A call to Kashi


I sit in a tall building overlooking London, it is a grey misty day like any other. It has been months since I left Kashi and still I am struggling to process what happened there. I am struggling to understand how rapidly I became drawn into another culture and another way of being. I am shocked at how tethered I thought I had become to that world, to the extent that I truly believed that I did not care if I died there. It was a reality so potent, yet not one that I belonged to.

January and February seemed to disappear, the rhythm of city life drives forward and there is the endless pressure to show progression in one’s life. There is the endless feeling of isolation. I leave my house and spend days walking through the streets, long hours pass where I neither make eye contact nor acknowledge another passing body. I disappear amongst the concrete and the shop fronts and in some ways I revel in this invisibility, it is a welcome change from the conspicuous state of being a white women in India, but at times the introversion of the city is despairing and everything feels utterly hopeless. 

I try to hold on to the feelings and knowledge I gained in that other world but there are no funeral pyres to visit in London to remind me of life’s stark realities and intense beauty. Everything in the city is an attempt to shield, to cover, to obscure; superficial signs and interactions, but I am hopeful yet. My walk has slowed, my watch remains at the back of a draw, I try not to panic every time I am asked what I am doing with my life. I do not dream of Kashi. I do not dream at all. I do not judge the world around me, or try to assert myself in it; instead I just allow my life to happen in both its extraordinary and mundane way. 

I walk beside two men as they cross Waterloo Bridge, one of the men is American (California) and the other Eastern European (I cannot place his accent), the American is telling the other how fortuitous their meeting has been. He talks about how they had met the day that he was made redundant and how their meeting had changed everything. He talked about the cosmos and karma, fate, serendipity and every other word for chance and he was exhilarated as he persuaded the other man of the brilliance of their meeting. I walked beside them and smiled, it was an amusing exchange, the other man did not share his friends enthusiasm in the slightest but politely nodded his head and looked out across the river to the east side of the city. I followed his gaze, the light was fading and I accelerated to walk beside another group; French tourists who enthusiastically snapped pictures of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament. It is a spectacular view. 


Final Gestures

  1. I am sitting at Assi Ghat, it is dusk and mist dances across the stone steps, the candlelights on the river are soft and hazy through the thick white. The ghat is crowded with tourists, vendors and locals enjoying the evening. I was with my friend but now I am alone and as I sit I notice a circle of men standing behind and around me, peering down. A small girl approaches me, she wears a pink sweater and a Jamaican flag hat with Marijuana leaves stitched on the sides, she is holding a basket of flowers but she does not try to sell any to me. She seems to look me up and down as if she is sizing me up, I watch her and when it seems she is satisfied she climbs up the steps, puts down her basket and sits beside me. She looks up into my eyes.

“I’m Priya and I’m ten”

“I’m Gaby, nice to meet you”

I begin to ask her questions, she tells me that she hasn’t sold any flowers today, it is hard work and she doesn’t like the people that hang around the ghats. I ask about her family, she has a sister and two brothers, her brothers are aggressive and they push her around, her sister she tells me is very lazy and refuses to sell flowers. I ask Priya if she is afraid, she is not afraid but she does not trust the men in Banaras, she does not trust the boys. She shuffles closer and closer to me, she is bright-eyed and her English is excellent. She tells me she learns it at school but mostly she learns from speaking to tourists on the ghats. I tell her that I am very impressed with her English and that she must keep studying hard, perhaps she won’t always have to work here. She tells me she sells candles to pay for extra lessons but she does not need to worry about her future yet.

“There is time for deciding” she tells me earnestly and I am shocked at her calm wisdom. She tells me that she wants to give me something, a present from her. She covers my eyes and tells me to open my hand, I feel something heavy and smooth. I open my eyes and inside my palm I find a beautiful white bracelet made from pearl-like plastic beads.

“I can’t take this from you”

“You must, it is my gift to you. Please it would make me too happy. You must keep it”

“But do you not want it?”

“I buy it, but I don’t need it anymore, now I give it to you”.

I am speechless. A child who essentially has nothing has just given me one of her few possessions. I put in on and she sighs in appreciation. I reach into my bag; I must give her something in exchange. A few days ago I found a wonderful stone carver, a gentle, warm man who carves the smallest stone elephants that I have ever seen, in his spare time. These were not on display in the shop but he shown me his own personal experiments and when I asked to purchase one such miniature elephant, he was genuinely reluctant and anxious that I would somehow break it – it was his finest work. We bargained and bantered and I walked away with the world’s smallest elephant packaged inside a tiny wooden egg. It was my Banaras treasure and I intended to keep it in my wallet as a travelling companion, but in this moment I knew it had to pass it on. I beckoned Priya towards me and told the men leering behind us to move away, I held the tiny egg in my palms and she peered over at the strange shape. She discretely opened the egg and found the little animal inside, her eyes glowed and I made her promise to keep it a secret, to keep it for herself, it was her treasure now. She promised emphatically and for a brief moment she gave me her little hand. Her friends arrived with their flower baskets and began their sales pitches but most of them knew me and soon put down the flowers to talk instead.

  1. Two warm blankets for scarcely any money, but I know that this is not enough. I go to find Ligoty, she is in her usual spot, and I give her the two blankets.

“One for you, one for your sister”

She nods and gathers them in her arms. I reach out for her hand and she places it in mine, her eyes are wide as ever and she smells like the stale dirt of the street. I hope that she uses this blanket and that it isn’t resold, I hope she is warm tonight.

  1. I have printed pictures of Payal and I standing in front of the drawing of her on Assi Ghat. I am smiling a Cheshire grin and she looks happy and very sleepy (it is 6.30am). I take these photographs to her home, it is around 9 at night and she is inside her small room with her entire family, they lay across each other on the bed, her mother at the centre.

“I have come to say goodbye, I’m leaving”. Payal is at the back in the kitchen and she rushes out to me, and flings her arms around me. I can’t believe how upset she seems about the fact I am leaving and am equally amazed at my own emotional response. I am fighting back tears, my teeth are chattering I will genuinely miss this family, they have shown me such incredible warmth and generosity, they have been a symbol of beauty amongst the pain the mess and the dirt. I hold her to me, I will see her again I am sure and I tell her this, she promises me she will continue to be strong for her family and that she will keep beating up bad men, (this is a remarkable talent of hers), she is an exceptional woman in this society and I have no doubts that she will be ok, still the idea of leaving her here is painful. Her cousin runs out and wraps herself around me; little Muscan with her round cheeks and slanted eyes, she kisses my hand. I am beckoned into the room and towards the bed, I am suddenly at the centre of dozens of limbs, arms and legs wrapped around me, I am being kissed and offered gestures of prayer. Payal’s mother sits at the centre of the bed and shakes her head smiling at me, she touches her heart; I touch mine.

I have never before experienced such an explosion of genuine warmth; I am tingling in every digit and every limb.  There is no reserve whatsoever, I understand that this family is bound together by a great force of female love, they are a troupe of adoring women and during this brief moment they extended this love to me. England seemed so distant.

Payal asked me to close my eyes and to stand still; she wrapped a beaded necklace around me.

“So you will not forget me” I could never forget her. Never.

We say goodbye a hundred times, I find it almost impossible to leave the little home. I do leave – this is not my home.

  1. I have one more photograph to give; it is a photograph of the drawing of Ligoty blowing in the breeze at Assi Ghat. It is 10pm; I approach the small platform where the beggars sleep, a fingerless man and the beggar girls’ mother sit beside a small fire of burning plastic. Beside them are a pile of blankets, which I recognise as the girls’. The mother watches me approach and beckons me towards her, I give her the photograph and she shows it to the man. She smiles and thanks me; he also thanks me and offers a gesture of respect. I whisper that the photograph is for Ligoty, the mother understands, she crawls towards her daughter and gently places the photograph beneath her sleeping head. Sleeping rough, a single photograph for a pillow. I don’t see the new blankets.

The last few

I am walking along the ghats with Sam and suddenly I bump into a friend from home, although I knew that he was coming to Banaras I did not expect to see him and I am somewhat thrown off course. I had had hundreds of ideas about how I was going to spend my final week, I would walk the length of the ghats in both directions, I would take a rickety boat to the other side of the river and simply sit for a day, I was going to buy a sweater to put on a goat, (this is something that happens particularly in Banaras). I thought about finding a recording studio and making a new track. In reality after our modest Christmas I did very little and was held back by a new bout of health issues including intensely bad back pains. I spent hours on my bed staring at the black spots on the walls and ceiling, which had once been mosquitoes. I ventured to the ghats on some afternoons, I even flew kites on the lawn in front of the great white mansion next to the gallery – but nothing grand happened, and there was no epic close. Time did not race but rather it seemed to slip away and I became increasingly conflicted about returning home.

Kite flying season has begun and the ghats are filled with young children eagerly kite cutting and playing cricket throughout the days. Christmas has bought large waves of tourists and in my last days I watched as greenhorns felt their way around the unfamiliar landscape. Bargaining fights with rickshaw drivers prevailed. I watched as men in sparkling, home-made brightly coloured sweater-vests whizzed around on their bicycles. I sat at the burning ghat, the pyres never cease, there is an endless supply of bodies and every day young children who I have never seen before arrive by the waterside with baskets of flowers and candles to sell. As I sat amidst the clouds of drifting smoke I remembered standing inside the well and understanding that somehow I was an integral part of this chaotic and ever-changing landscape, I remembered the way I became part of its deep echo. At home I have never known this feeling. Here I am an outsider and a stranger but in this state I have been welcomed in and acknowledged, at home I am simply another body in a city of ever passing faces. I am afraid to return to this reality, this great loneliness.

The water buffalo continue their path to an unknowable place. The dogs patrol and parade, they run in gangs. In a small back alley in the old city I see something extraordinary, a small dog sleeping on top of a dozing cow, their forms are so perfectly moulded together – one acting as a bed the other as a blanket. The pigs remain humbly and obliviously inside the gutters; they roll in sewage and make no attempt to brave the chaotic roads.

Outside the residency the road is still being reconstructed, in my first week they had dug it up in order to lay power lines, now it is being dug up again to install a new sewage pipe. My original assumption seems to be confirmed – progress is near impossible in Varanasi. Certainly every two steps forward is taken with one step back.

I do not know how to say goodbye to the people that I have met here. I have forged so many friendships, which are so different from the ones I have known at home. I have no idea how to say goodbye to the women and the girls that I have drawn, although I scarcely know them I feel so deeply connected to them I shiver at the idea of leaving them. I still do not know the significance of my act, perhaps I never will.

My thoughts seem to become increasingly fragmented. I have learned so much and yet I feel utterly ignorant, I have barely scraped the surface of this world, I have looked through one lens and I have tried to look without judgments or assumptions – I have seen vividly and felt strongly, yet I can hardly make sense of any of what

The hand that swings

Christmas passed by Varanasi with relative modesty, some small shops hung Santa costumes outside and put emaciated plastic trees on sale, a handful of Westerner’s cafes closed for the day; but in general life continued oblivious to the Christian festival, it paled in comparison to the great ceremonies of the Hindi festivals and Muslim parades. At the residency I decorated the kitchen with garish bright decorations in the middle of the night and we gathered in the morning in my makeshift winter wonderland for pancakes and gifts. We had agreed to each buy a gift for a limit of 500 rupees within the theme of “God’s Gift”, which we would then swap on Christmas day. I bought a small golden model of a tuktuk and filled it with figurines of the Hindu Gods, I stuck a sticker of the Virgin Mary on the roof and a sign that said ‘God bless you’ – the result was an intricate and extremely tacky Godmobile. It was a lovely calm day, free from the pressures that Christmas always seems to bring back home; I stayed within the gallery gates and shut myself off to the mania beyond.

Thursday – four days left in India. Somehow I am not filled with any desire to ‘make the most’ of these last few days, my adventuring spirit has depleted in the past few weeks, with my work finished and shipped back to England I feel purposeless. I think about home constantly with both excitement and dread. I can’t imagine how my life will be in only a few weeks, I fear suffering from reverse culture shock – how will I sleep without the persistent sound of horns outside? How will I cross a road with a designated crossing and traffic lights? Will I be intimated by public intimacy and offended by scantily clad women? Will I dream of the burning ghats and long for the realities, which this world presents – the base truth of death, the grime and the dirt?

In the morning I amble along the riverfront and sit on the steep steps watching as children fly kites and new tourists walk by in inappropriate dress, holding hands and displaying a total lack of sensitivity for their cultural surroundings, this amazes me, even though I see it often. I wander into little shops and buy trinkets for friends and family at home. I sit on the steps at Assi Ghat. Here the vendors know me and I am not bothered, I stare at the river in front of me, the sky is clear but somehow a mist seems to gather on the opposite bank.

As I fall deeper into my daydream a small face pops up in front of me with a smile stretched from ear to ear. She is shy and bashful and sways her body from side to side; her eyes are filled with excitement.

Ligoty stands before me, adoring and shy. I talk to her but she does not understand anything I am saying, her smile grows. She sits next to me and stares up at me. A local man approaches and he tells me that she is a beggar and that she wants my money, he tells me I am rich and I am pitying her, he tells me that the children who have now gathered around her are her brothers and sisters. They are not. I tell the man to back away, that they are not her siblings and that I know her. He seems shocked and asks Ligoty in Hindi if she knows me, she shakes her head joyfully but she does not speak to him. She shuffles closer and closer to me. The man asks me if I am going to adopt her, I am completely thrown by this question, of course I am not, it would be practically impossible, I have no means to support a child, I would never be granted permission to bring her out of India and if I did what life could I give her? You can’t just choose a child to bring home… I realise that I am seriously entertaining his question and that I harbour an extremely strong maternal instinct that makes me want to shout out “Of course I’m going to adopt her, what else can I do!” but I suppress the irrational urge to shout. I watch Ligoty staring up at me and I know that there is very little I can do to help her. I stand up and walk towards a cafe where I am meeting a friend. Ligoty jumps up with me and as I walk she skips at my side and swings up her mud covered hand and lands it in mine. Her hand is tiny and very dry, her fingernails are bitten short – the feeling of her tiny hand inside mine is explicable. I am filled with an overwhelming rush of sorrow, helplessness and guilt. I feel guilty because I know I can offer little more than this moment and the gesture of capturing her portrait and I can’t imagine the significant of this act for her. I want to be able to give her something else, but what can I give? Her smile is enormous and I smile back at her, when we reach the paving stone where her mother and sister sit with begging bowls I feel her hand slip out of mine, she lands crossed legged on the floor in front of her mother and reaches for her own tin bowl. I continue up the street and as I walk she watches me. A blanket, shoes, a sweater… what can I bring her that will provide some genuine help and if I bring something for her surely I must bring something for every other beggar on that strip. This I could afford to do, but what would be the significance of this act? What would it mean for these people and those around them? Would it be entirely positive or are there somehow possible negative repercussions that I can’t conceive? I am extremely confused, I do not want to act foolishly, I know enough about this culture to understand that there is deep significance in every exchange and every gesture.


Payal in the wind

Payal’s portrait flutters in the wind.



Ligoty stands beneath her portrait.


In moments of stillness

We arrive at Assi Ghat at 6.30am, Navneet, Petra, Kyle, Amber, Sam and I. Norman is already there, he is wrapped in a navy blue shawl and he sits staring at the river. I am carrying a suitcase filled with my drawings. We take a long white line of rope and tie it around the orange poles on the ghat. Together we remove the works from the suitcase and hang them with bulldog clips along the white rope; it is a dull grey morning. There is a light cold wind and very few people present. We have arrived early to install my works during the morning puja, (as this is the time when usually one sees the largest congregation of women on the ghats), but the cold has kept people in their beds and there are no women in sight.

As we hang the works and they begin to stretch further and further across the ghat people begin to emerge and curiously crowd around, they offer to help and want to advise me on where to hang each piece. They excitedly point out gaps to me and tell me what they think would look best where, this is very typical behaviour – no matter what I do at what time of day, in every location it seems there are men present to provide me with their opinions and advise about absolutely everything!

The men and boys continue to accumulate and stand around watching and commenting, as they gather a woman sweeps the steps of the ghat, she does not notice the drawings of the women hanging above her, she is committed to her work; she does not have time to waste lingering. More men appear. A group of women approach, they head for the Ganges to perform their morning rituals, they walk through a gap in the installation; they do not notice the work and continue with their activities. A cow soon follows behind.

I stand back and watch the scene and I am immediately struck by its absurd poignancy. I have created an installation of images of women in moments of stillness and calm; and of course there are no women present to witness this gesture. I have brought a body of faces to the Ganges in moments of stillness to stand in for the real women who rarely have the time to stop and pause.

One of the girls in my drawings is sitting on the road that leads to the ghat; she is a beggar and sits cross legged and shivering between her mother and footless man, in front of her is a metal bowl for collecting money. I leave the installation and walk over to invite her to see her portrait, when I arrive she is gone but her little sister is there and sits in an oversized sweater vest and a woolen hat, she stares up at me as I approach. I crouch down on the floor before her and her mother and I try to explain that I am looking for her sister and that I have something to show her, of course she does not understand, she is very small (only four years old) but she remembers me and her mother encourages her to follow me. The little girl stands up and the enormous vest drags at her ankles, she waddles along as if walking inside a sack and I slow my pace to walk beside her, she is neither scared nor excited. We arrive at the ghat and I show her the drawings, her eyes widen and seem to stretch out across her tiny face, her mouth hangs open and she stares at the drawings hanging above, I guide her to the drawing of her sister and a local Indian boy translates as I explain who it is. She immediately understands and excitedly waddles back to the line of beggars, I watch as the oversized sweater shrinks in the distance. Meanwhile, more people have gathered and everyone is asking questions and commenting on the works, a boy selling flowers tells me ‘These drawings are very nice, I will buy one from you, but not today, one day when I have some more money’. A man wrapped in a red shawl smiles an enormous beaming smile and shakes his head from side to side in joyous appreciation ‘Oh, this is very nice, very nice, very nice’ he says, he seems so overjoyed that I can’t help myself from laughing, his joy is infectious and I can’t quite believe how taken he is.

The little girl has returned and she is holding her sister’s hand, she guides her to her portrait and Ligoty stares up at the image of her own face speechless. As people come and go and early rising tourists keenly try to work out what is going on, Ligoty and her little sister remain where they are simply staring in awe. They watch the people moving around the work and they stand and smile. They remain with me for hours, slowly looking at every drawing, every women blowing in the light morning wind.

Payal arrives at the ghat, she runs the local laundry in Assi and it was she who helped me to stitch the fabric panels, on which the portraits have been mounted. She is wrapped in a turquoise shawl, which matches the colour that I have painted around her portrait, it is a wonderful coincidence and she smiles shyly as she approaches her drawing. Payal wraps her arms around me and squeezes me tight, she is very sleepy and cold, her hair which is usually tied in a tight bun hangs loose at her waist, it falls out of the bottom of her shawl like a thick black tail. I take her under my arm and walk her along the line of drawings, I tell her about each woman, every drawing has an anecdote and she listens and laughs and points out her favourites. We look at the faces together and Payal interprets their expressions, their humour, their shame, their joy and their sorrow.

I call over the local chai vendor and we all stand around shivering, drinking chai from small clay bowls, Ligoty and her sister shyly join us and wrap their tiny hands around the bowls staring up at the group in amazement. They can’t believe they are being included in such a scene; it is not common for beggars to be invited to join in the same activities as tourists.

Eventually the other artists leave with Navneet and I remain on the ghat with Norman and the images, Payal goes to work and only the beggar girls remain still staring up at the drawings -mesmerised.

I am still processing this experience and its significance. Everything I have written about to date, every observation and emotion seemed to culminate in these cold morning hours. They were loaded with my personal struggles and my desperate need to communicate. The cold, grey loneliness of the morning could not have been more fitting – as if the setting were summoned to intensify the message of the work. I am trying to articulate something; I do not feel that my language is clear. On the morning of the 20th December 2013, the faces of 40 women spoke for themselves in stillness and in silence. One more great Indian paradox.

'In Moments of Stillness' Installation, Assi Ghat, Varanasi

©GabriellaSonabend 2013
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Sans pity