The photo that I didn’t take

by Gabriella Sonabend

We headed back into the old town again this morning, Terry and I. This day was different from the others so far. We are currently in the midst of a week of goddess worship and the streets are filled with women heading towards temples to honour their respective deities, (each one has her own day of worship). For the first time since my arrival in Varanasi I did not have to strain to find the colourfully dressed women of the city, they were surrounding me.

We made our way through the back alleys and Terry continued with his mission to photograph small orange shrines built into the walls. Meanwhile I took photographs of dark passages; views into private courtyards; women walking to their various temples and children chasing each other around the old city maze. We soon found ourselves outside a temple where there was a great amount of activity. Outside the temple stood a crowd of people, mostly women, (but also some men), who were waiting to go into the temple and perform their various rituals. In their hands they carried garlands of flowers and incense sticks. They walked barefoot in the cool dim temple circling the shrine at its centre.

Each temple in the old city is unique. However, the general layout of the temples tends to be quite similar. At the centre of the temple sits a shrine to whichever deities are being honoured. These shrines have large sculpted depictions of the deities which are incased in stone, marble or wood. The deities are looked after by the people who pray to them and adorned with floral garlands, candles, powders and incense sticks.

Today a number of gestures were being enacted within the temple. Women held plates made from dried leaves with tea candles at their centre and brought their hands high up above their heads and then down in front of them placing their candles before the deities and upon the surrounding window ledges. Flowers were placed at the feet of the gods and goddess and as they walked around the central shrine some people sung whilst others ran their hands along the walls writing with red pigment what I guess must be prayers onto the walls. Some people leaned up against corners with their heads pressed against the cool temple walls; others covered their heads with their scarfs and rocked back and forth in prayer. There was a medley of different noises, of song and chant, speech and hushed whispering, the chime of the temple bell as people walked out back onto the street and the heavy smell of incense which created a mist around the deities. I circled the shrine twice and allowed my feet to slide slightly as they crushed the petals which now lined the temple floor, I bowed my head and hunched my back (to appear shorter) and tried not to stand out. I did not want to distract in any way from this wonderful ritual.

Back on the street beggars sat waiting for money from those who had visited the temples. They were both old and young, there were lepers and there were bodies mutilated by disease, by force and by great misfortune and amongst these poor and desperate faces there she was disfigured, broken and desperate – the photo that I didn’t take.

When one reads about the mutilation and disability suffered by people in India and around the world in literature, it is easy to feel moved, to feel immense sympathy and upset, to feel a sense of powerlessness and pain – but nothing I had ever read, nothing I had ever heard could have prepared me for the feeling which erupted within me when I saw her. Nothing could have prepared me for the sickness, the panic, the inner hysteria, which hit me immediately as I stood inches away from her and she looked at me with shy and desperate eyes. I knew in that moment as I reached into my wallet for a note, that no amount of silver donated in Varanasi would be able to help this woman, no number of tourists passing by and temple goers dropping coins could repair this life. I do not know how this woman came to be as she is. I do not know if she was injured by force or through disease. Perhaps it was done to make her a better earner as a beggar, (I have heard this is common), whatever the reason was did not matter. Here she was now, only a stone’s throw from the temple; young, noseless, broken.

I felt like I was going to be sick. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of another person’s extreme hardship in such close proximity, contrasted to your own privileged life. I felt a pain which I am not sure I have ever experienced before – a deep primal sadness. It felt like the pain of a million people at once and seemed to grip me from within and freeze me from outside. I felt oddly cold, very very cold.

I could not look but in that moment as I stood there I felt that I could not look away either. Walking away would somehow be a betrayal.

I did walk away. We walked on and as Terry guided us to a cafe where we could relax for a moment beyond the hysteria. I did not cry. I did not allow myself to cry, although I could feel my eyes bulging and my face trembling. I refused to let a tear fall, for I knew that once one fell, the rest would follow uncontrollably. I did not stop myself crying because I was in denial. I did not stop myself because I did not want to care. I stopped myself because I knew that I still have the best part of 3 months left in this strange world and if I let open the flood gates now they would be impossible to close and I feared I would be unable to stay.

We sat at the Lotus Lounge, a place I was surprised to recognise from my last visit to Varanasi in 2009. The familiarity was somewhat comforting but even still I was desperate to leave the old city and soon we returned to the sanctity of the residency where Terry cooked us a sweet and spicy pasta dish and we caught up with the other residents.

I returned to my room and Navneet generously leant me his retro style CD player and a stack of Indian CDs. I sat on my bed and listened to the airy music and the deep chanting voices. I tried to work but I did not get very far.

I looked through my photos from the day of the temple rituals; the bathers at the ghats; the children running through the alleyways. I thought about the photo that I didn’t take and I know that she is still there somewhere in the backstreets of Varanasi and I am only a few kilometers away, and she is not the only one. Unlike in fiction when I stop writing and I close my laptop she will still be there and when I leave India and return to London she will still be there too. This is not the first time I have seen someone like her, but this time the protective sheet which glazed my eyes, (last time I was in India I experienced shocking sights as if through a camera – I was detached), had disappeared and I realised that I was really there and she was really there too – that was that. I am out of words.