Boat-boys and boatmen, Varanasi style
Meet Som. A boatman in Varanasi who is technically a boy.
He says he is also a dancer. He charges Rs200 for an hour’s worth of boat ride. He will take you to the main ghats where you could see people offering prayers—it is a great view with floating diyas against the setting sun - or to the far side of the ghat where people burn the dead, or buy weed, pot, bong hits, whatever you call it.
It is an open secret. Anyone walking into the ghat would get a waft of that distinctive burning ‘grass’, often near groups of god-men, and it would be naive to overlook the entire scene.
The boatmen sleep in their boats. That's because Varanasi never sleeps. At any moment of the 24-hour cycle it could occur to a stray tourist to take a round of the river. Failing to catch a tourist walking down the ghat steps at 3am would mean loss in business, hence the need to sleep light and at the right place.
Som says on good days he manages to make 10-12 rounds of the ghats’ arc on the Ganges. That would be 13-14 hours of work a day. Some generous tourists would pay Rs500 for an hour’s ride. The earnings per day are usually not bad. It is the competition that tires the boy.
Powered by sheer human muscles and plain old oars, over a hundred boats cruise along the 4km-long riverbank that comprises a single string of ghats. The front row boatmen - those who are parked near the bigger ghats - net all the tourists, leaving crumbs for those who are waiting on the extreme ends of the riverbank.
Som did not reveal his surname, though he says he is 21. Som might not even be his real name. “It is my style. Firangs (foreigners) remember Som from Varanasi,” he says. That is how Varanasi boat-boys operate. They assume short catchy names to make it easy for tourists to recall them because some visitors might want another ride from the same person later.
Meet Nandu. He says he has been rowing since he was 15. “I have lived here all my life.” He is now 54. On whether Varanasi has seen a lot of changes over the years, he says, “Nothing. Except price rise.” Like most other boatmen he also sleeps in his boat, though his house is a stone’s throw from the ghats.
A man rows a boat with the government's tagline for drawing foreign tourists painted on the side, in front of the ghat where bodies are burned and families could be seen crying. Incredible India.
Meet local boy (left) Michael and Delhi resident Siddhant Sharma. Michael is a boat-boy and Siddhant is the owner of Bunkedup Hostel in Varanasi. Michael’s real name is Rajesh Prajapati. He also assumed an easy-to-remember name to boost his trade.