I don’t want to stop caring

by Gabriella Sonabend

Today it is Jessie’s birthday and we decided to get a tuktuk to ‘Fabindia’, which I am told is the Indian equivalent of GAP to get ourselves kitted out with full Indian dress. After breakfast with the other residents and a rather heated conversation about our various views of the influx of immigrants into various European countries (I won’t go into this as I don’t intend to bore you – I will however say the I was shocked at how right wing and militant some of the residents seemed to appear!) we headed off and within half an hour I felt like I was in the shopping montage in ‘Pretty Woman’ although instead of transforming into a sophisticated escort I was transforming into a modest but tasteful resident of Varanasi.

It was wonderful to spend an hour trying on vibrant outfits in an air-conditioned safe environment with a female shopkeeper. At first I tried to more subtle combinations but soon realised that my ‘dull’ choices seemed to be offending the shop assistant who keep pushing me to try on combinations of orange tops and bright pink bottoms with blue scarves and green handbags. When I tried on grey bottoms (which I think I could easier get away with wearing in London) the assistant seemed horribly depressed and shook her head from side to side, quick literally tutting at me – I bought them anyway. Meanwhile Jessie was being lured in by lime green satin tops, which admittedly I was quite envious of her being able to carry off!

We came back to the residency for lunch where Phyllis, Smiling Mamma, Terry and P were already waiting around the table. One thing I can definitely say about the residency is the food is fantastic. Shinta, the cook is a wizard at preparing tasty Indian food, which can actually be digested by a foreign stomach and I was surprised at how much I was able to eat. During lunch P casually said that Shinta would not be cooking tonight as her brother had died this morning and her father was sick.

There was no more mention of Shinta’s brother and lunch continued. I didn’t really know what to think or say but I was upset about the lack of compassion for the woman employed as a long term cook at the residency. When I left the table I found Shinta sitting at the bottom of the stairs, which lead up to my bedroom. Her head was bowed and her hands slightly trembling.

I said ‘Thank you so much for the food Shinta, it was delicious’ and I waited, I knew she needed to say something. “My brother died, it terrible”, I said “I’m so sorry Shinta, that is very terrible news. I’m so very sorry” I wanted to make a gesture to her which she would be able to relate to, something, which could not be culturally misinterpreted but I could not think what to do and I was worried about somehow causing offence.

I ask “how old was your brother?”, “he no old, he a young man, 40” she replied. I brought my hands together and to my chest in a gesture of respect but I needed to offer something more, I reached out my hand and placed it on top of hers. I had no idea whether this was normal, acceptable, advisable – but it didn’t matter the need for human contact was overwhelming, she looked at me fearfully but she smiled slightly and brought her hands together and to her chest mirroring the gesture of respect and gratitude.

I don’t know what to make of this small interaction, in many ways it feels like the only real thing that has happened here so far. It was so slight and yet so incredibly loaded. I began to think about what her status is here at the residency, whether she is treated with true care or with ‘appropriate’ care. I wondered how she would get home later and where home was, about why her brother had died in Calcutta and about whether people in India are allowed to mourn and to suffer the effects of death in the same way we are able to at home.

Terry was headed for the art store in town and I had no plans so I hopped into a rickshaw with him and began to wind our way through the streets again. As I mentioned before Terry is visiting Varanasi for the 4th time now, after his first visit he knew he would have to return but he was aware of the fact that his love affair with India would not continue forever at that this might be the last visit.

Terry talked about the way he had first been drawn to this city, to the intrigue into Hinduism, to the fascination with symbolism, idolatry, hierarchy etc, but he also talked about the how the evident lack of respect for the environment here ground him down and was harder and harder to ignore each time he returned. He said, quite matter of factly, that with the man power available it would take no time to clean up the various cities and that the effort involved would be relatively minimal – but that people had little interest in sustaining for future generations. He is of course right and I remember talking to Indians about this when I last visited 4 years ago.

On my last visit I had stayed for a week in a small pottery village in the north of India called Andretta. A generous friend (who had parents who owned a house in Andretta) had offered for us to stay in the village in order to experience rural life. It was an incredible experience and the village was stunning however what shocked me was that in this most idyllic rural setting, there was rubbish everywhere I looked. Even when we hiked into the local hills and walked along secluded streams rubbish floated along the waters and polluted every beautiful spot. When I asked an educated Indian friend why this happened even in rural India, he gave me an intriguing explanation.

He told me, that most of the Indian popular have a very different concept of responsibility to westerns for example, because they have a very different concept of time. To a westerner who believes in one earthly life and a life in heaven (if religious) and only one earthly existence (if atheistic) the world is a place, which must be protected now for future generations, the behaviour of current generations is seen to directly affect the next and therefore caring for the environment is crucial. He argued that in Hindu, Indian culture (although India is technically said to be a secular country the majority of its inhabitants are practicing Hindus) the belief in samsara (the endless cycling of life) and karma (balancing forces of positive and negative energy) means that people see time in a very different way. They do not think to the next generation but rather much further into the future, in which ultimately nature and the gods determine the outcome of the earth, their responsibility is removed, therefore it doesn’t make a difference if they protect their environment in the short run – the gods and karma are in control. Dangerous though process and an interesting analysis from an Indian.

Something in this argument doesn’t quite gel here in Varanasi. As I mentioned originally, Varanasi is believed to be the one place where people can escape samsara, the place where if they die people believe they are not reborn but rather they go to heaven. Playing by this logic everyone who lives in Varanasi must believe (assuming they are believers!) that this life they are currently living is their final life and that their children, their friends etc who are born and die here are also here for their respective final lives – so why do they do want these final lives to be as wonderful as possible?

Perhaps after the exhausting experience of being reincarnated continuously for who knows how long people living in Varanasi feel entitled to treat the environment as they please, they have worked to get to this life and to die in Kashi, little else matters – they are headed for better things…

It is hard if not impossible to say, I merely enjoy throwing these ideas around and musing on something I doubt I will ever be able to understand.

Terry told me about his art practice and I in turn talked about my own. He talked about living in Australia, we discussed the way Indian’s treat woman, the cost of living here and the way we didn’t mind paying ‘tourist’ prices as the difference to us was so minimal and yet so great to those receiving the extra money.

We arrived at the art store, which more closely resembled a hole in a wall with a few paints, pencils, paper etc. We then continued on the Assi Ghat (the most southern of the Ghats) where we watched the Ganges rising up onto the steps we walked along. We then went to Open Hand cafe, a little refuge beside Assi Ghat always filled with travellers, where we sat for an hour and shared more impressions of the city and ways to deal with it on an emotional and pragmatic level.

I talked to Terry about the episode with Shinta on the steps and we agreed that we had both been told on countless occasions that ‘you will get used to India’, that ‘you will learn to get on and ignore the poverty’, ‘you will learn to haggle and get local prices’, ‘you will learn to exist with all this surrounding you’ – and I thought to myself –

No. I will not get used to the inequality that I see. I will not learn to ignore begging children and the absence of women in public spaces, I will not learn to overlook class hierarchy, I will not become numb, I don’t want to stop caring.

This doesn’t mean that I believe I can change anything, I am not foolish, but just because I cannot change a society it does not mean that I have to comply with its arbitrary and discriminating rules, which allow some people to live in palaces whilst others are treated like stray dogs.

People told me before I came out here to be careful because Indian’s can be extremely deceitful, they can lie about anything to manipulate and get what they want. In hindsight this idea infuriates me – I don’t care if people lie to me, I don’t care if they are deceitful, if they are driven to this way of behaviour it must be through desperation, it is a survival instinct and how can I possibly judge this behaviour. Furthermore, how can someone who is essentially powerless, limited in education, money and amenities possibly be a manipulator of someone who is liberated, independent and educated. Something doesn’t quite add up!

I am now headed for ‘The Kebab Factory’ a fancy restaurant in a local hotel where we are celebrating Jessie’s birthday. More thoughts later.