The slow growing kind
by Gabriella Sonabend
I left home with a rush of enthusiasm this morning. Equipped with my new walking shoes, my sound recorder and a great novel about traditional Indian music, I was determined to do two things today. One was to find a new friend and two to do something different. Loneliness has crept into my life at the residency and today as I relished my new found independence, I also longed for someone with whom to share it. This is the overbearing paradox of my personality.
I left on foot and I walk for hours. I walked past the workmen still hacking at brickwork. I walked past men napping in the seats of their cycle rickshaws. I passed crocodile lines of little girls walking to school hand-in-hand and all the while as I walked no one tried to approach me, no one bothered me at all. I was dressed in my traditional garb and strolling at an unnaturally fast paced for Varanasi; I was a head taller than most of the people along the roads and often two heads taller than the women. Armed with my power gait I felt like a giant alien, somehow striding invisibly.
When I arrived at Assi Ghat, hot flustered, dusty faced and dripping in the sweat of the city I was not prepared to find my new friend so quickly. We have met before but last time I foolishly dismissed him as another young American with perhaps too many opinions and not enough thoughts, but I am thrilled to find this verdict was incorrect. It is amazing how different people can seem when you approach them with patience and a lack of judgment. I quickly reprimanded myself for being so critical. We discussed our impressions of the city thus far and I was amazed when he used words so similar to those I have spoken before, especially when he spoke of the type of love which one grows for this city – the slow growing kind.
He said that for him there are two types of love, the immediate passionate and the other; the unexpected one and it was the latter one which bloomed in this special place. I agreed entirely and offered my own thought. For me my relationship with Varanasi is proving to be like an arranged marriage. I came here for reasons that seemed sensible on paper but I knew little of the life I would encounter. At first the city and I were like strangers and we could not communicate, everything was foreign and awkward but slowly as our relationship develops we are learning each other’s gestures, beliefs, capabilities and failings and from within me I feel a slow subtle flame beginning to ignite. It is not the flame of sudden passion but that of long-lasting love based on respect and understanding.
At first I found the city’s dirty facade harsh and unforgiving but slowly I discover her beauty, her gentleness. I hear the softer tones of her voice and I see the beautiful way she guides people through her ever-flowing but unchanging streets.
I took my new friend to the well. It felt like a strange initiation process, but I simply could not relate my experiences of the city to him until he had known its healing heart. When we approached the small temple a fire ceremony was taking place and a man was waving around a flame, whilst another rung a large bell. A child beat a drum and an old woman trailed incense through the air. The men sang a loud low chant, which seemed to sit within the heavy beat. I stood barefoot at the edge of the temple beside two sleeping stray puppies and closed my eyes. The combination of the sounds, the vibrations, the smell of the incense and the beating sun suddenly induced a state of nausea in me and I felt completely overwhelmed. My stomach began to stir and my heart beat unusually fast. I breathed in long deep breaths and crouched low on the floor. I closed my eyes and focused entirely on the drum, which seemed to morph into the sound of a saw aggressively cutting through a solid plank of wood. I was reminded of my grandfather’s old workshop, which he kept in his house and the blunt saw he gave me the day before I started my art degree. I can’t say why this memory suddenly sprung to mind but as the ceremony continued I was consumed by this image.
By the time the chanting had ceased I had already left the temple. I stood in the sun trying to avoid hyperventilating for fear of giving into my visceral emotions and looking like a complete madman in front of my new friend.
The man who looked after the temple recognised me immediately and motioned me towards the gates, which lead to the well. This time he did not give me a time limit but I noticed a look of understanding in his eyes. I understood the conditions. I raced down the stairs once again but this time I headed straight for the water and did not sit on my favourite step. I rolled up my trouser legs and carefully walked down the steps until my ankles were immersed in the cool water. I flicked water over each shoulder and over my head as I had seen people doing on my previous visits and then I stood a while in silence expecting something extraordinary to happen. It did not. I decided to leave my friend at the pool where he seemed to be performing some ritual of his own. I clambered back up the stairs to my spot. It is peculiar how human beings are capable of identifying places to sit, which for some unknown reason are correct for them. I had found my spot the first time I came to the well and now I knew that nowhere else would feel comfortable or correct. I sat and this time I did not need to think about anything, I was back inside the reverberating heart and I had stopped questioning why or how or when or who. I did not need answers; I was simply satisfied accepting that for some reason I felt good there. Once again I was reinvigorated.
We walked back through the city and I had a sudden desire to play my guitar and be removed from the hustle and bustle. Luckily there was a readily available compromise. We followed the winding streets of Assi to my friend’s room where a guitar, a roof and a spectacular view were almost miraculously produced. The day was rapidly turning into a serious of unexpectedly pleasant encounters and an hour later as I returned to another cafe I was not surprised when another presented itself.
In The Open Hand Café, (where I go daily to meet Kathrin for a cold drink and a catchup), I overheard a familiar accent coming from the man sitting in the window seat. I had not yet encountered an Israeli in Varanasi despite the mythology that they can be found in every nook and cranny and I was oddly excited to be able to surprise this stranger with a shaky line of Hebrew. True to stereotype he had just completed his time in the army and had come to India to forget about warfare and lose himself within a completely different world. The Israeli was travelling with a group of people from Germany and Brazil and they asked me if I’d like to join them on a walk through the city. It soon became apparent that they had no notion of where they were going or what they were seeking. So I decided to take control and lead them through the vibrant roads towards the main ghat. Along the way I found myself describing the layout of the city, I explained the structure of the ghats, the different types of temples, the story of the Shiva Linga and the way Varanasi had been built and rebuilt multiple times over the past 500 years or more. I showed them my little shortcuts and quiet rest points in the city and eventually I lead them up to the magnificent abandoned observatory, which sits directly above the main ghat. As they asked more and more questions and marveled at the corners of the city I was revealing to them I was shocked to realise how much I have learned over the past three weeks.
Later in my room I worried that perhaps I had become carried away in my temporary tour guide role, making up facts and figures to amuse and astound. Even if this was the case, it had not been deliberate as facts are a fluid thing in India and even common knowledge is commonly changed!
As I parted from the travelers and disappeared back into the old city I was filled with a strange sense of pride. I was proud to be an ambassador for the nearly inexplicable world around me and it amused me how quickly I had inherited this role.