Babu, Varanasi, 2000.

Babu, Varanasi, 2000.
I met Babu one day as I was wandering down the ghats in Varanasi, and he was selling postcards to tourists. He asked if I wanted to buy some; I said, no, thank you, and that was that. But then he kept walking with me—not trying to sell me anything, just strolling along. Then he stopped, grabbed my arm and said, pointing to his eyes and then the sky, “look—moon!” I look up and, sure enough, there was the moon, in an unremarkable phase but nonetheless there, up in the blue afternoon sky. I turned and looked at this kid: here in a place of such extreme sensory cacophony; a wall of sounds, smells and sights, this kid looks up and marvels at the moon.

“What’s your name?” I asked him. “Babu,” he told me. I told him mine, and said, “Come, let’s sit down.” So there we sat, on a bench on a dais on the banks of the Ganges, just chatting. His family lived down the way, he was about seven, he had a little sister, he went to school. I told him about myself a bit, finding I was more at ease with this kid than pretty much anyone I had yet to talk to on my trip. The conversation came to its natural end, and we said goodbye. I thought what a neat kid, what a neat moment, and went about my afternoon  wander. Not really looking too far back.

The next day, and over the next few days, he was there again, playing with some friends on the ghat not too far from where I was staying with my friend. I found that I was truly happy to see him as “Hey! Babu!” shouted from my mouth. He came over, said hey, asked what I was up to, and then went back to his friends.

One night there was a music festival at the main ghat, and my girlfriend and I were sitting there, getting situated, and there came Babu with his friends, all of them, boys and girls, around the same age, seven or eight, shoeless, clothes filthy and threadbare, playing games around, over, between and basically on top of me and my friend. It was pretty silly, and I remember that whole evening as a wonderfully happy one, with incredible music in the air, candles and marigolds floating down the river, and these kids playing all around us.

We were set on leaving Varanasi soon; we had been there for almost ten days and still had a lot of miles ahead of us. This kid had gotten under my skin. As pathetic as it may sound, I found that this seven-year-old kid made me feel relaxed and happy. Since I said no to the first postcard, he never once tried to sell me anything or persuade me to go to a certain vendor or any other scheme. He seemed to have no agenda beyond hanging out. I hadn’t appreciated how guarded I had become over my time traveling, the 5’8” blond part of a two-woman unit traveling the subcontinent. Even after we got whisked away for two days by a rogue taxi driver the second we got off the plane in Delhi, I never got used to what easy mark we were.

Before we left, I wanted to do something for Babu. He was obviously very poor. I wanted to buy him some new clothes, take him to eat until he was stuffed, buy his books for school, do something. My girlfriend counseled that he already had a family; it wasn’t my place. True. Who was I to assume? But I had so much comparatively and he had so little—and he had given me so much. I wound up asking if I could take his picture—and for that I gave him a 20-rupee note, which was the largest bill I had on me.

I still look back and feel conflicted. My time and conversations with Babu are some of the strongest, and fondest, memories of my time in South Asia, and have stayed with me in a more meaningful way than the inevitable anecdotes born from two months on the road. Sometimes I wish I had drowned out the mental politics around the rich white westerner and the relativism and the propriety and myopic presumption therein and taken the kid to lunch and said thank you for being my buddy. If I could do it again, I think I would do just that. And buy up every last post card he had.

 Dasaswamedh Ghat


  1. You beautifully describe the experience had by a traveler rather than a tourist. Thanks for a lovely post.

  2. megan, this is a beautiful post.