Finally the ghats. Suddenly in haze.

by Gabriella Sonabend

There is a new resident in the gallery, a female Israeli photographer called Adi. Yesterday morning I decided to go with Adi to the ghats. I had not visited the Ganga in over a week and I was overwhelmed by its sudden transformation. After weeks and weeks of high water, the Ganga has finally dropped to reveal the beauty of the tall stone ghats and with it the activities of all those who are drawn to the great water. All along the steep stone steps and the walkways, which connect them are now hung hundreds of washing lines with materials of every colour and texture drying in the warm winter sun. On the steps at the water’s edge thousands of people sit gazing out to the river, washing their clothes, beating the material against the stone, scrubbing frantically and rinsing in the murky Ganga. Many simply just sit. For hours they watch her as her strong current draws along all manner of objects and debris. We walked along the water front and talked of Israel and the way Israelis are drawn to India. We discussed the peculiar way India seems to accelerate personal reflection. We talked of our confused identities here and at home; I was thrilled to be able to finally relate so easily to another person here.

For the first time since I arrived Varanasi looked like a postcard. Every sight was a perfect snapshot of what the Ganges ought to encourage and create, a colourful medley of different people and their various activities, splashed with glistening water and dotted with old men dressed in their orange Sadhu’s cloth. We sat in a cafe overlooking the water and I learned about Adi’s life and her motivation for coming to Varanasi. It seemed that her reasons were as compelling and as confused as my own and that she had also booked her ticket to India in a moment of impulsive urgency.

It was a lovely morning. I was instilled with a feeling of joy and optimism, knowing that for the next few weeks I would be in Adi’s company. In the afternoon, we returned to the residency. Terry’s exhibition opening was taking place that evening in the gallery and so we donned our finest Varanasi outfits for what turned out to be a rather hazy evening. At Terry’s request, (and my incessant nagging), Navneet had organised a special ‘cocktail’ to be served at the opening. This mystery drink, (I can’t recall its name), is a sweet almond nectar, infused with bhang. Bhang is part of the marijuana family. It is a dark green paste, which when ingested, induces a feeling of total remove, disconnect, haze and confusion all bound up in a wonderful warm physical sensation. It makes everything look fuzzy and sound intriguingly funny. It makes the body dissolve into its surroundings. Everything seems comical, every sense is heightened. This is the feeling of being extremely stoned. I could not believe that this drink was actually being served at a gallery opening and not only was it being served to the curious foreigners, but to mothers, grandfathers, children, men and women alike.

At first I was hesitant to drink the strange greeny mixture but after a surreal conversation with Navneet’s father, (who showed me how best to eat the bhang and explained how wonderful I would feel), I could hardly refuse. I drank with this smiling elderly man. Within an hour I was trying and failing desperately to communicate with the peculiar people around me. I saw people whom I had met at the previous opening. They stood around me in small circles asking questions about my work and my experience and I was barely able to offer a sensible response. I felt like there was a glass wall between me and everyone else and every sound coming from their mouths seemed distant and indistinguishable, their curious faces peered in at me. I felt like an animal in a cage. Every gesture seemed exaggerated, we were in separate worlds, I was trying and failing to understand anything that was happening in theirs – mine was filled with strange sensations and irrational laughter, which I could barely suppress. I worried that perhaps I seemed mad to these people, who were simply curious to meet the current artists in residence, but I soon realised that they too had been drinking the mystery drink and our failure to communicate was probably not as one-sided as I had initially feared.

As with Jessie’s exhibition last month, the show opening had drawn a strange crowd of Varanasi socialites and passing tourists. Now they were half intoxicated and appeared to be the most peculiar art audience I have ever encountered.

An hour after drinking the mystery drink, during which time I sat quietly in the corner of the garden, I met Navneet’s father again, who was equally intoxicated.

‘You were not here for a week’ he said.

‘Yes, I went to the mountains’ I replied.

‘Yes, indeed, the moon is very bright tonight’ he agreed.

‘Yes, the mountain air was very fresh, thank you’ I told him.

‘Yes, the weather has changed here, you are right’ he assured me.

Our conversation continued in this peculiar manner for a while and then I decided even I could not deal with the level of absurdity I was experiencing and had to excuse myself. I returned to my bedroom for a moment of semi-normalcy. When I returned to the gallery everyone had disappeared. In the kitchen I found an equally stoned Terry who was talking an impressive quantity of nonsense to a hysterical Adi (who had also been coerced into drinking the magical concoction by Navneet’s joyful father). The three of us sat giggling like teenagers and I could not quite believe that this was a real situation. It was without any doubts in my mind the most unusual and memorable gallery opening I have ever attended. I drifted off thinking about what would happen if such an event took place in London. This morning I woke from the deepest and most blissful sleep, refreshed and excited to head back into the city, into the changing winter light.

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