Behind crooked doorways

by Gabriella Sonabend

The old man looks at me and says something joyfully in Hindi. I look to Navneet for a translation.

“If you want to enjoy Banaras, first you must let go of your inhibitions. Dive into the Ganga and give in to this city”. It is around 6.30am and the other residents and I have joined Navneet on his visit to the oldest temple in Varanasi and to the river to watch groups of colourful women clapping, chanting and immersing themselves in the water. It is the Hindu month of Kartika, which is a particularly special month for the women of Varanasi. During this month they gather each morning to sing beside the Ganga and on the day of the full moon (Diwali) thousands of pilgrims flock to Varanasi to wash in the water. This morning we arrive at the river in the midst of the rituals. The water is a strange turquoise-gold iridescent colour, it looks bizarrely magical and heavenly and polluted and disease ridden all at once.

In the early morning, the old city takes on an entirely new form. Although it is still littered with rubbish and splattered with cow dung and goat droppings there are very few people walking through the old lanes and for the first time I am able to take in the architecture. Guided by Navneet, I am given a glimpse of what Baranas might have been like in its former glory. We step through a small doorway off one of the lanes and find ourselves in an enormous courtyard with a luscious garden at its centre, beyond this courtyard lays another and another. I am completely shocked, it had not occurred to me that the doorways on these tiny claustrophobic lanes led into beautiful serene, lavish private enclosures. Navneet tells stories of walking through the old city as a boy and seeing houses that had a dozen courtyards, owned entirely by a single family. I looked up at the impressive deteriorating walls around me and imagined them when they were newly built, brightly painted and adorned with sculptures, paintings, intricate fabrics and other decorations. Against the far wall of the courtyard we had entered, sits a line of wooden palanquins which would have been used to carry the women of the family. Now here they sit as defunct monuments to an opulent, romantic past.

I long to see the old Varanasi, the place of dreams and romantic literature. But this world is no longer. Back in the lanes daily life continues. Now, two hundred or more people occupy the house which was once lived in by one family. It is subdivided between those who rent and those who squat. It is a far more democratic world but there is no evidence that any of these people care for the wellbeing of the building which houses them. It seems to be crumbling around them, becoming a symbol of a fast fading history.

Knowing now that these great houses and courtyards exist, the old city is transformed before me yet again. I remind myself – again to let go of all expectations.