The fast glazed grin

by Gabriella Sonabend

It rained again last night, once more transforming the residency garden into a swampland. Terry, the Australian, fittingly made a series of jokes about escaping the lurking crocodiles.

I passed the morning turning pages of large reports on the state of Varanasi, which seem to provide excellent suggestions for restoring and repairing the city. These extremely detailed and comprehensive documents had been created over a decade ago; but unsurprisingly their well-considered, specific advice remains confined within these pages. There has been neither the money nor the interest required to follow any of the given advice. I am astonished that almost every aspect of this city has been carefully observed, analysed and prescribed a treatment. Norman quickly informed me that whoever commissioned this thorough report had obviously gathered funding for in-depth research but forgot that subsequent funds would be necessary to provoke action. As I wade through the pages of the city report I remember Sebastien’s thoughts about the hidden and inaccessible wealth of the city. I am somewhat disheartened.

Heading down to Assi at the same time as Norman, I had the joy of my first motorbike adventure across the city on the back of Norman’s newly repaired turquoise bike. Carefully crisscrossing the variety of obstructions on the road, enormous puddles, cows, dogs, pigs, vendors, tuktuks, pedestrians etc. we travelled at a near snail’s pace through the city. (It is difficult to move much faster than about 15mph because of the state of the roads which was somewhat of a relief given the unpredictability of the route!). Wrapped in my London raincoat, with traditional Indian clothes beneath, riding beside the locals I felt like a peculiar contradiction, but I enjoyed myself thoroughly and immediately suggested to Norman that he should take me on one of his cross-country north-south bike adventures. He seemed reluctant to agree!

Norman dropped me at the travel agent and I organised my trip to the mountains. We will be leaving for McLeod Ganj on the 30th October. I could not be more excited.

In the afternoon I met Kathrin, and together we discovered the crescent cut well. I am not yet ready to talk about this place.

At night I returned to the concert hall. This time with all the residents, but unfortunately the quality of music did not compare to the previous night and I found myself anxious to leave after enduring two hours of agonisingly showy and pretentious sitar music. To briefly elaborate: the performance was centered around two male musicians, one playing the sitar and the other accompanying/dueling with him on another string instrument. Tabla players sat either side of these two men. The sitar player who wore a smile, reminiscent of a Disney villain, played a complicated riff whilst the other string instrument accompanied him. When he finished his riff the other player responded with something equally complicated. Then the sitar player played something faster and more impressive, the other string played something even faster and even more impressive – I am sure you know where this is going by now!

For over an hour the two men competed on who could play the fastest and most complicated solo, congratulating each other after each acceleration. The sitar player’s smile grew wider and wider, his eyes delirious with pride. As he strummed at an astoundingly fast and unnatural pace I had the horrible feeling that I was watching a much more vulgar act and felt almost humiliated to be part of the audience. This was not music. Navneet rather aptly described it as “like watching the conflict between India and Pakistan’. I personally felt it was more like watching Blair and Bush at one of their notorious meetings. Bush of course was the sitar player.

I was relieved when we finally left and during the car journey home Navneet played one of his favourite sitar pieces to wash away the sound of what we had just witnessed.