As a Westerner (ie, white person) in India, one of the distinctive elements of the travel experience is the near-constant harassment by people trying to get your money. I’m not talking about begging. That happens, but not nearly as much as you expect. I’m talking about stall holders, shop keepers, rickshaw drivers, tourist guides and a hundred other varieties of touts, scammers and pedlars, bombarding your ears every second of the day.
A typical walk down the street will have you assaulted from every side by cries and shouts, all trying to get your attention, and persuade you to spend. After 24 hours in India you start ignoring it. It’s the only way you can ever reach your destination. Even someone who just seems to want a casual conversation has to be blanked and walked away from. It sounds harsh, but you quickly learn that the dreaded phrase, “Hello sir, from which country?” is not just a friendly inquiry. It means you’re now on the receiving end of Level 2 Chat Harassment.
Yes, that’s right. I’ve developed a three-level model for it.
Level 1 is the simple, direct approach. Typical examples are:
- Hello yes! Come into my shop, see my pashminas.
- Bracelets? Bracelets? Very good quality. Bangles? Rings? … [and so on, ad nauseam]
- Auto? Autorickshaw? Need autorickshaw?
- Smoke? Grass? Hash?
It’s designed to appeal to people who actually want to buy stuff, or know they need a particular service.
You’re almost grateful to the people who stick to Level 1. They’re the ones I’m mostly likely to say a polite, “no thank you” to, at least the first one or two that day.
I suppose it can be useful sometimes, but often it’s overwhelming. I’m walking out of the railway station. I want an autorickshaw. I can see where they are; they’re not difficult to spot. So let me walk up to them and choose one. I don’t need a horde of drivers to descend on me like shrieking vampires as soon as I step out of the terminus. And if I’ve walked past all of the autorickshaws, it probably means I don’t want one. So don’t bother asking me.
I think Indians must have a much higher tolerance threshold for this kind of mercantile haranguing than we do. I’ve seen Indian women walk down a street and get just as much of it from vegetable sellers as I do from souvenir stalls. And they respond to it: asking the seller to show them the goods, give the price, etc. It’s how business is done.
Another example. On UK television, films are often sponsored by a particular company, who get their clip played twice every ad break, at the beginning and end. This is annoying enough, the number of times you end up seeing it during the whole film. But on Indian TV, the sponsor’s ad is played after every single advert: about 8-10 times per break. By the time a single ad break is over, you don’t want to buy anything from Airtel; you want to ritually slaughter every single employee of the company, and its advertising firm, tearing out and holding aloft the still beating heart of each one of them, as their warm blood pumps out over your face and runs down your chest, and the whoops and shrieks of your followers echo around the hills.
But this amount of TV ad time costs money. The companies would only buy it if they had evidence that it produced benefits. That’s why I think Indian TV viewers, and Indians in general, must be much more inured to this sort of thing, treating it, without annoyance, as a source of information. If you want vegetables, or a mobile network, go and see what’s on offer. If not, filter it out and move on.
I’ve digressed. Back to the Chat Harassment Levels.
Level 2 is more insidious. This is when someone comes up and tries to chat to you for a bit, as if they’re just interested in knowing more about you, before either a) switching to Level 1 and trying to sell you their stuff, or, worse, b) keeping up the pretence of being a friendly passerby, and offering you supposedly impartial advice, while scamming you for a commission. Walking around Connaught Place in Delhi, you will get the following several dozen times per hour.
- Hello. From which country? How you like India? How long travelling in India? Where will you go next? You should go to tourist information office. They can help you book train, bus, hotel. Come, I will show you official government tourist office. [Leads you to private travel agent, masquerading as tourist information, who will attempt to fleece you.]
This tactic is aimed at those tourists and travellers who believe or expect to find that India is much friendlier than their home country, and it’s quite normal for ordinary Indians to spontaneously start conversations with you out of hospitality, curiosity, or to practise their English. They believe this because they’ve been irresponsibly told it by guidebooks and other travellers. It’s true, but to a much lesser extent than is claimed.
It is sometimes the case that people will chat to you out of pure friendliness, but it’s all about context. Someone you’re sitting next to on a bus or train, for example, will usually start chatting to you, and you can be pretty sure it is just chat. But if someone walks across the street to talk to you, it’s almost certainly Chat Harassment. If it’s in a popular tourist area, delete “almost”.
Level 3 is the killer. It’s the only reason I came up with the model at all, to make people understand that it’s an integral part of the Chat Harassment strategy. Level 3 is aimed at people who’ve become immune to Levels 1 and 2, and have begun ignoring them, blanking anyone who tries to start a conversation. In effect, anyone who’s been in India for more than a couple of days.
- Why do you ignore me? Why won’t white people speak to Indians? I am just being friendly. Why are you so racist? Why do you think all Indians only try to make money?
Ouch. A kick right in the colonial guilt sacs. But remember this is just another tactic. The aim is to guilt-trip you into stopping and talking to the chat harrasser, to prove him wrong. At which point he’ll try to sell you something. It’s not worth responding to it; it’s not worth explaining to the accuser that when 99% of conversational overtures are demonstrably commercial, it’s more than a reasonable assumption, it’s an essential policy if you want to get anywhere or do anything at all. Any interaction with the Level 3 harasser means your policy has failed, and now you’re not getting stuff done, you’re only wasting time.
India is hard work as it is: it’s hot, my bowels are unsettled, my nerves are strained dodging filth and traffic. I need to minimise the impact of other annoyances. Hence the ignore-all policy is a necessity. So that’s my basic setting.
Sometimes an itinerant seller, eg someone with a selection of bangles strung on a coat hanger, refuses to take your ignore-response as a sign that you’re not interested in bangles, and convinces himself that if he continues to harass you for long enough, you’ll suddenly remember you actually do want to buy a load of bangles. Level 2 harassers are, by the nature of their trade, always able to follow you and keep trying to engage, as well.
My advice for dealing with these types remains the same: ignore. Keep walking. If you’re tall, walk faster. You can probably outpace most Indians, or at least make it more of a physical effort to keep up with you than they can be bothered with.
But supposing you want to stroll slowly, enjoy a view, chat with your friends. The insistent harasser, buzzing around you with his elephant-shaped tealight holders, is a real pain. Sometimes you’re tempted to try something, anything, to get him to go away.
In Pushkar, I was impressed with my friend Jo’s way of dealing with them. If anyone didn’t obey her initial “nahi, chalo” (roughly, “no, go away”) and continued to hang around – and at the camel fair, that was a lot of people – she would turn on them, and give them a sharp admonishment in English: “No. I’ve said ‘no’ ten times. Nobody wants your bangles. Now go away.” This usually got rid of them.
Other responses I’ve dreamt up in idle moments include:
- No. No. [Still being harassed.] Look, let’s do it this way. How many ‘nos’ do you want? You just tell me, how many times I need to say ‘no’ to make you go away, and then I’ll say them all in one go, ok? How many? Five? Ten? OK, here goes: [counting on fingers] no no no no no no no no no no. Now fuck off.
- [Immediately after the opening “Hello sir”, when it isn’t obvious what he’s going to offer.] Right, stop there. Don’t tell me what you’re selling. I’ll make a bet with you. This is the bet: I bet I don’t want whatever it is you’re trying to sell me. Here are the terms. You show me what it is. If I want it, you win, and I buy it at double the normal price. If I don’t want it, I win, and you pay me 100 rupees. Any response other than silence will be taken as an acceptance of the bet. Deal?
At Ajanta caves, waiting for the shuttle bus, I was approached by a persistent crystal pedlar who wouldn’t take being ignored, or told “no”, for an answer. So I turned on him, and began to give him Response #1. I’d only got to “how many times do I need to say ‘no'” when he backed off, apologetically. Of course, the actual content of any such rant is inevitably lost on its object, and what’s understood is the annoyance and aggression in your tone. When you’re looking for a way to expend as little energy as possible on dealing with chat harassment, launching into a bitter tirade every time isn’t a workable solution.
Sometimes it does help though, just as a way of keeping your spirits up. Heading out of Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur, towards the Jaswant Thanda a few hundred metres away, Peter and I had to walk past a long line of autorickshaws, most of them hawking for our business. Even the very last driver in the line, who must have seen us bypass all the others, tried it on. My sarcastic response to him, “We’ve just walked past 20 others. What do you think?” probably went over his head, but it amused Peter and me, which was the main aim.
I really do feel bad for the Indians, like Ziya in Ajmer, who genuinely want to chat, and get (apparently haughtily) ignored by Westerners like me who’ve had to adopt an ignore-all policy just to get through the day. The truth is, as an Englishman, politeness is in my blood. It goes against my most basic nature not to say “no, thank you” when I’m offered something. To every Indian who’s been upset at some point by a rude Westerner ignoring his friendly overtures, I want to say this: it’s just as upsetting to me, to have to ignore you. But ignore you I must. Walking about, all day, suppressing my instinct to respond politely to every one who speaks to me, is emotionally draining. But the emotional drain of doing that is less than the emotional drain of constantly responding.
My friend Nidhi, in Delhi, once asked me, “Have you ever been approached by an Indian at Connaught Place? There’s this one Indian man, quite tall, I’ve seen him a few times, and he always seems to be talking to Westerners. I just wondered if he’d talked to you.” Are you kidding me? There’s not just one Indian at CP approaching Westerners. There’s a hundred! I stay away from CP because it’s practically impossible to move around. As soon as I get near it, they swarm on me like I’m a jam-wallah, and don’t leave me alone until I’m gone again.
But it shows you how most Indians probably have no idea this is going on, how much hassle Western tourists get in their country, and how much of a tiring ordeal it becomes over time.
I know the reality must be that the vast majority of Indians aren’t interested in making money from tourists, and a friendly chat from them is meant genuinely. But as a tourist, you don’t get a representative sample. 90% or more of the Indians who talk to you are doing it with a commercial purpose. So it’s inevitable that you get a skewed view. It makes me wonder, if I’ve ever met a foreigner in the UK whom I thought was standoffish or rude, what experiences have they had, at the hands of my countrymen, which have turned them against me?
So, sorry, good Indians. I don’t mean to be so rude. I know you’re not all trying to make money from me. It’s just that the 99 people who spoke to me immediately before you did, were.