by Gabriella Sonabend
I had booked a ticket to Jodhpur; I was going on an impulsive whim for a long weekend in the dusty state of Rajasthan. I had packed my day bag and bought a new red and white summer dress. I had charged my camera battery and left my room immaculate. The night before my adventure I had been sitting in my bedroom obsessively going over my packing, I was nervous about the prospect of travelling on the train on my own and was convinced that in my shaky state I would forget to pack a toothbrush or contact lenses.
Adi called me and told me that she had been invited to a music night at a Christian Ashram by the river; she had accepted the invitation and could not believe the world she had stepped into. She was surrounded by live music and sitting in front of a fire. I am incapable of refusing an invitation to anything out of the ordinary in Varanasi, (which turns out to be most things), and I hurriedly locked up my room and jumped in a tuktuk to head to the ghats.
I was alone and lost wondering through back alleys. I was trying desperately to find Adi who had come to collect me from the maze. When we finally found each other she brought me into the strange world of the River Ashram. Here an Australian couple live on a beautiful old property surrounded by well-maintained gardens, which overlooks the river. This couple has been living in Varanasi for seven years as missionaries but they were far from the typical missionary type. The wife; a blonde nymph-like woman with high cheek bones and tribal tattoos sat in a large circle filled with musicians and instruments, which lay propped up on pillows and logs around a fire. Meanwhile her husband who has waist length dreadlocks and is adorned with toe rings and piercings perched on the other side of the circle. Their young son an elfish blonde boy danced around the fire with an eccentric American. The scene was utterly surreal. It looked like it had been constructed in its entirety in a hippy commune somewhere in the desert and transported to India where it had been dropped carefully amongst the chaos of Varanasi.
Although I was thrilled to be amongst musicians and there was an atmosphere of warmth and frivolity as plates of chocolate brownies and boxes of Indian sweets were passed around the circle, fresh cups of chai were poured constantly and people from different countries exchanged stories and sung together – there was something uncomfortable about the situation. I recognised familiar faces across the fire, a boy who I had seen at a concert over a month ago, a girl I have noticed walking around Assi Ghat, a man I have bumped into by the cremation ground of Manikarnika. Suddenly it was quite clear how few foreigners were actually living in Varanasi, as most of the ones I have seen walking around the streets were there around the fire.
I felt extremely conflicted. It was as if I were stumbling upon a community that I both somewhat belonged to but also wanted to be separate from at the same time. I had not come to Varanasi to merge with other seekers and travelers but yet there was something so reassuring about being able to speak to people from similar backgrounds. Furthermore it was a great relief to speak to people who actually understood what I was saying. I realised over the course of the night that this was the first place that I had come to in the city where I could comfortably talk to a man without being subjected to judging eyes following my every word and action It was the first time I could sit extremely close to another person and not feel threatened by that intimacy. But in achieving this closeness there was a strange tradeoff, one had to sacrifice India, to forget the world outside the Ashram, to ignore the reality of the place. There were no Indians inside the Ashram. In the holiest city in India this vast plot of land had closed its gates to the people who drove the city, this was an uncomfortable reality.
I indulged myself in the quiet and the beauty of the Ashram and allowed myself to suspend my cynicism, (taking every other word with a ladle of salt), for a short spell. I had found yet another vista of the city and one I had certainly not expected. I was reminded of Jerusalem and of the variety of settlers it attracts and the way they build their own private quarters fighting to shut each other out.
On our way back towards the gallery, Adi and I watched the emptying streets, the pigs patrolling the gutters and the drowsy cows. I was extremely anxious; I was supposed to be leaving Varanasi in a few hours to head to Jodhpur. I did not want to leave again. I could not face the thought of losing more precious time in this ever-deepening place. I decided to skip my train, I simply could not go.
I was supposed to be sitting on a train watching the Indian landscape pass me by, but instead I was lying in my bed, sleeping in, for the first time in weeks. I had decided that I was not going to Jodhpur and suddenly I was able to give in to my exhaustion. I lay for hours staring at the high white ceiling of my studio and my mind filled with trivial thoughts and day dreams, I dressed, left the residency and headed back to Lolarka Kund. Now that I had decided to stay in Varanasi I felt compelled to ground myself in the space, which had initiated me into the city. The rest of the day passed wandering and indulging in simple pleasures; drinking chai, sitting on the great ghats and watching the light fade. I was satisfied.