Diwali at Pushkar: the Marigold Scam

women with saree walk through a street in India decorated for Diwali

T’is the day before Diwali, and the usually sleepy, laid back Pushkar rumbles with religious fervor. Chants and mantras emanate from the many temples scattered along Main Market Road. Marigold garlands hang above every door, and the incense seems to burn stronger today. Zeza and I make way to Brahma Temple, dribbling past the hordes storming in and out of the worship houses.

“Although for different reasons”, our driver Manoj told us a few minutes ago as we drove into Pushkar, “Diwali is observed by most religions in India. You’ll see not only Hindus, but also Jains and Sikhs attending to their prayers before celebrations begin”. We had read about the universality of this festival for Dharmic religions before. So when we learnt that our visit to one of Rajasthan’s holiest sites would fall on Diwali eve, we were ecstatic.

However, Manoj was not. And, last night, he tried to get himself out of it, by enacting a scene in which he pretended not to be aware that our schedule for today included a short stop at Pushkar, en route from Jaipur to Jodhpur. But we would not concede room for his antics anymore. And after a somewhat heated argument, a phone call to the agency and an uncomfortable, albeit very silent, 150km drive, here we are in Pushkar.

We’re not spending more than a couple of hours here, though. After visiting the ghats and the Brahma Temple, we plan on strolling around for a while, just taking in some of the spirituality this place is known for. Even though the thousands of pilgrims wandering about might not let us do that.

crowd roams indian street with Diwali decorations
Main Market Road, Pushkar

A Marigold flower for Diwali

We notice small groups of teenage boys running around in plain, spotless white clothes, standing out in the vibrant crowds of Pushkar like they aren’t aware of the dress code. They stand by the staircases leading down to the ghats, handing marigold flowers to passers-by and inviting them to descend to the lake. We politely reject their offer. Yes, it is Diwali, but this looks much too organized to be just an innocent act of kindness. And surely, once we get hold of those flowers, we’ll be asked for money.

Main Market Road narrows down as we progress. Over-the-street decorations and vendor stall awnings relieve our necks from the unforgiving Indian Sun’s weight. But I’m struggling to keep Zeza focused amid the colorful pallet of garments, trinkets and ornaments covering either side of the street. “I promise we’ll stop here on the way back!” “You always say that, but we never do!”

Ahead, another marigold boy comes to us, lifting his orange tray to our shoulders’ height. He’s a young fella, 8 or 9 years old, max. At our cold, perhaps even indifferent gesture of rejection, he blocks our passage and lifts his tray higher. “Please take one, Sir. It’s Diwali”.

I was stricken by that sentence. Not by the fact that it is Diwali, I am aware of that. Rather by how he said it. With a sad, disheartened tone that turned an ordinary appeal into a series of inconvenient questions. He said it like he’s been standing on that corner all day, hitting his head against an invisible wall of suspicion every time he tried to hand out a marigold flower. He said it so loudly that he tore down every piece of the shiny, haughty armor I had put up. Strong kid.

A big smile goes through the boy’s face as we take a flower. As if that lone act would put him and his family under the blessings of Lakshmi for yet another year. “Are you sure of this?”, Zeza asks me as we go down the stairs to the lake. “Well, Diwali is all about sharing blessings, isn’t it? Kind of like Christmas. Would we reject a flower from a kid at home during Christmas? Don’t you think we’re putting up too much of a barrier here?”

Indian street with cow and lake behind
Stairway to the lake

The lake opens up before us as we descend. A lake formed by a falling petal from Brahma’s lotus flower, so they say. There’s a weird silence at the ghats, as if the very presence of the Creator God blocks out the bustle from the streets above.

We arrive at some sort of a checkpoint, guarded by a group of 6 or 7 men, all dressed in white. “Welcome Sir”, one of them says as he gets up and bows clumsily. “Please remove shoes here and carry on, priest is waiting for you below”. He points down to a platform at the water’s edge, from where another white clad man stares at us with a smile. “What was it you were saying about that barrier?”, Zeza asks.

 

The men in white

The priest’s face is definitely a scammer’s face. But maybe I’m just suggested. Once you understand you might be getting scammed, you can’t help but feel like the scammer had a scammer’s face from the start. Anyway, at this point I’m not worried. We’re outside, at an exposed location, with plenty of other people around, and I don’t feel like we’re getting into something we can’t get out of easily. We’ll just see what this is all about, give them a couple hundred rupees and move on.

“Hello Sir, yes, welcome to Pushkar. I am a brahmin, a member of highest caste in India. All my family is teachers, priests, we take care of India heritage. Here I will perform puja with you, we will pray together to honor our gods during holy festival of Diwali. You have your marigold flowers, good. Wait here, please.”

He moves over to speak to another man in white, allowing us a few moments to gaze at the sight before us. The silver lake tinkling in the sunlight, with the old colors of Pushkar’s buildings surrounding it and the blurred Aravalli hills surrounding them. Maybe, who knows, this will turn out to be a nice experience after all.

The priest returns, his friend tagging along. “Yes, Sir, you come with me, Madam please stay here with my colleague.” “What? Where are we going?” “Puja is individual Sir, we only going enough distance so no one hears us. Your wife will be safe here Sir, don’t worry”.

I follow him along the platform until he sits by the water’s edge. He asks me to sit in front of him, facing away from where Zeza is. I look back at her. There’s 50, maybe 60m between us. Too far away. Now I’m nervous. I should not have let this happen, I should have walked away the moment they tried to separate us. “Please, your marigold flower”, he asks, setting it on a tray with rice, spices and a coconut.

 

Puja

“So, we will perform puja to Lakhsmi, goddess of wealth, whom we celebrate on Diwali festival, to ask for blessing for you and your family. How many people in your family?”

“Well, besides my wife…”

“No, no, your wife is different family, she will pray for blessing separately. Your blood relatives, your parents, brothers, sisters, how many?”

“Erhm… my parents, a brother and a sister…”

“So, 5 people in your family. It is required, for puja to work, that you donate to temple a small amount for every family member, yes? And it must be on native currency, yes? Americans donate US Dollars, British donate Pounds, Europeans donate Euros, and so on, yes? Where are you from? Portugal? So you will donate in euros, yes? Let’s begin. Please repeat after me: *speaks in Hindi*”

“…”

“Please, repeat.”

“You want me to repeat what you just said? In Hindi?”

“Yes!”

For two minutes I repeat his sentences. Or try to, at least. I have no clue of what he’s saying, for all I know he could be insulting me, and I’m happily repeating it for his amusement.

“I’m a stupid tourist…”

“I’m a stupid tourist…”

“Who should have known better than to fall onto such an obvious scam…”

“Who should have known better than to fall onto such an obvious scam…”

“And now I’m gonna give this guy money…”

“And now I’m gonna give this guy money…”

“Om….”

Om…

Every ten seconds I look back at Zeza. I can tell the scammer in white is not liking it, but I don’t care. I just want this nonsense to end quickly so I can get back at my wife’s side. And never leave it again.

At some point, he puts his hand in the water, splashing a few drops over the spices. He then rubs the mixture on the coconut, and dots my forehead with it. “So, how much would you like to donate to temple?”

 

You not listening!

I look back at Zeza again, hoping she doesn’t look too stressed. However, and oddly enough, she looks amused. Can I once again be overthinking this?

“I would like to donate 500 rupees.”

“No, no Sir, remember I said you must donate in euros?”

“Yes, but I have no euros left, I only have rupees.”

“Then you must promise in euros, but donate in rupees, yes?”

“OK, then I promise 5 euros donation.”

I keep looking back at Zeza. I’m scared s***less that she’s not there when I look.

“No, no, no, you not listening! You most donate good sum, 5 euros per person is not…”

“No, I meant 5 euros total!”

“Oh, but that’s no good, people donate 50 euro, 60 euro, 100 euro…”

“100 euros?!? That’s insane, there’s no way!”

I don’t know what kind of gullible, deep pocket tourists this guy is used to scam on a daily basis, but I’m most definitely not giving him anything remotely close to that amount. And if I’m already steaming from being split from Zeza, I only get more aggravated when he raises his voice:

“You not listening! People donate 50 euro…”

“I don’t like that you’re shouting at me. Do you want the 500 rupees or not?”

“You not listening!”, he shouts again.

I get up in a flash and haste towards Zeza. The scammer is right behind me, barking at my ears, getting on my way. “You not listening! You not listening!” But I’m on mission mode, and I’m not stopping until I get to my wife. I’ll Steven Seagal all over this ghat if need to. And as soon as I take her hand in mine, I explode.

I insult them both, with the nastiest blasphemies I can think of. Most of it in Portuguese, because that’s the language in which I can best express the nastiest blasphemies I can think of. “You promised 500 rupees! You promised 500 rupees!”, he keeps shouting. “Ah, so 500 rupees suddenly seems great, huh? Too bad, because now you’re getting squat!”

I end up handing them whatever change is in my pocket, at Zeza’s insistence. “They won’t let us go anywhere until we give them something”. Worst 140 rupees I’ve ever spent, but the truth is that they dropped it and let us go. We get up the steps, get our shoes and exit the ghat, under the icy glares of the all-white checkpoint keepers.

 

Aftermath

“Wtf was that?!?”, Zeza asks as we get back to the reassuring buzz of the Diwali ridden Pushkar streets. “You’re always so collected when we come across these situations. What did he say that got you so livid?”

“It was not about what he said. I was already very nervous after they split us up, afraid something would happen to you. So I guess I snapped out when he started shouting… I might have overreacted, but then again there was no way I was giving him more than the 500 rupees I promised…”

“You promised them 500 rupees?!?”

“Well, yes, I thought 100 rupees per person… How much did you promise? And how was it that you were so calm?”

“I was super chilled about it. I told my guy I had no money, that you were in charge of finances, and that I would donate as much as you would. But I though you were promising just a couple hundred rupees! If I knew you were about to give that amount to a scammer, certainly I would have been the one going berserk!”

“Right… so next time we get scammed, you’re in charge of negotiation. Now let’s get to the temple, I think I need to ask for Brahma’s forgiveness after desecrating the sanctity of his ghats. And please don’t let me accept anything from anyone else for Diwali.”

I was able to keep one promise on this day though. We did stop on those vendor stalls on the way back.

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