Welcome to Banaras

by Gabriella Sonabend

It is funny how the mind has the most incredible ability to warp our memories of places. How it can distort our notions of smell, of textures, of sounds, vibrations everything that contributes to the fabric of a place.

I flew to India last night and beside me on the plane was a young woman called Charlie who had never been to India before and was bound for a famous Ashram in Rishikesh where the Beatles had sought enlightenment in the 60s. Charlie had studied politics at Cambridge, and had subsequently spent the past few years working for various charities; eventually working with homeless people teaching yoga. Now she was bound for India to do what sounded like an incredibly intensive yoga course to learn how to become a fully qualified teacher. She talked to me about the way the ashram would be run, the daily routine which involved cleaning, chanting, yoga, meditation, more cleaning, more chanting, more yoga, from 5am to 8pm every day. It sounded blissful, away from a city, a perfectly secluded place, simple, obsessively clean and quiet. As I listened to her talk about her lovely hippy yogic hopes and dream I picked the dirt underneath my nails and I thought “FUCK, why the hell am I bound for Varanasi!”

The flight passed quickly, I watched a Ryan Gosling film, which disappointingly I rather enjoyed despite my best efforts not to. I found out that Charlie had accidentally set her hostel room on fire in Thailand and had been put in a Thai prison for 3 days as a result having to bribe her way out and back home. I couldn’t quite understand the casual way she had recounted this story and hoped that she would be safe travelling alone in India.

In Delhi airport I was carrying my book “Baranas, City of Lights” as I walked from the plane to the terminal and an American girl called Jessie asked me if I was bound for Varanasi. It quickly transpired that she was an architect-come-artist who has an exhibition in a contemporary art gallery in Varanasi this week. Of course I knew that there is only one contemporary art gallery in Varanasi and told her that we were headed the same way. We left the terminal together and boarded the shuttle bus to the other terminal (assuming we’d be on the same flight), it wasn’t long before I realised I was actually flying from the international terminal an hour after her and so I remained on the shuttle and circled the airport catching a quick glimpse of Delhi. It looked different from the last time I was there, greener, cleaner somehow, I saw fewer people lying out on the street and the heat, although overwhelming, was less oppressive than I remember it being.

A few hours later I was on my way to Varanasi where Jessie and Navneet (the owner of the residency and gallery) met me at the airport. Navneet was holding a sign which had a rather comical interpretation of my name written across it. We loaded our things into his charming old car and started on our journey to the residency. Last time I had been to Varanasi I had travelled in by train and so I could not distinguish any of the streets; it was as if it was the first time I had been here. I do not even know how to begin describing this city, if you have been to India I can say that it is alike many places in India: saturated with people, with sounds, with smells and noises. Its shops sell everything from the most banal objects to the most fantastical and curious items. The roads, Navneet told me, do not always look this way; this week is something of an extreme. The local authorities have decided that it was an opportune time to resurface the roads, but not some of the roads systematically and logically as you might expect in any other part of the world… No. They have decided to resurface all the roads, throughout the entire city, and all at once. And as if that isn’t challenge enough, they have also decided to take down the facades of multiple buildings too, I can’t quite understand the thought process behind this but perhaps this is the reason:

I think, and please don’t quote me on this, that the reason the building facades have been removed is so that when pedestrians are climbing over the mountains of rubble that might once have represented roads, (although I doubt they ever really did), they can have interesting and varied views into the living rooms, toilets and bedrooms of the people living in the now façade-less buildings alongside the roads.

There is something about India that is truly glorious.

So we make our way along these pock marked roads and cows wander freely, stray dogs roll down rubble mounds and children kick loose pieces of concrete and stone into the craters beneath. Families ride motorcycles 5 people at once and small boys wind around cars on bicycles, as old men struggle to pull rickshaws and tuktuk drivers spit sticky red paan onto the roadside. Old women walk with wicker baskets filled with vegetables and household goods in their arms and on top of their heads. Little girls skip together in navy blue school uniforms and knee high white socks (now speckled brown and black with mud), sadhus slowly make their way towards the Ganges and occasionally a tourist can be spotted trying to avoid buying something from someone or ignoring a begging child. Eventually after over an hour for a journey which ought to have taken 20 minutes, we arrive at Kriti. We pass through authoritative (commanding?) guarded high metal gates to see a grand colonial house at the end of the large lawn stretched out in front of us. I soon discover that this is Navneet’s family home and that his grandfather (who is still alive) built it; it will now pass down every generation of his family until the last.

The house, I learn, was always filled with artists as Navneet grew up and he felt that the presence of these creative people enriched his youth and gave him a more worldly perspective. He casually recounted a story about his grandfather hosting John Lennon back in the 60s before changing the conversation to something else entirely. He said that the reason the residency here came into being, was because he had grown up surrounded by artists, something that he loved. The big old house was now too busy to host people there so he had built 6 artist’s studios and the gallery on the plot of land in front of the house.

5 large studios are on the ground floor and back onto the gallery. There is a communal kitchen space, a beautiful garden surrounding the living spaces and a large vegetable garden behind the artist’s rooms. I live in studio 6, which was built most recently. It is up the stairs above the gallery space and it looks out onto the little garden outside. This room was built and designed by a very curious man named Norman, who I will speak about in a later entry. Navneet showed me to my studio and introduced me to Petra, his partner from Germany who moved to Varanasi about 6 years ago and has been organising the gallery and Navneet ever since! Petra is a very peaceful and strangely authoritative woman. She is very tall and has the most incredible air of certainty, I feel oddly infantilised beside her but take comfort in the feeling. It is reassuring to have a matriarch close by!

I unpack my possessions in my room which is light and simple. The room has a workspace with two desks, two wicker chairs, and a day bed and then it has a rather precarious looking staircase which leads up to an elevated sleeping area. There is something about this space which seems perfectly designed for an artist. It has a great balance between being comfortable and homely, whilst also being clean and emotionless – a space demanding its inhabitant to breath creativity into it. At least this is what I tell myself as I try not to worry about falling off my elevated platform in my sleep or about the famous monkey who sits outside my room at night and is not a friend of the residency!

As soon as I have put away my clothes and work equipment I realise that for the first time in my life, I have under-packed, I have been so anxious to remember every crucial piece of camera gear, every cable and recording devise that I have somehow managed to arrive in India for 3 months with only 1 t-shirt and 2 shirts!

Petra comes into my room and informs me she, along with the other residents and Navneet is going to a hotel on the Ganges to listen to a lecture on art history and the symbolism of sacrifice in art. It sounds interesting and as I am trying to fight jet lag and exhaustion I join them. We jump into Navneet’s old car and head for the Ganges. The hotel we go to is right beside the Ganges amphitheater. We remove our shoes and go into a dimly lit room with a circle of wooden chairs facing an armchair where a blond woman dressed in traditional Indian dress sits and anxiously holds a hardback book (which I assume must be her own). An eccentric French woman called Uma flits between the people already in the room encouraging them to sit down as she swings her sari from side to side. There are a number of naive looking American students perched on some of the chairs, some sit apprehensively on the floor and stare up at the blond woman expectantly. Slowly the room begins to fill and Uma introduces us to the speaker who has come to talk about her new book.

To give a short and rather cynical summary, this is what the professor said:

She had written a book about the way self-sacrifice had been depicted in some Indian Art (she was not specific about which). She was interested in the difference between self-sacrifice and altruism, she believes that people in India had willing given their lives to the gods or for the honour of kings etc. and that this had been a free chose…

I will not bore you with further details of a talk which made very little sense and showed a total lack of enquiry into the heart of the topic it was claiming to tackle. When the topic of Sati came up and the lecturer said she believed that as westerners we did not have the right to criticise what might have been a very private act and choice for many women – I sort of lost it…

I asked a question which had been sitting on the surface of my mind for a while and has seemingly become more and more relevant lately.

“What is the meaning of a private act? What is the meaning of a private choice?”

I might as well state now, (and this will be crucial in understanding my view of the world I am now immersed in), that I do not believe that people in situations of high pressure, of institutionalised ideas, of corruption, of any circumstance where they have never been given another means of viewing their lives – have such things as private choices – that is choices, which are made with no ties to social/political/religious pressures. Therefore in the same way that women in the UK may choose to remove body hair, (because it is socially normal), women in India might agree to throw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres (because this is what is implicitly expected of them) – to be honest, I find it hard to believe that even in a world where these women are totally indoctrinated that they would in any way want to jump into the flames of their husband’s ashes.

The professor argued that possibly these women were worried about loneliness, that they could not bear the idea of living without their husbands and so they felt compelled to die. What a load of nonsense. Sati to me seems cruel, calculated and ultimately about economics! There is a mouth left to feed, with no one to feed it, people live in difficult conditions in a Darwinian world, it is easier to convince a widow to kill herself than to take care of her.

Why am I recounting this argument? After the lecture, the group from the residency went to a local pizza place where I ate a surprisingly good pizza. Navneet sat next to me and asked about my thoughts on the lecture. I told him quite plainly how I had felt;, that it had angered me that the professor had refused to acknowledge politics and economics factors and was afraid of criticising the actions of another culture for fear of seeming judgmental. It angered me because no matter what a cultural practice is or why it develops if it leads to the harm, disrespect or destruction of its own people it must be looked at with the upmost attention and criticism. Navneet agreed entirely and added that her strange political correctness was the kind that contributes to allowing these terrible cultural practices to continue.

This is when I realised that in Navneet I have an ally. An Indian man who feels so passionately about the rights of women (he told me) that “I have only ever got in three fights in my entire life, and each time was because I was intervening to protect a woman who was being violently assaulted”, The last time this had happened he had ended up in prison. The ‘shamed’ wife had reported him instead of her husband to abate her husband’s anger. This story is seemingly typical out here. This topic is something I will revisit in greater detail in a later post.

We returned to the residency and by then I was utterly exhausted. By 9pm I had climbed into my elevated bed and fallen asleep.

At around 12am I woke startled. I had had a very strange dream. A man had knocked on my bedroom door and asked me to follow him to the street, I followed. When we reached the end of the path that lead from the residency to the street I saw that the streets were empty and perfectly resurfaced. The weather was oddly cold and dry and as I looked along the street there was no one in sight. I looked back at the man and he shook his head from side to side and smiled as he stretched out his arms to indicate his joy with the new road. I could not understand where all the people had gone. In the distance I heard the endless horns of the city.

Even at night there is no silence in Varanasi. As I sat on my bed at midnight I tried to calmly fight off the sense of fear growing within me; fear that I will not be able to handle this world that I have travelled to; fear that I will not be able to work, that I will not be able to think clearly but will simply become consumed by the mess and havoc that encompasses this shapeless place. I am scared that I have left my friends and my family in search of clarity and that I have come to the murkiest place in the world in which to do so.

I maturely tell myself that sleep deprivation does not help and perhaps I might feel differently in the morning.