ImportunistsToublesomely persistent

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

I check out of my guesthouse in Agra at the break of day. A cycle rickshaw man isn't hard to find: it is simply a matter of choosing one at random from the hatful that find me. Importunists, I come to call them, and all those like them, an ilk that every tourist town abounds in. My dictionary defines importune as "to solicit with troublesome persistence", and troublesomely persistent with their solicitations they most certainly are, be they shoe shiners, masseurs, postcard sellers, marble inlayers (the lanes around the Taj Mahal are awash with marble inlayers), or just plain rickshaw and autorickshaw wallahs, hounding me everywhere I go, sometimes so persistently that they trail me all the way to my destination.

This particular rickshaw man is chewing paan, a digestive of betel nut and lime, that I have been meaning to try myself though I haven't yet plucked up enough courage. I don't like the idea of what it does to the teeth, staining them a vivid crimson.

He beckons me aboard his carriage. Agra Cantt Station? Certainly. He has cold murderous eyes. A smile breaks over his face, showing me his betel-red teeth. "I eat tourists for breakfast," those teeth say. I make sure we agree a fare in advance.

There is another memorable encounter some days later, in Varanasi, a town awash with importunists. A man looms over me as I sit on the ghats.

"Hello - hair cut?"

I tell the man I don't want a hair cut, thanks all the same. He sits beside me, offers to give me a shave. Importunists are hard to shake: moving on is often the only recourse. I say I don't want one of those either. He understands, says goodbye, holds out his hand, which I take without thinking and receive a good pumping for my troubles, not of the handshake variety but the massaging kind - the barber doubles as a masseur and is anxious to give me a free sample of his talent. He works and works the muscles, getting them nice and loose, flexes the joints, stretches and teases the skin. It is incredibly soothing. I wonder what other trades he is Jack of. I don't find out, as he seems master of this one. I let him give me a thirty minute work-over, teasing life back into back and neck and leg muscles made stiff as a board by stiff-as-a-board train seats and beds. He doesn't ask for much for his troubles.

Then a couple of minutes after he hs gone, this:

"Hello - hair cut?"

I say I don't want a haircut, thanks all the same.

The barber nods sagely, then profers his hand for a handshake. It is a strong meaty hand, used to giving weary muscles a good workout.

I refuse the handshake, though feel bad about it. I decide it is time to move on.

Read on...

Read the next article about the commode seller of Cuttack.

He describes the types of commode his company manufactures: big, small, flush and non-flush, even a hybrid version that I haven't yet come across, a Western-style toilet with perches - the user squats on the basin. It is a bizarre conversation, though I like his energy. He has big but delicate hands, which he uses to sculpt his toilets in the air as he describes them. Fingers are splayed wide to depict big bowled commodes, then are suddenly drawn together to show me more bijou models.

Go back...

Read the previous article about India's beggars.

Beggars is not necessarily the right word to apply to them, because the mendicant lifestyle is one which has an honourable position in Indian life. Many orthodox Hindus, after doing their sacred duty by raising a family, will then persue the fourth ashrama or stage of life by becoming a saddhu, a homeless ascetic, and following a path of renunciation, penance, and austerity.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from or, or the paperback from or (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


Below are the main areas of the site.


If you would like to receive a newsletter for the site, please fill out your e-mail address and details below.



First name:



Contact Info  

Feel free to contact me, about the website, writing, academic English, life in China, or anything that takes your fancy. You can reach me at

Sheldon C H Smith Website Copyright © 2012-present by Sheldon C H Smith.