was about their sexual harassment by local people. We interviewed an old woman who told us that she was raped several times by a local bully who comes to them every night and rapes whoever he wants. There were several girls and all aged women living there and many of them said that this person rapes really young girls who are just 14-15 years old.
They went to the police several times but the police never entertains their complaint only because they are poor and they don’t have any connection in politics. A chai shop keeper who had a shop near to the place where this community lives also said confirmed it. When I asked him why locals don’t take any action against this person, he said that he is a big criminal and nobody can do anything, not even police. He also said that he comes almost every night, chooses any girl or woman he wants and take them away with himself. He doesn’t even take the girls at his home but he rapes just somewhere on the road.
I was shocked to hear all these things happening openly in my society. I just did not know what to do with poor beggars. They also talked about corruption in government policies for them. They said that Government of Uttar Pradesh also has a program for rehabilitation of beggars in Uttar Pradesh but there is so much corruption involved in it and beggars are not benefited by it at all. They talked about a housing program where government is providing free housing to the beggars but government officers ask for bribe in order to provide them a house which is built for them and which is supposed to be free of cost.
They said that government is asking for a lot of documents including local residential proof which sounds hilarious to me. How come a beggar can have a residential proof? They live on the road! This idea of asking for residential proof and other documents seemed really stupid to me. I was thinking about these corrupt government officers who don’t forgive even the beggars. They are begging from the beggars which means that they are bigger beggars. There is a saying in Hindi चोर के घर चोरी Chor ke ghar chori (stealing in thieves home) and now we need to start another saying- भिखमंगा से भिखमंगई Bhikhmanga se Bhikhmangai (begging from beggars).
Usually I go out with my friends to celebrate new year but this year I couldn’t as my friends were not organized. I thought why explore something new in Varanasi and it reminded me of a disco which opened last year. I had only heard about this disco called Agni in Varanasi but did not know where exactly it was located. I asked my friends about it and they also did not know about it. Finally I took my bike and went out searching for this disco in the evening of 31st. I reached to a bar and asked the address of this disco and fortunately they knew about it.
I went to the disco in the evening and they told me that they open only during 12 to 4 in the day time and 8 to 11 in the evening. They asked me to come at 8 o’clock. I went back there with a friend around 9 o’clock and found that they were allowing couples only. I was really sad that I was not going to be allowed. I asked them if there was any hope for me later in the night and they asked me to come after an hour. I went to an alcohol shop nearby with my friend and had a beer and they came back again to the disco. I was allowed this time to go in.
There was an entry fee of Rs. 1000 for couples and Rs. 700 for people like me who did not have a girl with me. The interesting thing was that there was no entry fee for girls. They said that I would get two beers inside and won’t need to pay anything for it as it is already covered in the entry fee. But the condition was different inside. They offered two small glasses instead of a bottle or a cane. I had already been to several discos and night clubs in different big Indian cities but it was my first experience at a disco in Varanasi and it was a really interesting experience.
I noticed a lot of differences between this disco and the other ones I had been in other cities. Usually I see good quality alcohol at discos and night clubs in other big cities but here they had very limited stock and the alcohol they were serving was not available at other discos I had been to. This Varanasi disco had stock of cheapest alcohol, most popular and some lower middle quality alcohol only. Usually these kinds of alcohol is not available at discos in big cities. The other big difference I noticed was they played only Bollywood music, which I understand and enjoy more than Western music, but in big cities I dont know why they never play Bollywood or Indian pop music.
The other discos in big cities I have been to have usually more people, like at least 100 in usual days but here there were hardly 50 people on new year eve day. Most of them were young boys. There were a few girls also. Varanasi is a very male dominating city where girls are usually not seen wearing short skirts or sleeveless clothes but here it was first time in my life when I saw girls wearing short skirts. Of course not all of them but a few. These girls were drunk and smoking which is really rare to see in Varanasi. It was the first time in my life when I saw Varanasi young girls and boys dancing together away from their family.
Or maybe they were not locals. Varanasi attracts a lot of students from all over India and these students usually live in the student hostels so most probably they were such students who live away from their families because it is hard for me to believe that Varanasi parents would allow their daughters to go to a disco with their male friends. Anyways, I liked seeing them together. I was really curious about the safety of women at the disco and after spending almost three hours it seemed like the disco was safe for women as well.
I saw a few families also who had kids with them. The disco is usually open only until 11 in the night but because of new year eve they were open until 1 am. Over all it was a really nice and interesting experience for me and I enjoyed it a lot. I wish to go there again in usual days with my friends and family. Happy New Year 2011.