A Shakedown Massage in Varanasi

VARANASI, India — Maybe I was far too trusting, especially for a kid from New York.

Walking along the ghats after sundown, an older gentleman struck up a conversation with me and asked if he could give me a massage. Now, it wasn’t quite as odd as it sounded, given that there were other people lying on the pavement — fully clothed, I might add — receiving the full backrub treatment.

No thank you, I said, without breaking my stride.

Back home, that’s usually enough to get rid of most types of solicitations. But my new would-be friend was persistent, managing to grab hold of my forearm and begin kneading my muscles in my arm and hand. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not the biggest fan of massages, but the man’s strong hands stimulating blood flow in my arm and hand did prompt relaxation.

“One minute, no charge,” he says.

This is where I should’ve recognized the three-card monte aspect of it.

What could it hurt to try a one-minute sample?

The street masseuse laid a piece of sackcloth on the ground in a busy part of the ghat, but away from foot traffic. This was my spa table — the very ground that might’ve hosted cow dung, goat hooves or monkey bums earlier in the day. No sweat, I thought. I’m a good sport.

I lie face-down, and he goes to work: Arms, shoulders, back, legs.

Not bad.

I flip over, and he repeats the process.

By this point, I was relaxed and wouldn’t have thought to look at my watch, had I been wearing one, but it went at least  a solid five minutes, likely even more.

“Good?” he asks after he stops.

“Yes,” I nod, groggily. It really was, no joke.

That’s when he hits me up for something like 300 rupees — around $5.

I protest, arguing that he had offered a free sample. He replies that the massage was more than one minute, and he’s got me there.

Not knowing what type of Plan B might be in his grand scheme — and having remembered the violence of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga — I argue like a true New Yorker, with more bluster than reason, and wait for the inevitable reduction in the amount his demand. I know his game and have resigned to play it. I make a counteroffer of maybe 100 rupees or 150, and he accepts.

Quite possibly, he mutters under his breath as he walks off with payment, and I check my pockets to make sure I have everything that’s supposed to be in there. Everything seems to be in order, and I breathe a small sigh of relief.

It’s then I notice that many of the folks getting massages are, in fact, tourists.


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