Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India

Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India

Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India

Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India


Jenny Huberman provides an ethnographic study of encounters between western tourists and the children who work as unlicensed peddlers and guides along the riverfront city of Banaras, India. She examines how and why these children elicit such powerful reactions from western tourists and locals in their community as well as how the children themselves experience their work and render it meaningful.

Ambivalent Encounters brings together scholarship on the anthropology of childhood, tourism, consumption, and exchange to ask why children emerge as objects of the international tourist gaze; what role they play in representing socio-economic change; how children are valued and devalued; why they elicit anxieties, fantasies, and debates; and what these tourist encounters teach us more generally about the nature of human interaction. It examines the role of gender in mediating experiences of social change--girls are praised by locals for participating constructively in the informal tourist economy while boys are accused of deviant behavior. Huberman is interested equally in the children's and adults' perspectives; her own experiences as a western visitor and researcher provide an intriguing entry into her interpretations.


The idea for this book initially developed when I was a graduate student and I went to the city of Banaras for nine months to study Hindi at the American Institute of Indian Studies. the language instruction that I received and the camaraderie of my fellow classmates rendered it an invaluable experience. It certainly was integral in preparing me for my subsequent research. However, as someone prone to cabin fever, the long hours spent sitting inside were a source of frustration for me. By the time the late afternoon rolled around and our classes were finally adjourned, I would head to the city’s famous riverfront, hoping to burn off my restlessness with some exercise.

My initial forays into power walking on the riverfront were not very successful. For the first few weeks, it seemed impossible to make it more than several yards without having an eager child stop me and offer to sell me postcards or trinkets, or guide me to city’s “best” sights and stores, where promises of handsome commissions awaited them. the children greeted me with flashy smiles and optimistic persistence. “You want postcard?” “Would you like to see the temple?” “You come to my silk shop?” “Would you like to buy a candle to put in Ganga?” in my head the answer was always “No! No! No!” But occasionally their charm, and in some cases badgering, proved too much for me to resist, and I would end up sending twenty flickering candles down the river, or return home with a stack of postcards, most of which I never sent.

As the weeks passed, it became clear to the children that I was not a great customer. It became even clearer to me that I was going to have to develop a more flexible conception of “the power walk” in order to successfully navigate the ghats of Banaras, the broad stone landings that stretch along the river’s edge. On both sides, we adjusted our expectations. I surrendered to a slowerpaced meandering, and most of the kids gave up trying to sell me their goods, since there were more promising tourists on the riverfront to pursue. When we met, they still smiled, and if things were slow they would come over to chat with me. I would ask questions about how business was going and often they would introduce me to their customers as though I were a fixed attraction on the tour or a character witness who could vouch for their honesty. Some of the children . . .

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