A call to Kashi

by Gabriella Sonabend

It happened almost a year ago now, in January 2013, I had spent the previous few months organising and participating in an exhibition, one which had been very personal, all-consuming and ultimately one which left me exhausted for the following months. The exhibition was in the house of my late grandfather, a man who had in many ways had been an extremely ordinary man but had also been rather extraordinary at the same time. I remember sitting with him during the months before he passed away. I held his hands and we sat in silence listening to the sounds of the summer outside his bedroom window. We listened to the murmur of the house, the gurgling pipes and the creaking doors. He did not wish to listen to music and he spoke few words, he preferred to be encased by the sounds of the world which he had created, within the walls which he had built, and plastered, painted and adorned with paintings. He lay humbly and with little protest and allowed memories to wash over him, smiling at those which were pleasant and graciously accepting those which had been less fortuitous. During this time he communicated to me some of his fears, his regrets and his hopes. He asked me on three occasions if I believed in god, I found it hard to lie to him. “I don’t believe in god’ he once told me “but I believe in people who believe in god” These were his very words and they resonated with a level of absurdity that only a true atheist could conjure. He also told me about the women, who he never had the guts to seduce and the men that he had coward away from. He communicated his sense of disappointed in himself for not having acted upon certain feelings or beliefs; through his soft and humble words he communicated a great sense of dignity which held to him until his final breath.

He had by no means been a perfect man and the years of his marriage to my grandmother had been testing and often provoked him to make rash and unkind decisions; to behave thoughtlessly and show a total lack of empathy; but in the years he spent alone locked away in the big old house in Willesden another man was revealed with a slow, stoic, thoughtful and pragmatic character. A man of precision and tenacity; a man who had chosen to create a dining room based on the style of Versailles with fake columns and imitation ebony cabinets but who had no desire to entertain; a man who at the age of 80 decided to re-tile his bathroom one tiny fragment of smashed tile at a time (this was the second time he had tiled it, the first job eventually surrendering to age and fragility collapsing on the wood floor in the middle of the night).

He was a father, a doctor, an ex-husband, a grandfather, a pioneer and a recluse, and in his private way he spent his latter years refining his thoughts, devoting himself to academia and rigorous labour and all the while he injected fragments of his existence into the building that contained him, so that when he lay on his death bed and chose not to listen to music – instead he could hear these fragments resonating, murmuring, bickering, laughing, telling the story of his life, a life contained in one mustard coloured house in Willesden Green.

When he passed, I returned to the house many times alone. I sat in his bedroom surrounded by his objects and I sat there once more after they had been removed. I closed my eyes and turned my face to the windows which looked out onto the garden and I heard his sounds reverberating still through the skin of each room and through the bare bone of the brick work. The sounds were so loud and so distinctive that I decide to invite other people to come and listen to them with me. 7 other artists became part of an exhibition which attempted to excavate the story of an unknown man who had embedded himself so effectively into his own world. The result was overwhelming, each artist who came into the house discovered a different facet which meant something to them, either in the handiwork, the possessions once owned or in the way that the space had been employed and together as a unit we teased out a story and allowed it to move from the bones of the house to the surface where outsiders could come and engage and listen and understand.

The exhibition lasted two weeks and then I had nothing. I felt that I had transformed the house into a literal representation of its symbolic self and now it stood independent of me and my thoughts, it didn’t need me anymore. Time passed, days, weeks and then months and I thought about curating another show about something else, somewhere else, but I was incapable of doing anything. With no space to guide me, there seemed little point in making anything. Then I began to dream of Kashi.

It had been 4 years since I had last gone to India and although I had thought about India almost every day since first going, I had scarcely dreamt about it. The first dream was distinctively vivid, it was a dream of smells and heat and agitation and I woke up sweating unsure of where the dream had taken place or what it had entailed. A few days later I dreamed of Kashi again; this time with images that lasted until dawn when I awoke startled. I had seen a small stray dog devouring the carcass of another and in my peripheral vision men squatted close to the ground and passed small objects between themselves;. Everything seemed muted and I could not hear but rather I could feel the pull of the Ganges and the bodies which waited to float along the great river, both dead and alive. Weeks passed with trivial dreams of silly goings on and inconsequential nonsense, and then again one night I dreamed of Kashi. This time I was walking through a sloping alleyway towards the river, the buildings arose tall either side of me and I felt the skin of a cow cushion me on one side. I began to walk with the withered animal and it allowed me to lean on it as we made our way along the alleyway. This time there were sounds, and these sounds were almost deafening, there was the growl of motorcycles and the endless horns; there were the begging children who pleaded and tugged on the ends of clothes; the mothers who carried baskets which scratched against the stone walls as they slid passed. These sounds accumulated until they became one enormous hum, the hum of thousands of different frequencies, of different voices and actions, different fears, desires and hopes. I woke again.

The next time I dreamed of Kashi it was a dull day in London. It was winter February 2013 and it had been raining persistently for days. Friends seemed more distant in the months when the days were shorter and I found myself on the phone at all hours taking comfort in the sounds of friends’ voices when I knew I might not see them for months. London often seems to come to a strange sort of standstill in the winter, it is still the busy, overwhelming city that it is known to be but there is a silence that hangs over it after Christmas and New Year’s Eve that can hold for months. I walked through my house and drank endless cups of tea; I ate dark chocolate digestive biscuits and called my mum twice with nothing to say. I doodled on post-it notes and messed around on my guitar, I clipped my toenails, had a bath and then I booked my flight.

I had just enough money left in my bank account to book the flight, I selected a date which seemed appropriate the 2nd October 2013, and I told no one. I waited for the winter to pass and the dreams persisted. I found a place to stay and months later I find myself here about to depart for Varanasi, the city of light, the holy city, the city of death.

It is a Hindu belief that Kashi, (Varanasi has many names), the city of light is reflected in all the cities throughout India, that its light is fragmented and mirrored in every ray which pours from the sun onto the hot earth beneath. It is a city which is said to have fallen from the heavens; a city formed from dreams, standing as a midpoint between mortal life and whatever is believed to follow. Like the River Styx it is a through road and the sadhus who sit on the side of the Ganga and stare across the water into the yellow light see this vividly.

I have been called to Kashi through dreams and fragmented memories. As my grandfather allowed himself to fragment and solidify in every crevice of his old musty house, the notion of Kashi is fragmented; it is a place which resonates within all. It is the light within the stories of the many, many lives which populate India, but it is also a real place. It is a place of poverty, of delusion, of disappointment and hardship; it is a place of human kindness and beauty and of immorality and thoughtlessness. Its image shifts continuously between that of the symbolic place and the real. I have been called to Kashi to sit at the heart of this ever shifting city and decipher my own vision of it.

I do not go to romanticise, I do not go to run away from my own reality. I go for the sake of going; to listen, to smell and to watch.


This blog will contain a day by day account of my experience in India. I will be honest and open; I will share my fears, my joy, my disgust and my confusion as they develop. I will speak of my own experience and make no attempt to speak for others.