The river at night

by Gabriella Sonabend

The misty sky and the murky water mask the horizon and all is covered in a blue grey shimmer. It is impossible to tell where the water ends and the sky begins, only fading candles, which travel twinkling along the water’s surface indicate where the river moves. Boat are upturned and moored on the river bank, some float by jetties and inside them layers of blankets cover the sleeping boatmen who will wake with the sunrise. The crescent moon shines brilliantly and along with the tall floodlights they highlight the ghats in an intensely dramatic manner. From temples along the riverside men chant low and loud, bells are rung and smoke and incense escape through windows and doorways. Still the funeral pyres burn, bodies turn to smoke at every hour of every day.

The tall buildings along the ghats are now revealed in their full glory, the dark night and spotlights show them for the true architectural feats that they are, castles, mansions and temples, each one casting its own bold shadow on the steps beneath. We walk through these shadows following the sound of distant music, which is coming from the southern ghats. I am with Adi, Terry and the two new residents, an Australian couple (dancers). It is only their second night in Varanasi and I envy how quickly they have been introduced to the beauty of the river at night. I have never been to the riverfront so late before and I am astounded at how much it has changed from the daytime. We are in a landscape, which I recognise from old British films about India. One in which women, dressed in white, travel through the morning mist on rickety boats. Apart from the temple rituals and the occasional whispering passerby, there is a great silence – were it not for electric lights one could easily believe one had travelled back in time. This moment belongs to another era and perhaps another world.

We have been told that there will be a concert on the main ghat tonight but as soon as we arrive it is clear we have been misinformed. We decide to walk towards Assi to make the most of our outing. As we walk further south I begin to hear drumming and cheering, we decide to seek out the noise and eventually after an hour of walking we find ourselves in a park near Assi Ghat, which has been turned into a music pavilion. The park is dressed in fairy lights, which line the trees and hedges and create gangways towards the main stage, which sits on the water’s edge. There are thousands of people here. The crowd consists predominantly of young men who hip thrust and fist pump in the air showing off their sexualized moves to one another. Hundreds of police officers are interspersed in the crowd, they stand and sit with their batons and rifles in their khaki green uniforms, most are wearing well-manicured facial hair. The classical music ended over an hour before we arrived. On stage is a large band with modern instruments and an energetic stout rather greasy looking front man. He is evidently very popular. The crowd sings along with his songs. The sound engineer appears to be absent, the bass is turned up so high I feel my stomach rearranging itself inside me, the guitars sound shrill, the drums clash uncomfortably. I feel physically sick. Perhaps it is because our serene intense walk jarred so extremely with this loud, careless noise, perhaps it was the way the male dominant crowd was thrusting around, either way I have to excuse myself from the group. I am extremely relieved when the concert ends minutes later and we are able to leave and return home.

Again I am in awe of the depth of the city, of its ability to host both timeless silence and beauty, and modern entertainment and absurdity all at once and all within a few miles of each other.