EVERYONE AND HIS BROTHER owns a silk shop in Varanasi. Walk down the street and you will be personally invited to one every few paces, told “No pressure” and “Just take a look” when you hesitate, persuaded when they explain the secret to proving real silk from polyester knockoffs (the threads burn into ashes) and allowed to see the weaving factory because somewhere down the line they realised that faces sell. In light of these and other aggressive touts, every traveller ought have a trick, a way of ignoring the human dissonance when overwhelmed.
Mine is Hebrew. If someone starts walking beside me, I stop, turn to them and say, “Slicha, ani lo medaber Anglit.” (“Sorry, I don’t speak English.”) Nine times out of 10 they will stare at me, nod a bit, grunt and move on.
This is the story of that 10th time.
A man with swooped hair and a frail body asked sidled up next to us and asked where I was from. I ignored him. We had nowhere to be, but it was 11 a.m. and we were eager to escape the fiery Indian sun. He asked again, so I stopped and gave him the line, in Hebrew: “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”
The man paused and flashed a confused smile. “Sir, why do you speak Hebrew to me? You are not Israeli.”
ME: (In Hebrew) “You know Hebrew?”
ME: (In Hebrew) “How do you know it?”
MAN: (In Hebrew) (A long and fluent sentence that is beyond my elementary school language level)
I laughed and told him I was impressed. I did not stop walking, nor did he stop following. “Man, I speak seven languages,” he replied coolly.
“Really?” V chimed in, in Spanish, and continued: “Do you speak Spanish, also?”
…To which the man turned to her and gave a lengthy, nearly unstoppable monologue about how he has many Spanish friends from Barcelona who live here and come to his shop and buy his silks and please ma’am would you come take a look at my silks they are a very good price.
And, I mean, Jesus, how could we not take a look at that point? Here is a clearly bright man with a proven gift for language acquisition, somebody whom we know for sure speaks Spanish, Hebrew, English and Hindi, and whom I believe when he claims to speak at least some Japanese, Italian and French (indeed, he tried me in French when I revealed I was Canadian, but he outperformed me again)—in short, a man with qualifications enough to work at the United Nations—who is stuck hawking pashmina scarves with his brother out of some quiet back-alley shop in one of India’s tourist capitals.
The man is named Sirdi, and at 28 he is married with a baby daughter. As he led us down the main road, an auto-rickshaw driver nodded suggestively at him, but Sirdi muttered something back dismissively. He turned to us after. “He wants to know if you need driving after this,” he explained. “I say, ‘Ask them yourself, man.’ But he’s just a cheat anyway. So many cheats around here.”
“Everyone’s a cheat,” I said impulsively.
“No, man!” he replied. “Not everyone. These streets, you know? These streets are filled with cow shit. But not all cow shit is bad. Some you can cook with, use for medicine. But not all. You have to know which to look for.”
There is no chance a tourist could find his shop unless led there. It is sort of near the Golden Temple market, but too deeply embedded among skinny residential alleys to be stumbled upon. The shop is a single room, poorly lit, with a dirty white mattress on the ground and packaged silks and cashmere blends lining the walls. He sent for tea and we sat down, ever suspicious, while he explained the convoluted cremation process Hindus attend to around 80 times a day at the Ganges River. His eye contact was strict, perhaps recognising my discomfort. I was quietly waiting for a scam.
Soon the silks came out. His brother tossed them out on the mattress and Sirdi opened each, displaying it broadly for V and I to see and feel. He burnt a thread. He named the price. It was high by Indian standards, low by Western. “I also have scarves for 40 rupees,” he added, pointing to the thin ones hanging above us, adorned with images of suns and gods. “But they are for hippies, you know? Not you guys.” This dude had our number.
We left promising to return, and did return, some hours later, to buy two scarves and tea powder (the real thing, his brother assured us, not the spices mixed in with wood chips they often sell in the market—”I worked there four years,” he testified), not because we necessarily felt compelled to buy fabrics in Varanasi, but rather because this guy, though he openly detests the word, is an excellent and crafty salesman. He is genuine and clever, and managed to make us feel guilty for bartering down his obviously inflated price, precisely because he subtly, effortlessly, convinced us that we had become friends. I in fact do think of him as one, even though we are obviously not, and we still bartered anyway. Maybe we did overpay in the end (is 500 rupees too much for two scarves?) but I don’t even mind, because at some point you’ve gotta decide who among the seven billion people out there you want to give your money to, and this guy, of all the guys, earned at least 10 bucks.