At Shantum Seth’s tastefully done home in Noida, it’s easy to miss the picnic basket in the corner of a couch or a small shelf dedicated to red and white photo albums.
It’s hard to imagine that writer Vikram Seth’s younger brother, who has worked with the United Nations and the Indian government (on promoting Buddhist teachings) is also a tour guide — the basket and albums are perhaps the only giveaways.
“It’s the informal stuff you pick up as a guide that is important,” says this soft-spoken 52-year-old Buddhist expert, who has been leading meditational tours since 1988.
The image of a tourist guide in India has essentially been that of ‘Raju Guide’, a foxy local who accosts tourists at famous monuments and makes a quick buck by spewing bits of history. Think Dev Anand in Guide or more recently, Aamir Khan in Raja Hindustani and Fanaa.
“The paan-chewing staff of Lal Qila would pose as guides and make 100 rupees a day,” says Satish Goswami, senior vice-president of the Guide Association of India.
Says Seth, “When I was taking my tour guide exam, people said this is for the unemployed youth.” But this notion, and profession, has been changing over the years. In the upcoming Commonwealth Games next year, it’s believed that about 900 guides will be required out of which 650-700 are already in place, while another 150 or so have been inducted recently, says Goswami.
Then, as borders blur and travel opens up, becoming a tour guide is increasingly being seen as a lucrative profession. Now, guides of Seth’s calibre can earn up to Rs 2 lakh in a ten-day tour. The trick is to go beyond giving out just a few facts — instead, a modern tour guide provides social/cultural/political context as well.
After all, as Seth puts it, tour guides are the “pedestrian ambassadors” of their country, responsible for the impressions tourists develop.
Suez Akram, 53, says he developed an interest in tour guiding after graduating in French and Farsi from JNU and working with a travel agency. “But I wasn’t getting job satisfaction, so I branched out on my own,” says the west Delhi resident, who manages to make about five lakhs a year.
Punam Gulati, 49, a lady guide, says the freelance nature of the job works for her. “I get to choose my time. Most of my work happens between the months of October and February when the weather is quite good.”
How tough is it for a woman in this profession? “It’s hard to bond with all sorts of men. But in the last decade, more women have joined the trade. In the 70s, there were three women guides in Delhi. Today, at least 10-15 per cent of them are women,” she says.