by Gabriella Sonabend
Today seemed very long and extremely tiring. Although the sun has finally returned to Varanasi and once again the insistent light breaks through the city’s cracks lighting every small passageway and dwelling, my spirits were low throughout the day. I felt suffocated, anxious and I longed for my home.
Terry and I embarked on another city adventure this morning. Finding our way into crumbling old buildings, we discovered high vistas from which to watch the activity down at the water’s edge. We took cycle rickshaws along main roads and entered the maze of the old city. On the way to the old city, we saw a street lined with animal entrails and carcasses (the slaughtered remains from the Muslim feast which took place yesterday) and I felt physically sick as I slowly began to realise what I was seeing; flesh severed, piled up and rotting in the bright Kashi sun in the great heat of the morning. The sight made my thoughts travel to a deeply negative space and suddenly everything I saw around me was vile, upsetting, shocking and painful. Every foul smell seemed heightened, every suffering person seemed to be in agony, and every child seemed emaciated. I felt as though another curtain had fallen from my eyes, I was seeing another darker and more painful layer of the city and rather than evoking sympathy I felt frustrated. I felt angry.
At what my anger was directed I can’t exactly say but I began to rant to Terry about false idols, about superstitious behaviour, about the way people are manipulated into accepting their plights, about the way religion provides a pardon for so many terrible things, how it justifies the most terrible actions… I tried to control myself but once I began to talk and pick holes and ask questions it was hard to stop and I felt sorry for Terry who had become the accidental recipient of my accelerating observations and complaints. He asked me if I was enjoying being here, to which I quickly answered ‘oh definitely’.
I knew that I was doing something I told myself I would not – I was applying my western ideas and means of analysis to observe and criticise aspects of another culture, which had its own rules and philosophies and could not necessarily be decoded by the language I have learned to speak. I knew that I was seeing something, but perhaps only seeing one minuscule aspect and I told myself, remain calm, watch, listen, do not seek to understand, do not seek to judge – but then I thought – bugger this, culture aside – some things just seem fundamentally wrong and whether I speak the language here or not (and by language I do not only refer literally to spoken language but also the cultural language etc.), body language and human sensitivity are telling me something and I am not going to ignore these signs for fear of seeming judgmental.
This is how today passed. We walked, I ranted. Terry listened and offered his thoughts. I apologised for my fervour. I continued to rant. I apologised again. We drank some lassi and some tea. We sat in cafes and on the stone steps of the ghats. We even became quite adventurous and took a rickshaw out to the Cultural Centre south of Assi which had been designed by a Japanese modernist architect (a student of Le Corbusier) and which now housed a museum, a lecture hall, library and studios (today an expert on the Ramlila was giving a talk here about his career in documenting and researching folk theatre). By the time we arrived at the cultural centre and spent a while in its peaceful surrounding gardens we both felt too exhausted to sit through a long talk and headed back to the ghats. I continued to rant and we headed to Open Hand Cafe where Terry ate a large bowl of pasta and I buried myself inside my book trying to shut off my brain. I apologised again and later we returned to the residency where I fell asleep instantly, waking only recently for a dinner of left-over rice and some of Shinta’s incredible homemade peanut butter.
After a short sleep I felt slightly calmer. Tomorrow Vallery is coming over to teach us about making paint for traditional miniature paintings. I doubt I will go out tomorrow.