|Clare, Uttam and Pete|
I enquire about the Indian driver licensing system. Apparently, it exists. All up, it costs several thousand rupees to become fully licensed. First up they have to sit a learner’s licence – “You can sit that when you are 18. Then you go for private licence within one to six months, and then after three years you can go for government licence,” Uttam says. “That one gives you discounted medical care – they pay 25 per cent if you have a crash – and other benefits too. But not if you crash when you are driving drunk,” he adds. “You need to renew your government licence every three years, as well. And then you can get your commercial licence, but the government licence is good enough, so I do not need this one. Uttam tells us the government licence costs around Rs 3000, but it can change “according to goodwill”. Uttam says, “If you know someone in government, it can be little bit cheaper, say, 2500 rupees only.” It seems the notion “It’s who you know, not what you know” is universal.
Barn’s phone rings in the rickshaw, and it’s an Indian number calling. We assume it’s a hotel about a booking, but he looks confused and repeats the caller’s introduction. “It’s my new friend calling? Sorry, who is this?” He explains when he hangs up that it was a customer service representative from Vodafone India who he had spoken with earlier in the day when he was having issues with his sim card. The first time they spoke, Barn was having trouble remembering his new Indian number and she had given him a lecture: “You are verrrry confused, sir. Please write down your number on a piece of paper, and then read it out to me exactly as it is written down.” Just as they were making headway, he accidentally put her on hold and the call was disconnected. Amazingly, this girl displays exceptional customer service contradictory to my earlier rant about Vodafone. She had saved Barn’s number and rang him back from her personal phone when her shift was over, to see if the issue had been resolved. Ten points, Vodafone India. She then proceeds to call him back five more times in a stalkerish manner. Negative ten points, Vodafone India.
Our tour of Varanasi finishes with a trip to the Muslim Cooperative Society – the oldest manufacturing area in Varanasi. A Muslim man shows us around, and we bypass the mosques and head down some alleyways to see silk khadi (hand weaving). We’re told it’s a slow process, with some Muslim dresses taking five to six weeks to complete. A group of men and a young boy are painstakingly threading silver beads onto a piece of silk and explain that silver ones are used for wedding garments only. We meet another man who’s weaving 7000 Kashmiri silk threads finer than strands of hair on an ancient leg-operated machine that has programming cards with codes for different patterns. It’s the same kind of device they’ve been using since the 14th century, and we’re told it’s like an early version of a computer. Again it’s painstaking work; “I’m going to look at my pashminas differently now,” Clare says. Me too.
The man showing us around says they export to lots of countries: “Europe, the USA, Jordan, Dubai, Australia – many, many counties.” “New Zealand?” we enquire. “Many, many countries – but no, not New Zealand. You know Australia? We export our bedspreads for 8000 rupees to Deevad Joes.” “Ohhh, David Jones!” we chorus.
|No more duvets, please!|
He gets out some Rs 3000 ($75) pashminas made from the tummy hair of Himalayan goats. “We have ones from the beard part, too!” he exclaims. "God, they're expensive," Barn mumbles. We start to look at each other. There’s only one thing to do now. One of us will have to buy something so we can escape. I should get my mum something nice, but not $75 nice (sorry, Mum). The man looks at Barn, suggesting he buy a scarf. “He doesn’t have a wife,” I say. “Girlfriend?” the man replies. “You like the green one, sir? Maybe for a business friend?” We all laugh, imagining Barn buying one for his new boss at Russell McVeagh.
At this point, it’s getting dire. I ask if he has any cheaper ones and he brings out a pile that are only 50% pashmina, for Rs 300 ($7.50). Taking one for the team, I pick up one the colour of Mum’s mother-of-the-bride outfit from my sister’s wedding last year. “I’ll take it!” I say, not even bothering to bargain with him. I hand over the 300 rupees and we bolt out of there.
On the way back to our hotel, we ask more about Uttam’s marriage. He says he’s 24 and has been married for two years. Despite his family’s protests (he was meant to have an arranged marriage with a family friend’s daughter), he married for love. “I met her in Assi [Assi Ghat]. I see her one or two times, and we talk. Then friendship turns to love.” In Indian marriages a girl’s father has to pay the husband – it’s a tradition from hundreds of years ago. The government is trying to outlaw it, as apparently it’s not uncommon for women to be murdered after their dowry has been handed over. But Uttam reckons the government can’t do anything about. “For good family, nice family, you just have to pay. But she have no dowry, she have no money, but I say I can do without that.”
They had a small wedding, marrying in a temple, with just a few friends there. “My family would not attend, and her family would not come either.” Uttam tells us that he had great support from a Swiss girl, Anna, who he met when she was volunteering for Red Cross in the area. “She was good friend, she support me a lot and help me, but she’s gone back to college, to university now. Maybe she will come back again, she said maybe in five years, so maybe in 2015,” he says, with a sadness in his eyes.
|Taking one for the team|